Saturday, October 1, 2011

Tsunami (Re-post)

As I take a few weeks off to get married and go on a honeymoon, I'm re-posting some favorite articles. This one originally appeared on July 10, 2010.

On February 27, 2010 I was serving as master on the small cruise ship Spirit of Endeavour en route from La Paz, Mexico to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Early that morning, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Chile, killing 521 people. The resulting tsunami spread throughout the Pacific and did damage as far away as Japan. Someone at company headquarters asked me to write up my impressions of the event; this is the report I filed.

Preparations for dealing with the tsunami began as soon as we got the word. The Second Mate called me about midnight to tell me about the earthquake off the coast of Chile and that the Pacific Tsunami Center had issued an advisory: it was not yet known whether an actual tsunami had occurred. I got up and did a quick check online: information was sparse, even about the earthquake itself. But information started to roll in, and as soon as the existence of a tsunami was confirmed, there would be a constant clatter from the Inmarsat printer, as bulletin after bulletin came over the satellite. That printer, the beeping of the GMDSS alarms, the constant worried chatter in Spanish over the VHF would be the soundtrack of the day for me.

By 0500 it was confirmed that the tsunami was headed toward Mexico, with an expected arrival time of 1050. Sport fishing boats were starting to come out of Cabo San Lucas harbor and there were no long lines of cars on the highway visible from the water, so I took that as a good sign, that the local authorities weren't too alarmed. Either that or they hadn't got the word yet. We relaxed a little and even took the time to check out a couple of humpback whales before breakfast call and our arrival in Cabo San Lucas.

I chatted with our agent and someone from the Captain of the Port's office before disembarkation. They were aware of the situation and were taking a wait and see attitude. The sport fishermen and sightseeing boats were being told to stay close to the harbor just in case. Another quick check on the Internet revealed this was the attitude almost everywhere except Hawaii and in the earthquake zone itself.

During disembarkation someone from Reservations called. She told me a passenger has just gotten on a plane and was concerned about the tsunami and was asking questions. I told her what I could, then noted to the Assistant Engineer that if anywhere was safe, it was on a plane.

Then things began to tense up. The Captain of the Port closed the port, and the sport fishers and sightseers started to stream back into the harbor, as they cursed each other, the COTP, and tsunami on the radio. They were not worried about the tsunami, they were worried about losing a day's business on a peak-season Saturday. The COTP finally lost it and told everyone that he wasn't answering anyone who didn't identify himself, and the chatter died down. A bit. Other officials were warning locals and tourists to stay off the beaches. A quick check on the ever-growing pile of paper streaming off the Inmarsat printer showed that the tsunami had passed Acapulco, about 700 miles to the southeast, with a surge of only 1.2 feet. Not bad, but predictions for harbors in southern California were higher, more like three feet, so who knew what we would actually experience? I held a quick crew meeting, trying to get everyone prepared without scaring the heck out of them, then we jumped to stations. The deck crew slacked the mooring lines a bit, and we set the gangway on the dock. The Guest Programs staff got busy fending off guests -- the first of them would probably start to arrive right about the same time as the tsunami -- and the rest of the crew tried to carry on as normal, or as normal as it gets on a Turnaround Day.

It was the ship's doctor who first noticed that the tide seemed to be going the wrong direction. I went up to the bridge, which faced right out the entrance to the harbor and into the open Pacific. Whatever was about to happen, I would have box seats for it. It was quite a sight. Water was rushing out of the harbor. You could look at the excursion boat moored across the dock from us and see it sinking against the background of the Finnesterra Hotel perched on the nearby hills. I looked at my watch and noted that the time the Pacific Tsunami Center had predicted was pretty much dead on. It was 1050.

On the first surge, the water dropped about two feet, then turned around without stopping and started flooding back into the harbor. We saw it before we felt it: two boats Med moored to the pier across the channel suddenly swung back to the west and pointed the other direction. And in came the water. Our own lines strained in the other direction, and the deck crew adjusted them and the fenders we had broken out for whatever might come up. The water at the harbor entrance turned brown as the bottom was churned up. Soon it was back where it had started and I checked my watch again. Twelves minutes had elapsed.

Soon the surge was heading out again, then in, then out, then in, each time dropping us about three feet and bringing us back up again. The boatswain marvelled at how those rocks next to the south breakwater nav light tower were exposed in a matter of seconds, then covered again just as quickly.Then it seemed to stop. We thought maybe that was it and everyone headed down for crew lunch. The lull didn't last, though, and when we saw the dock rising past the dining room window like the wall of Snake River navigational lock, we all rushed back to our stations. One of the Med moored boats had come loose, the skipper freeing the lines thinking the worst was over, but then unable to get the anchor up before the surge returned. He struggled to control his boat for the next fifteen minutes before two crewmen from a sport fisher came to his rescue.

This next series was the most extreme, at one point surging out enough to drop the Spirit of Endeavour four feet or more, and strand pangas tied to the opposite breakwater in the sand for a few minutes. The vessel surged a lot more. At one point I saw a whirpool at the entrance to the harbor, brown and blue water swirling in a shallow circle 75 yards wide. The frigate birds, gulls, and pelicans were having a surprise feast, diving down to grab at poor, confused fish. Watching the pelicans drift by on the ebbing water, and the water itself splash against and wrap around the docks and piling, I figured the current at more than three knots at it's swiftest.

It went on like this for another hour and a half. By 1400 the worst was over, but there were still small, quick changes in the water level, complicating our efforts to deal with the tide already lower than normal due to the full moon. A few boats still went in and out, defying the Captain of the Port's order, but for the most part it was quiet, very strangely so for Cabo San Lucas.I checked the still-chatering Inmarsat: it said Cabo San Lucas had experienced a 1.2 foot range. Maybe on the beach, but it was a lot more extreme in the harbor. We were already getting reports off the tsunami making landfall in California, and Alaska was expecting it only to hours later. But for us, it was time to get the gangway down, get the luggage aboard, and get the guests checked in. The tsunami had passed.

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