Written by Jacob Ibrag
For the past week, I’ve been pretty M.I.A on Eyes + Words. Truth is that I didn’t really know how to get back into the groove of writing after Feb 7th, 2016. I was part of five thousand five hundred souls that sailed in Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas that was headed towards Port Canaveral from Bayonne, NJ. For those of you that don’t keep up with the constant news cycle that the media throws at us (I know I barely do), my ship was caught by hurricane storm like weather conditions for more than ten hours. We’re talking about winds reaching 180 MPH, 30+ degree tilts of the ship and 30+ foot waves of constant badgering.
Before it got that bad, my family and I were at the buffet around 3:00 PM. I remember eating vanilla ice cream with delicious strawberry topping when my sister pointed out that one of the staff members dropped what they were doing and flipped out their phone to take pictures of the sea. The Atlantic ocean was getting angry, yet we didn’t truly notice until this man reacted the way he did. Immediately after that (3:10 PM), I took out my phone and started to record as well. Only then did I realize that we were about to get thrown in for a ride that none of us signed up for.
It only started getting worse on from there. Dishes breaking, people falling, knives skating across the floor. At one point, the crew just stopped altogether and stared at one another as if they were trying to communicate telepathically, ‘what are we supposed to do? Do we just keep going?’ And they did in a manner that sort of calmed people down. They didn’t panic and we all followed suit. Assessing the situation, I advised my family to rush back to the ninth deck to try to prepare for the worst. On our way towards the elevators we watched as water streamed from the upper pool deck down to the lower decks via stairs. Imagine crowds of people trying to avoid the water as they made their way down the slippery steps, oh and add some extra tilt to the ship and you’ve got yourself a disaster in the making.
Finally getting to our floor, we carefully walked towards our rooms only to see a group of about ten people stuck in an elevator between the eighth and ninth deck. I ran towards another group of people that watched as a cruise mechanic released the doors open. I watched on as a newborn child and her mother were lifted from the mouth of the elevator. I offered my hand to help an elderly gentleman barely lift himself out as the ship’s center of gravity was being bullied by the winds. We didn’t know each other’s faces but none of that mattered, we were humans that relied on each others compassion.
After that, my family and I finally got to our cabins and kind of just stood there in silence, looking into one another’s fearful eyes. Afraid to talk about what this could all be and mean for us, I got my blue back pack and emptied it, ‘I think we should fill it up with essentials and documents. Maybe even the take the Winter jackets out and get properly clothed. We don’t know if this ship will-.’ Afraid to finish the sentence, my parents and sister nodded as they started to get dressed.
Around 3:40 PM, the captain notified everyone on the ship that we had to stay in our cabins until further notice. If we were to leave, we would risk injury to ourselves and other people. ‘This is really happening,’ that’s all I kept thinking to myself. We could could die at any moment and never see our loved ones again. The conditions just kept getting worse as anything in the cabin that could move, did. It almost felt like something was breaking every couple of minutes. Wine glasses shattered everywhere, beds sliding in and out of place, items flying in every direction. I watched as my mother and sister held hands and joined each other in prayer as they clenched their eyes shut. I watched as my father who I consider the superman in my life barely sit in a chair as he searched for words to comfort us all. Then there was me, sitting on the floor helplessly as I bit the inside of my cheek in confused anticipation.
The worst feeling was knowing that our lives were no longer in our hands. The captain had five thousand five hundred souls that counted on his decision making abilities. From time to time, I wondered what he was thinking as he sat in his captains chair trying to maneuver us through the storm. About every hour or so, he got back on the speaker and told us the situation. He didn’t baby us or promise us that everything was going to be alright. I didn’t want that, I didn’t even care to know about how we got into this situation. I knew that if the captains voice was calm, we had some kind of chance. He would later explain that the storm system forecast earlier was supposed to be small and nothing out of the norm. This was supposed to be a manageable situation and not a life or death ultimatum.
And so, the situation only kept getting worse as conditions rapidly became unbearable. My family and I holding on to anything, praying to ourselves and trying to stay strong for one another. Finally feeling completely helpless, I paid for wifi and quickly started a google search for prayers that I could read (around 4: 20 PM). I think I typed something like, ‘prayer for survival.’ Now, I’m not a religious Jewish person, but obviously the situation had me drawn to God even more than I ever was in my quarter of a century of existence. It was something I could do, something I could read to get my mind off the idea of the ship possibly capsizing at any moment. I’d finally stumble upon a small prayer that’s been transliterated into English with a translation.
‘Barukh Ato Adoni Eloheinu Melekh Ha Alom Ha Gomel Lahayavim Tavot Sheg’malani Kol Tov,’
‘Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who bestows good things on the unworthy, and has bestowed on me every goodness.’
I carefully wrote the prayer into my notebook and as I did, my mind wandered off into a different place. Fully concentrated on these words, I stood and looked towards my family as I started to chant loud enough for them to hear. Turning towards the balcony door, I held on to the handle and continued to read. For the next ten minutes I fought through the thirty degree tilts and kept reading no matter what things would fly into my direction. I read over the ghostly screeching sound that the clothing hangers would make when they slid from one side of the closet to the other. Around 4:30 PM, somehow the word Tehillim took over my thoughts, so I started another google search. Finding out that it was a book of Psalms, I wanted more than anything to find and occupy my mind with it. Not knowing a word of Hebrew, I found it translated in English on chabad.org. With my palm to the balcony window, I read chapter after chapter for two hours. My family would join me and listen as I spoke to God in the only way I knew how. Absolutely exhausted, I would collapse around 6:30 PM and just lay on the bed as I stared at the waves outside of the balcony. Then I’d start to laugh and remember that Superbowl fifty had just begun.
Goes without saying that I’m never going to forget this years Superbowl. Even if I could barely pay attention to the plays or the Chris Martin halftime show, the program did exactly what my family needed it to do. It numbed us from the pain and gave us something else to think about. The captain would again get on the speaker and notify us that the mini bar was free of charge. Three plus hours of Superbowl action, Hershey’s chocolate and the wrath of mother nature.
After seeing Peyton Manning finally hoist his second ever Superbowl trophy, it was back to the Tehillim for another two hours until I couldn’t do it anymore. Instead, I separated myself from my family and moved to my cabin next door. I walked towards the balcony once more and thought to myself, ‘I bet if I was crazy enough to go outside, I’d see my reflection within those waves.’ With the condition not changing much, I laid on my bed while also holding on to its steel frame and just tried to reflect on my existence. I could’ve kept thinking about death, but that felt too easy. So instead, I decided to think about life. It wasn’t perfect, but it was mine. I thought about all the things I got to do and all the things I said I would and never did. I thought about how I had the honor to love another human being with all of my heart and feeling the same love in return. It wasn’t a perfect love, but it was beautiful while it lasted. I thought about my grandparents and their affectionate smiles. How my grandma always made my favorite dish that to this day no one has ever been able to replicate. I thought about my parents and the sacrifices they made so my sister and I could be happy. They gave me everything, and I just wished that I had more time to make it up to them. I thought about all of you that have read anything I’ve ever written in the past. You who re-purposed much of my life. I felt happy, maybe even at peace.
By the end of the night, I decided to live tweet some of my thoughts and videos from the experience. What I didn’t know was how many people were actually reading and listening. People wanted to help us, they prayed for us to make it through the Atlantic. The captain would again get on the speaker to let us know that it wasn’t going to be easy to get out of the storms path and that anchoring the ship was the best option on the table. I remember listening and smiling subtly. No matter what had happened, nothing would ever be the same. I closed my eyes and accepted my fate.
The morning after, I opened my eyes and realized that we’ve all been given a second chance. We weren’t anchored anymore and the captain had decided that the best option was to cancel the cruise altogether and head back towards Bayonne, NJ. There was another storm system developing off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida and without knowing the extent of damage to the ship, it was too risky to continue.
Throughout the day, I started to be contacted by numerous news media outlets that wanted to know what had happened. A major theme that started to rise above all was whether or not we felt that we were going to die and if anyone should been at fault. I honestly couldn’t even fathom thinking about who was at fault or not, I was just so appreciative that my family and I were alive. Each breath making its way into my lungs that much more special than the last. For all I knew, the captain was a hero. He stood in front Mother Nature and somehow won. He didn’t buckle under pressure and give into his own fears, he kept going on.
The seas days after the event were calm with some nights of lightening creeping near the ship. Walking around the vessel, I’d see people congregate to talk about their experiences. It slowly became to be known as the ‘Miracle on the Atlantic.’ The captain had later notified us that there were only four minor injuries. Think about that, only four minor injuries and no deaths. I remember thinking about all people I saw that were bound to wheelchairs and all of the elderly folk and what they must have gone through to stay safe and stable. It was hell for my family and I, but it had to be one hundred time worse for them. This was a miracle, there was no other way to rationalize it.
On Wednesday Feb 10th, 2016, we had finally arrived back home from the experience.
As we took our final walk through the halls of the Anthem of the Seas, we could hear eerie creaks of the tired vessel. She had just been completed in 2015 and was ready to retire if only for a few months. Getting out of the ship, the passengers were met with local and national media. Camera’s and microphones ready to record thoughts and freshly made memories. We survived and at long last, we felt the solid concrete ground below our feet. Reporters wanted to know how we felt. I knew how I felt. I was alive. I had the chance to dream again and feel the sun as it’s rays could once more dance upon my skin.
And here we are (those that have made it this far at least). If there was a moral to this story, it would be to learn how to swim. I guess the cliche moral would be to remember that at any moment, your life could be over. So every now and then you have to ask yourself, ‘am I happy with the mark I left?’