Belém in Brazil is not a place that I would like to return to. What we saw of the city did not seem appealing, but it is fair to say that we did not do a city tour…just passed through it. We anchored at Icoaraci, 45 minutes from Belém because of shallow water, and had to tender in to the dock. Apparently there is some sort of Brazilian Law that will not allow cruise ships to use their own tenders. Probably to give more money to the economy. However, for us this proved to be a huge problem. These tender boats did not have permanent seating. Very fragile white lawn chairs were lined up in rows across both the upper and the lower decks.
As we were about to leave the ship we were part of a medical emergency. The ambulance was tied up along side our tender and people were asked to move so that the chairs could be cleared to put the stretcher on to the ambulance boat. Problem number one. The staircase was not wide enough to bring the stretcher down. Eventually the ambulance moved over and our tender left for the dock. We had to wait for the ambulance to dock at the pier and then it was our turn. Somehow or other they figured out how to put the stretcher on to the ambulance boat at another level. The crew of the tenders did not speak English and did not bring them alongside our ship to the satisfaction of the crew. Impasse, until one of the staff wearing high heels came running down to interpret in Portuguese. That was enough excitement for one day. However there was more to come.
We returned to the tenders after our tour walking through the Amazon Jungle. We loaded up and they counted us on. Ten people had to return to the dock for the next boat. Maybe they were the lucky ones…depending on how you assess what happened next.
Off we went towards the ship. After five minutes or so we did not seem to be making much progress and at this point the water had become very rough. The tide was going out and the wind was blowing in the opposite direction causing large waves.The tender could not stay into the wind and began to list heavily. All the chairs slid across the deck in a domino effect sending people to the floor as the chairs broke. One heavy gentleman with a cane slid his chair up mine and my husband’s leg giving us a good bruise, and trapped another person’s foot under the chair back. I was able to release it for him. We were the lucky ones. We had seats along the edge of the boat so we had something to hang on to. A wave in the opposite direction sent people scudding back across the deck in the other direction. No staff told us to put on a life jacket, but several people helped themselves to one including me. It took me several minutes to get it on to some degree that it might save me, but I never did entirely figure it out. They were not in good order at all. It was a long time before we were given any information at all. Communication both on the tender and the ship was poor. There was a Brazilian ship crew member on board the tender and eventually we were told that the engine had stopped. There was so much noise going on that we did not realize this. The other tender showed up and the boats bumped and lumped and lurched together sending people flying as they tried to get a rope across.
After a few attempts they managed to get a rope across to our heavily listing tender.
Looking back on things it is amazing that we did not flip over, or that we lost no one over board. For this we are all grateful. The other tender tried to tow us but it was impossible. The swell was just too bad and they were not strong enough. Eventually they towed us back and got us close enough to the gas station, pulled us in and tied us up.
We were then all transferred to the working tender and began to plow our way slowly through the waves lurching as we went.
For those who get seasick it was a horrible experience on top of the very frightening trauma we had experienced. As we turned towards our ship we saw that the captain had put out a lifeboat hanging over the water so that it could be launched immediately if necessary. ( I learnt afterwards it was not for us. It was having maintenance.) I dread to think how long it would have taken it to reach us. The tender time under normal conditions was at least 15 minutes. However at that point our fate was in the hands of Brazilian laws. If the boat had capsized, who would have come to save us ? I am sure there would have been lives lost. Apparently the coast guard was standing by, although those I have asked did not see it, and how could it have picked up 120-130 people.
We ourselves had eaten breakfast at 7.30 am to go on our tour. We were supposed to get back on board for 2.30pm, so we figured a late lunch. The tour started late because of the medical emergency and as things unravelled we did not get back on board and have something to eat until 5.45 pm. Who were the lucky ones…you tell me. The rest of the passengers left on the dock waited for 3 hours until they were taken back on board. They were all watching the drama unfold before their eyes. Someone who was on the dock shared his photos with me. Everyone was glad to get back to the safety of the big ship.
I am wondering what could be learnt from all of this so that it does not repeat it self. If Brazil will not allow cruise ships to use their own tenders, then perhaps they should boycott ports that need to use tenders to get in. With no permanent seating these tender boats were nowhere near safe to transport people, besides the life jackets being ancient and pretty much useless. When we got back on board there were a lineup of officers to welcome us back. That hardly cut it for me, and to this point as I write two days later we have not been contacted by the captain, or Holland America with an explanation of what really happened, or given an apology or compensation for our suffering; except for the Hotel Manager, second in command who spoke to some people individually who happened to come across him. He did tell a small group of us that everything had been checked out safety wise before we went ashore. If the engine had not stopped then everything would have been OK, (maybe, I think to myself) but it boils down to the fact that there is safety and then there is safety.
Holland America held a one hour cocktail party for the whole boat one afternoon to compensate for the tender problems.
The next day I inquired if the whole business was considered dealt with after the party. Apparently my husband and I slipped through the cracks in regards to compensation. This has now been rectified. There were three levels of compensation.
1 Cocktail Party
2 People who had to wait on the dock for three hours were given $50 credit each
3 Those who were on the floundering tender were given $100 shipboard credit each.
Except for traumatic memories, I guess you can say…Case Closed.