It felt surreal. This group of unseasoned Arctic explorers was about to climb into open lifeboats and be lowered into one of the most treacherous stretches of water in the world. The passengers shut their minds against it. They lined up quietly at their stations. No panic—no pushing or shoving. They slipped on the tilting deck, grabbed onto one another, and did what they could to stay upright. One by one, they climbed in, breathing in the cold air, cramming close together, some 30 to a boat—“knee to knee and eye to eye”—and watched as the crew struggled with the releases that would lower them all into the sea.
Pete D’Angelo, tall and lanky, was the last into the first boat; though he managed to get his feet in, there was no space for the rest of him. The others pushed together to make room, and he squeezed in next to Lynne. At first the motor didn’t start; when finally it did, Pete felt a huge sense of relief. If they could maneuver, he felt they would be all right. On the Titanic, he remembered, those in the lifeboats had been saved. But breathing in the fumes from the engine, rolling with the boat as the sea swells lifted and dipped, he began to retch and then to shiver. He concentrated on the sound of the motor. As long as the core body was warm, he recalled from Boy Scouts, hypothermia would be kept at bay. He and Lynne had their fleece liners and their Gore-Tex jackets, but their legs and feet were wet and cold; he wished he had grabbed rain pants. Still, he was certain they would be rescued.
Others were not so sanguine. The sea was choppy, with growing swells and spray spattering onto them. The temperature hovered near freezing, and it was getting colder. Lynne, sitting close by her husband, worried that a wave would wash over them, or that the weather—notoriously fickle here—would change.
Back on the doomed Explorer, Lee and Andy climbed into a lifeboat and moved to the bow. The ship was listing over them—if it capsized, they would be rolled under. They sat there for what seemed to Andy like ages. When their lifeboat was finally lowered, it began to drift directly beneath a forward lifeboat hanging in the air, ready to be lowered. That boat’s motor was already turning, only feet above their heads. Somehow the passengers in the drifting boat managed to use oars to push off from the ship’s side, then rowed feverishly until they were clear. It was the first of a series of harrowing escapes that would plague the lifeboats—some with working motors, others without—as they spread out in the open water. Zodiacs manned by crew members began to herd the four other lifeboats, skittering around and looping lines to pull them away from perilous floating ice shelves.
Andy stretched out a tarp behind his back to deflect the four-to-six-foot waves that now and again washed over the bow of the boat. He reminded himself to smile. He was thinking about Frank Wild, Shackleton’s first mate, who had remained cheerful throughout his long ordeal, never showing doubt that the crew would be rescued. Lee, too, sensed that her survival was very closely linked to her state of mind: “I stayed positive, looking neither forward nor back,” she says.
Included in the lifeboats’ equipment was thermal protection gear—a sort of zip-up sleeping bag made of a light fabric with a foil liner. The travelers helped one another into the bright orange bags, intent now on conserving every trace of heat. Kay’s niece, Lisa, sure they would not survive, was making a video to leave behind a record for their family. Kay sank into the heavy-duty down jacket she had bought at the Goodwill store in Denver for five dollars and held it close against the sleet that was beginning to fall. And she assured the German woman facing her that she didn’t need to apologize one bit for throwing up on her.
Within minutes of the mayday an all-out rescue effort had been launched. The Argentine Coast Guard and the Chilean Navy were alerted; the latter had a military base about 50 miles away, on King George Island. From opposite directions, two ships—the National Geographic Endeavour, about the size of the Explorer, and the much larger Norwegian M.S. Nordnorge, were steaming full ahead toward the lifeboats. Halfway through its own cruise, the Norwegian ship was some 80 nautical miles—about five hours—away when Captain Arnvid Hansen received the mayday. Because his ship was carrying about 220 passengers, well below its capacity of 691, it was designated as the rescue ship.
In the lifeboat, Pete D’Angelo watched the sun rise. “It was a small, round, golden orb that came out of a gray sea and disappeared into a gray sky.” He knew it was 3:41; that meant they had been in the water for a little over an hour.
The four lifeboats wallowed in the swells; frigid water lapped over the sides to soak trousers and seep into boots. An attempt at a joke foundered; someone began singing “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall...,” but the song faded before they reached 90. A cold gray silence settled over the boats. Lee and Andy touched foreheads. “The hardest moment was when both Andy and I thought at the same moment that we might not see our kids again,” says Lee. “We looked at each other and just knew what the other was thinking.”
“Anyone want a hand warmer?” Lisa called out. Andy smiled ruefully; his gloves were thoroughly wet, and there was nothing he would like better than to have warm hands again, but he had to hold up the tarp that protected four of them from the spray to their backs. He tried to smile as he turned down the offer. That was when he noticed that Lee, next to him, had started to shiver uncontrollably, one of the first signs of hypothermia.
At that moment they heard a soft whirring noise, which became a shuddering roar, as a bright orange Chilean Air Force helicopter appeared and circled above them. It was proof that the Outside World was aware of them, that help really was on the way. They had been told all of these things by crew members, but the tiny orange aircraft circling above somehow made it more real. A collective sigh seemed to rise from the scattered boats; they could hope again. A few began quietly to cry.
Sometime in that long night, Jan, the young Dane, proposed to pretty, blond Mette right there in the lifeboat, and she said yes.
To the 154 souls who had endured nearly five hours in open boats on a freezing ocean, the M.S. Nordnorge appeared first as reflected light, almost an apparition. Then it was looming above them, seven beautiful decks’ worth. The National Geographic Endeavour arrived at almost the same time and would stand by as the larger ship took onboard each of the Explorer’s travelers. It was 6:30 in the morning. Some could not feel their feet, and their bodies were stiff. Several were in the early stages of hypothermia. The transfer to the ship would be their last challenge.