To Hell & Back – Cruising into Cyclone Gene

We boarded our cruise ship, the P&O Pacific Star, on the 29th of January for an eight-night cruise with three days in port in Vanuatu, Noumea and the Mystery Islands. With that much time at sea, this was all about relaxation, laying on deck chairs reading, playing cards with friends travelling with us, making new friends, eating too much and sleeping too much and being the hedonists we might be if only there isn’t so much to do all the time.

The trip started just as we planned, lounging starboard with a book and fancy drink, lots of sunblock. Heaven! The second day at sea we were introduced to a guy named Gene – Cyclone Gene.  Instead of Vanuatu, Noumea and the Mystery Islands the ship’s captain (after consultation with the powers that be in London, LA and Sydney) decided to take us to Fiji instead. Oh well. Never mind that we visited Fiji last year and didn’t have it on our list of places we are dying to get back to, but you know what they say about life giving you lemons.

Suva – ah Suva – nothing quite says welcome to our stinking, filthy, rip-off capital of the hellhole of the Pacific quite like a five-metre high razor wire fence. The woman we were travelling with was so disgusted she frog-marched us all off to McDonald’s – announcing it was the only place she would eat. It was 10.30 in the morning and we’d just had breakfast. People behave strangely when they are out of their comfort zone. Suva doesn’t have a comfort zone.

Following the stench, Bobby found the public market fairly quickly and bought 5kgs of kava. He meant to buy 2, but in that stupefying heat and humidity, his mind became a bit addled and his maths added up to more than his sums. Never mind. I just hoped it wouldn’t be mistaken for heroin when we went through customs. Suddenly the sky split open and rain sheeted from the heavens, cleansing filthy streets and dusty air – but leaving a humidity in its wake that didn’t seem possible.

We couldn’t find our travelling companions and decided to head back to the ship. They were already there. A good lunch and a nice long soak in the spa. We hoped the next two Fijian ports would be better as they were on some of the outer islands, which we found to be much nicer than the big island on our previous trip.

Savusavu – so nice they named it twice? Not quite. But not so bad as Suva. Of course it was a lot smaller, so the filth and mud and stench were confined to a significantly smaller area. I bought a few souvenirs for the kids… we caught up with our friends who bailed on their offshore snorkelling excursion – a 4 hour drop off at a mudflat beach three days after a cyclone with no facilities, food, toilets, water or shelter wasn’t their cup of tea.

We ended up ensconces at a waterside pub. The rugby 7s were on TV. The beer was cheap; the locals were friendly. (Fijians are remarkably warm and friendly people – as long as they are not trying to separate you from your money…) So, it was a rather lovely afternoon spent waterside relaxing and chatting. A bit of rain, but it was warm and gentle. The holiday was back on track.

We headed back to the ship on our tender and a customs agent aboard asked us if we had enjoyed Savusavu. We nodded. He said he was glad to hear that because we wouldn’t be heading up to Dravuni Island tomorrow. Cyclone Gene had changed its course and was headed directly our way! So we would be hightailing it south back down to Auckland as soon as all the passengers were back on board.

The captain confirmed this during dinner and the ship was soon moving at a good clip trying to outrace the worst of the storm. In the morning the sky was overcast, the clouds so low it seemed that up on deck 11 you could reach up and grab a piece to hold onto if you tried. The sea was very choppy and the boat was rolling a bit in 4.5 metre swells.

I sat in the spa and listened to a woman tell us about her experience last year when there were 10 metre (33 feet) swells. That seemed astonishing as this seemed bad enough. I’m not inclined to seasickness, but dozens of passengers were taking sick and the staff kept restocking the vomit bag holders all over the ship. But we busied ourselves reading, resting, competing in quiz shows and enjoying the various amenities, trying to ignore the occasional jolts that rumbled through the ship.

Over the next two days, the sea worsened, increasing to 7.5 metre swells. Watching people move about, you would think there were 1000 drunks aboard, staggering from place to place. I found the spa was strangely comforting and refreshing – letting the rain pour over my face as I soaked in the hot water and watched the raging sea. But my stomach felt slightly unwell and laying on my bed in our cabin was ultimately the best place to be.

However, I couldn’t resist dashing up to deck 10 or 11 for the best view. I struggled with my camera’s limitations to capture it all. The ship rumbled and shook, quivering against the onslaught. The 7th night was very strange. I woke up levitating off the bed! Three times! Right off! Holy Christmas, Batman! Gotham City was never like this! It was pitch dark outside but I was sure I saw huge waves breaking in the soft glow of the ship. I went back to sleep, holding onto Bobby as the boat heaved and rolled and bobbed and shook.

Come dawn and I could see those breaking waves, crashing into each other, forming deep craters in the ocean. We staggered down to breakfast on deck 4: the restaurant was the calmest place on the ship – and the food was delicious. Afterwards I dragged myself up to deck ten and struggled to take photos of the raging ocean. The wind was fierce, but the sky was lightening up – the sun actually came out for a little while and I felt better that it was easing. I was powerful and awe inspiring and terrible and wonderful, but I was glad to be done with it.

Abruptly it took a turn for the worse and by lunchtime, the ship was quivering and rolling 20 degrees. Out the window, it was as if we were in white water and you could hear the ship straining to maintain its course. On deck ten the wind reached 55 knots. I was terrified to be anywhere where the only thing between me and that ferocious, whirling, crashing ocean was a little railing.

The swells were peaking at 10 metres! (33 feet!!!) One of the ship’s crew asked me to go back down because if I was swept off the boat he’d have to send someone in after me. I perched near a doorway, unable to tear myself away. Inside, paintings were swaying off the walls. A small child went flying as her chair tipped over and she howled because her mouth was bleeding.

The staff who had been laughing off our concerns were much more sober now. Porters kept refilling the vomit bag holders. They closed one set of lifts when a man lost control of his bowels during a ferocious roll. Laying on my bed, I tried to get a photo of the curtains during a roll and marvelled at how light I felt every time the ship headed directly into one of those mighty swells, which occasionally splashed against our windows on deck 6.

Our friends had long since given up on ship life and huddled together in bed next door. Me – I loved it! Back up on deck ten I stood in the howling wind, watching the seabirds swooping in the comparative calm of the ship’s wash. I have never been in the midst of anything so powerful completely surrounding me. I couldn’t get enough and wished everyone else on the boat would at least step out for a few minutes and take it all in, but most of the time I was all alone. I never felt more alive – laughing and whooping and hooting and hollering with sheer joy. It continued unabated throughout the afternoon and into the evening. I stopped into one of the lounges to rest for a moment and a waitress stopped and asked if I was sick. I shook my head ‘no’ and she asked if I was sure because I looked very sick. I laughed and headed out for more!

Back in the cabin, we began packing the bags for the porters to remove in the evening, hurrying because we wanted to catch the final show. I’m not usually big on cruise shows when travelling port to port, but six days at sea and you start checking out things you might normally take a pass on – and having fun doing the sort of things you’d never admit to your friends back home. (Bingo anyone? Quilling lessons? We became quiz fiends and met some folks to form a championship team. We won enough P&O gear to look like a paid advert for the company!)

Suddenly the ship lurched – a mighty roll – and everything in the cabin went flying: the bed shifted half a metre; chair, suitcases, water glasses slid across the desk and shattered on the floor, the ice twinkling and shifting back and forth in the wake. The theatre was right over our cabin and we could hear heavy crashing above. I heard shrieks from down the corridor and a few children crying. I don’t think anyone was injured, but for the first time I was scared.

A 33-tonne cruise ship is really just a speck in a raging, mad ocean. I stood holding my breath a few moments and the fear passed. Then came the announcement that the show was cancelled. It was unsafe for the dancers and now they had lost several musical instruments. I felt bad because we’d gotten to know several of the ship’s crew and were looking forward to the last event.

But once the porter vacuumed up the glass, I was back outside – for a few more minutes before dinner, lapping up the howling fury, thankful for the privilege to witness such a thing. As the evening wore on, the temperature dropped and the wind calmed. I had a peaceful night’s sleep and awoke shortly before dawn, thinking the ship had docked during the night. I gazed out the window, grinning at the lights as we cruised along the coast. In a few hours we would be home.

It’s nice being home. The ground feels strangely wobbly to my sea-legs. Yet, I wish I could climb those stairs up to deck 10 just once more and have a play with my friend Gene.

For the full photo essay,  click here!

2 thoughts on “To Hell & Back – Cruising into Cyclone Gene

  1. You wild woman! Standing out on the deck in hurricane winds, oh my! Friends mentioned a cruise where everyone was confined to their cabins and served cold meats like Spam because the sea was turbulent and everyone on board was seasick. (If I had to eat Spam I’d be sick for another reason 🙂 Hopefully the cruise up the inside passage to Alaska will be without incident, although I would have to get out and see if anything like you described was happening. My husband is an “old salt” from Navy days so he’d be game to take a look at the storm-tossed seas too. He’d be in the best restaurant eating steak as well.


  2. My hubby is also an old Navy salt (turning 60 next month!) He had fun with the storm as well. I am sure your cruise will go well. We were still on a learning curve with cruising and did not realise that February is cyclone season. We have since done the same cruise two more times without incident.

    The biggest thing you will face is the cold – I did a Baltic cruise in September three years ago and it sure was ‘bracing.’ Of course coming from South Dakota, a little Alaskan September-ness will be a piece of pie. Probably apple.


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