The Night the Lights Went Out


How Dark Can It Get in an Inside Cabin?

by Bill Keene

The following is a personal account of the total power failure that occurred aboard the ss ROTTERDAM off the coast of Mexico during the early morning of May 11, 1997. The following narrative includes "the facts" as seen and head by one passenger.

Photo by Bill Keene

My wife Barbara and I - and a thousand other souls - partied our way out through the beautiful bay of Acapulco on a perfect Saturday evening. The on deck barbecue was delicious. And the deck games were enjoyable and tastefully short. The sunset was Pacific Ocean perfect. The ss ROTTERDAM had exited the bay and was on a course toward Cabo San Lucas, a full day of cruising away to the north.

We had retired to our cabin - 244, an inside double located aft on the Lower Promenade deck - at around midnight. Within the usual drift of papers under the door was a note confirming our requested tour of the engine room for the coming afternoon. Something to look forward to.

Cabin 244 is as old as the ROTTERDAM herself. A cozy little cubicle with a museum piece of a toilet facility in which the steam heated towel warmer/dryer still functioned as designed. And as the ship would pitch and roll the bulkhead or overhead would creak in time as if this cozy cabin were installed in a wooden windjammer. This rhythm had fit well with our sleep patterns for 10 days.

It had taken us the first seven of those ten days to learn to control the air conditioning which did a more than adequate job of cooling the small space. Twisting the thermostat control had no effect upon the temperature of the air that poured forth from the register. We had resorted to throttling the vanes of the supply register to control the climate and drafts within the cabin after learning that this required at least a dozen counterclockwise turns of the ivory colored knob to achieve any results.

And it must be noted that our aft cabin did not suffer from any vibration or associated noise from the twin screws revolving at 105 RPM not far below. A very low register bit of machine noise was all we would every hear - or feel.

So with the scene set, now to the story.

I was awaken by a vibration from the screws which seemed a bit unusual as we had not felt anything of the sort for ten nights. And there was a slight roll or pitch as well. Perhaps we were making some quick maneuver to miss something in the dark, I thought. There being no bang, bump, or shutter of steel, I rolled over thinking that I would hear about this in the morning.

But before I fell to sleep again it seemed that there was something missing. That cabin rhythm had stopped. No creaking at all. No pitching either. And no rushing air noise from that over achieving air conditioning system. No low level rumble below our bed. All was quiet. Very quiet. Too quiet.

Contrary to popular belief, inside accommodations are not black holes after one turns out the cabin lights. There is that bit of light from the passageway that falls into the cabin through the gap beneath the cabin door. A very convenient night light. But at this particular moment there was no drift of light. Even the charge indicator on my electric shaver was out. The ss ROTTERDAM had a power failure. I remembered the many written accounts of those days adrift aboard the QE2 and NORWAY without power. Maybe? But first one must check out the present condition.

With the cabin as dark as the inside of a cave, I crawled out of the bed and opened the cabin door to see what could be seen. The view was of an empty passageway with only every fifth or sixth light fixture operating. I shut the cabin door and decided to get dressed and go out on deck to learn more. But now the space was again as dark as the best of caves. Where is that flashlight. Why yes - it is sitting on the kitchen table at the house ready to be stuffed at that last minute into the travel baggage. Forgotten!

No problem. Open the closet door and that little light will be enough to assist dressing. I opened the door then realized that without main electrical power such a luxury as a well lit closet is not going to be available. OK. I opened the cabin door again. Propped it open with a deck shoe. And I began to get dressed with the hope that no one will venture by during those few minutes. Prayers answered, I pull the deck shoe from the door, the door closes, the cabin goes dark again. In the dark I reach for the closet bulkhead to balance myself as I slip on this second shoe. My hand misses the bulkhead and reaches into the void of the dressing mirror. Fall. Make lots of noise. Wife sleeps soundly through all of this.

Open the cabin door again. Locate shoe. Grab shoe and head out into the dimly lit and empty passageway. I turn aft as it is the shortest route to the open deck one level up. On the way a cabin door opens and an elderly gentlemen - looking a lot like my dad upon awakening - sticks his head out and asks if something is wrong. I tell him that I do not think so, but that "I think this cruise just got interesting." The look on his face instantly tells me that I have said the wrong thing.

Continuing on, I turn to starboard to follow the passageway to the central stair located just aft of the pool. There I meet an engineer complete with hearing protection muffs. The sound of diesel engines confirms the need for the muffs. Somewhere I remember reading that there are refrigeration lockers below this location of the ship. The assumption - to date unconfirmed - is that the diesels are providing emergency power for these lockers. At least the ice cream is saved.

One flight up, I find an empty deck. The two man deck crew had just started repositioning the lounge chairs after washing the deck. The clock on the aft bulkhead of the Lido reads 3:55. It has been about ten minutes since the first vibration of the screws coming to a quick halt.

At present there is just the three of us on deck. I ask, "What has happened?" The answer is simple. "The lights just went out. That is all we know."

The gas turbine generator located high on the aft end of the Sun Deck is roaring away providing its 350kW of emergency power. The sound of this small jet engine seems out of place on a nearly 40-year old ocean liner. It is providing enough lighting to make getting around a safe procedure. I later learn that this unit is also providing power to the engine room to restart the steam boilers and turbo generators.

A peak over the stern confirms what is already known. The ss ROTTERDAM is adrift without power. The red signal lights on the mast indicate the same.

OK. What now? There is a bit of a chill and a cup of coffee would warm the bones right now. A quick walk into the Lido Restaurant to the "24-hour" coffee dispenser does not disappoint. The coffee flows with a pull on the valve. Hot and strong. We might not have power, but we do have coffee. Everything will be OK.

The thought comes to mind that if we have a power emergency now, there might not be an engine room tour later today. And then there is a second thought, if there is still an engine room tour, then there will be a first hand description of what happened at the end of this "dogwatch". That tour of duty, or "watch", that is from 00:30 to 04:30.

Steam is now being blown off from the boilers. The sound of this operation masks the roar of the turbine generator. There is lots of steam and no place to use it. The excess is blown off. One can count the boilers as this is done. The steam exits through those round architectural openings in the lower portion of the uptakes. A very clean - and functional - detail.

From time to time an engineer is seen up on the Sun Deck. His duty is to operate the turbine generator. And once it is running and the circuits switched over, there is not a lot to do other than monitor the operation. There is time for a cigarette out on deck.

A second engineer arrives on the Promenade Deck, coming up from below. He has ear protection muffs hanging around his neck. And he is in no hurry to go anywhere. It appears that he is on deck to answer questions. So he gets asked.

And he answers, "We have had a power failure. All will be OK. We will be underway in about two hours."

By this time there were a number of passengers out on deck. A few carried their life vests. But mostly everyone stood around wondering what was going to happen. Some, tiring of standing on the empty deck, began to reposition the tables and chairs. Soon, this group was joined by members of the cruise staff. Many of them, not knowing of the black out, had been awakened and directed to go out and calm the passengers. From what I saw, there were not that many of us about. And none of us were in need of calming.

The cruise staff personnel appeared with some of them as puzzled as the rest of us. The Assistant Cruise Director, Scott Walden, appeared on deck in evening attire as he had just returned to his cabin when everything stopped and the lights went out. The Cruise Director, Edwin Rojas arrived a bit more casually dressed. While Tanya Ward, our Hostess, declared with a smile and a laugh that she was not a morning person and that this was almost too much morning to be tolerated.

Each of these persons mingled with the guests passing on small talk and information as it became known. Each was very professional. And each was just one of us. Just "family."

We passengers began to swap stories of how we were awakened. Many of those in cabins toward the center of the ship were awaken by the sound of the main generators winding down. This is a sound similar to that of a jet engine being shut off. This being a loud decreasing pitch whine which ends with silence. The fact that the main generator room is located about mid-ships most likely contributed to this effect.

Within about twenty minutes the power was restored and all of the light throughout the ship were again blazing. Steam was still being blown off. But shortly the valves are closed and all that can be heard was the gas turbine generator. It too was shut off at about 5:20A.M. The only sound to be heard now was the everyday hum of the air conditioning equipment, blowers, and the condensers.

We are still drifting. The lights of a Mexican town can be seen off the starboard side. We are told that they are about eight miles away. Then fifteen. The fitness director proclaims that anyone who swims the round trip to shore and back will be awarded two completely stamped Passports to Fitness books. Everyone has a good laugh. No one takes up the challenge.

At about 5:30A.M. there is a shudder and we observe the results of those two 22-foot in diameter screws beginning to turn. There is white water beneath the stern. Then all is quiet again. The running light goes off. The signal lights are again lit. And we are again drifting. But we have lights. And there is still coffee available at the spout. And the deck crew completes its morning chores.

Ten minutes later, the screws again turn to life and we are underway. The excitement is over. Passengers begin to drift away back to their cabins. Now the debate is whether to go back to bed or just stay up. The sky is beginning to lighten in the east. I chose to go back to bed.

Now the facts of what happened early on that morning.

A valve which controls the steam supply to one of the main turbo generators failed. Then, because of the loss of steam pressure within the system, the power was disrupted. The engine room was put into darkness. Without power, the boiler fires were extinguished. And everything came to a halt. As an old hand is quoted as once saying, "You have to have steam to have power."

The vibration that woke me up - and that Barbara slept through - was the result of the cavitation created in the water as the big screws came to a halt and were dragging the ship to a standstill.

The gas turbine generator requires manual starting. And it was in operation providing emergency backup power within ten minutes. Even then, it can only supply about 10-percent of the requirements of the ship. But that is enough required for the operation of all of the necessary services.

Once the faulty valve was isolated, and steam redirected through the remaining three turbo generators, the boilers required relighting. The steam pressure had to again be raised. And then each system was restarted and brought into operation. That young engineer was right, we were indeed underway in about two hours.

The only visible after effect of the black out was that there were no cloth napkins at the breakfast service that morning in the Lido Restaurant. We had to make do with paper napkins. Holland America Line presented another of its great breakfasts. And there continued to be the unstoppable flow from that bottomless pot of coffee.

And yes, the engine room tour took place as scheduled. The snapshot shows the part of the steam line where the offending valve was located. The work underway is the preparation of the replacement of that valve.

And yes, we arrived at Cabo San Lucas on schedule. There is nothing better than to have 26 knots of speed available when you need it. But remember, you have to have steam to have power.

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