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Irrawaddy cruise, Burma

Author: John M. (More Trip Reviews by John M.)
Date of Trip: January 2001



As the Pandaw IV was hit by winds of up to 150 kph the vessel suddenly heeled at an angle of 35 to 40 degrees. It wasn't a good sign, especially as the ship is a shallowed drafted river cruiser and rather like an iceberg in reverse - 7/8 above the surface and only 1/8 below the waterline.

Dozens of bottles of expensive spirits and liqueurs, together with glasses, had crashed to the floor. The rattan furniture including armchairs and coffee tables inlaid with marble had slid crazily across the floor. My wife was gripping the bar for dear life, and I had slid on my bottom back and forth across the floor twice.

We had joined the Pandaw IV that morning after a flight from Rangoon to Bagan, where we met another 24 passengers - mainly Australian - who had completed a 10-night cruise down the Chindwin River and were starting stage 2 of their voyage, a 10-night cruise along the Upper Irrawaddy River.

The 28 passengers had gathered in the forward saloon at about 7 pm for a briefing about the following day's cruise and on-shore excursions. We were chatting and drinking as some of us stood at the bar and others sat around the saloon, waiting for the briefing to begin.

At about 7.10 pm the hurricane hit, and deafening torrential rain bucketed down on the ship. Initially we thought it was exciting. But the excitement soon evaporated as the bottles and glassware crashed to the floor.

Then the ship began to ship list and all the passengers seated on the starboard side, plus their chairs and coffee tables, slid to the port side. The half a dozen or so passengers standing at the semi circular bar - apart from Julie and I - also tumbled to port.

I sat on the floor, but also slid to port before just as quickly sliding back to starboard. I remember thinking "This is nuts. It's better to take my chances standing and gripping the bar" - so I dragged myself upwards to again join Julie, who by this stage was ashen. As her fingers gripped the underside of the bar she reminded me of my stars, which she had read earlier that day while on the flight to Bagan: "Your lifestyle begins to improve but be careful of travelling by boat".

The Pandaw IV continued listing as the powerful winds blew it against a small mud island, before the lights went out. Everyone gasped - it was pitch black - but fortunately the lights came back on several minutes later.

Win, the Pandaw IV's purser, bellowed against the still almost deafening rain and howling wind that we had to temporarily abandon ship. Everyone held hands, and we left the chaos of the saloon and struggled along the outdoor companionway through the pouring rain some 10 meters to stairs down to the main deck where the crew assisted us onto a small low lying and muddy island.

We moved well clear of the vessel, and stood in a huddle trying to keep warm as the driving rain beat down. I was cursing myself for leaving my camera in the cabin and hadn't been able to capture anything of the drama.

The crew valiantly dragged rattan chairs ashore as well as sheets of plastic, which we held over our heads to escape the rain. They also handed out bottles of whisky, brandy and wine that we drank from the bottles.

A minor worry was the brilliant forked lightning. While on board, it had been sheet lightning, but now it cracked across the sky almost incessantly.

But, within an hour, and as the lightning and storm abated, the mood turned from one of drama to that of almost a party as we swigged from the bottles, talked excitedly of our escape, and to a person praised the professionalism of the crew, who had clearly put our safety well before that of their own. They were magnificent, and at no stage did we truly feel threatened.

As we gazed upwards at the ship we saw that the massive sun deck tarpaulin was missing and that the multiple sliding dining room doors had been opened to decrease wind pressure on the vessel. Curtains still danced crazily as the wind whistled through the doorways from the starboard side to the port side. Two crewmen had taken the small boat tied to the port side of the Pandaw IV and where searching the inky waters for salvageable rattan furniture that had blown from the upper decks.

Powerful searchlights had been turned on so that we had light, and an announcement was made that we could return to the vessel in about 30 minutes - after the crew had sorted out some semblance of order in the dining room.

By now we were checking everyone for injuries, aided by passenger Dr. Mike Loxton, an ex Royal Australian Navy medico. Luckily, apart from some bruising, cuts and abrasions, the passengers had escaped any serious injuries.

Several of the gallant crew were less fortunate, and although there were no life threatening injuries, Mike and his partner, Susan, tended to the sailors.

Meantime, I had scampered on board to my darkened cabin, found a torch that I had packed as an after thought, and located my camera. Returning to shore I managed to take some photographs before assisting with the clean-up.



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