When people book a river cruise, they don’t always realize the monkey wrench Mother Nature can throw into the works. Cruise catalogues are filled with images of colorful waterfronts, ancient hill-top ruins and smiling passengers (and all that can be true), but even a voyage as tame as a trip down the Danube is still subject to the whims of weather and water.
The first inkling that all might not go as planned on this particular cruise came on my initial flight down from Prague to Budapest on May 28. We flew into a hellacious rainstorm that afternoon that turned what normally would be a 30-minute puddle-jump into an epic two-hour barnstormer. The sky was heaving buckets. On arrival in Budapest, I nervously checked my phone’s weather app and saw rain into the future as far as my phone could forecast.
I knew from previous river cruises that water levels can be crucial. My first trip on the Danube last October was interrupted by low water (we even had to swap boats on that cruise). High water can be equally disruptive. If the water level is too low, the boats scrape bottom. If it’s too high, they bang on the bridges overhead.
The following day, May 29, was embarkation day. Though we’d gotten a couple of hours reprieve from the rain that morning, my heart sank as I arrived at the boat and took my first look at the Danube. I’d been to Budapest many times over the years, but I’d never seen the water so high or the churn so rough. The waves were lapping at the tops of the banks; the river was filled with the branches and trunks of fallen trees. We’d be moving upriver on this trip and the floating tree-trunks hinted at a wild ride.
As I boarded the boat and greeted the staff, there were already whispers of high water. It was nothing particularly serious at that stage, merely the prospect we may have to swap ships to avoid a particularly troublesome stretch of the Danube between Passau and Regensburg. A couple of passengers had also shared their concerns as they’d heard from friends upriver of possible cancellations and re-routings. In the end, those fears proved unfounded and we completed the journey all the way to Amsterdam without incident. None of us, though, could foresee what would happen on the river later that evening just a hundred yards or so from where our boat was docked.
One of the highlights of any river cruise to Budapest is the promise of an after-dinner float along the Danube between the Hungarian capital’s Margaret and Petőfi bridges. Beautiful buildings along both the Buda and Pest banks are bathed in golden light, and the effect is magical.
That initial night onboard we gathered in the dining room to share what would be the first of 15 days of meals together. Despite the pouring rain, the mood was upbeat and we were all still basking in the novelty of that first evening (a little like back-to-school day). After dinner, the plan was for us all to grab a glass of champagne (and our raincoats) and head up upstairs to the outdoor deck to enjoy the lights as our boat moved up and down the river.
Toward the end of dinner -- I can’t remember the time exactly, but around 8:30pm -- our cruise director broke into the good mood over the loudspeaker. Conditions for sailing on the river, he said, were extremely poor, and given the rain and fast flow of the water, the captain had decided to cancel our mini-float through Budapest. We could still go up on deck to look at the buildings, but our boat would stay moored to the shore that night.
The disappointment among the passengers was palpable and made all the worse by the fact that apparently none of the other cruise ships -- or indeed any other vessel -- had decided to stay tied to shore that evening. In spite of the rain and swell, the river was choked with boats of all shapes and sizes. Everyone but us would be enjoying those golden lights.
It turned out to be a very fortunate decision, indeed.
With no need to go up on deck, I and a few of the other passengers lingered in the dining room over drinks and looked out onto the river through big windows. Sometime after 9pm, the scene outside grew increasingly manic. Boats weren’t just cruising the river; they were plowing through the water at breakneck speeds. Big boats, small boats, police boats, and even the occasional blue light of a police boat in pursuit. It looked crazy out there.
After a few more minutes of watching the excitement, I bade goodnight to the passengers and made my way back to my cabin to prepare for the next day. Though we had no idea at the time (it was raining hard and visibility was poor), we’d all just witnessed what would later be labeled as Hungary’s worst boating disaster in six decades. A massive Viking river cruiser, the “Sigyn,” had collided with a pleasure boat, the “Hableány” (Mermaid), toppling the smaller vessel within seven seconds and plunging the boat’s 35 passengers into the cold, fast-flowing river. In the end, only seven passengers would survive, leaving at least 25 people confirmed dead (as of June 18) and three missing (and presumed dead). The whole thing had taken place just across the river from where we were docked.
I didn’t sleep well that night. I think the sight of those fast-moving police boats had unnerved me. I woke up around 4am after a fitful night and checked my phone. It was then I saw a cryptic message that a friend had left on my Facebook page (and the first inkling of what exactly we had all witnessed the night before). He wrote: “Heard the news of the boat accident. Hoping you're all right.” Boat accident? Huh? I Googled “Budapest” and “accident” and started reading the initial news reports. It was bad.
The rest of that day (May 30) is something of a blur. Though our boat had not been involved in any way and our captain had made the sound decision not to go out on the water the previous night, the mood onboard was apprehensive and downbeat. CNN was already running preliminary reports of the accident on the television screen in the boat’s lounge. I sent messages to family and friends telling them that we were okay and recommended to passengers that they do the same. The accident was quickly becoming a full-blown international story and people around the world would be hearing about it within hours.
Of course, the cruise must go on, and that day we tramped our way through rainy Budapest. Around mid-morning, I fielded a call from a reporter at Czech Television (Česká televize) in Prague. They were putting together a report on the accident for their national news, and the journalist asked if I could describe what I saw the night before. In measured terms (I was careful to avoid any kind of conjecture), I described the river conditions the previous night as well as the fact that our boat had opted stay in port for safety reasons. You can find a link to the clip (in Czech) here. A video of the accident pops up at 20 seconds in. My interview starts after the 50-second mark.
As of this writing, Hungarian investigators are still trying to piece together exactly what happened, and no one knows yet who, if anyone, is responsible for what looks at this stage to be a tragic accident. The captain of the Viking boat was taken into custody a couple of days after the collision and is now free on bond (but must remain in Budapest for the duration). The captain of the smaller vessel, the Hableány, apparently perished in the river. The Viking boat, the Sigyn, was released after a preliminary investigation and allowed to leave Hungarian waters. On June 1, barely three days after the accident, I snapped a photo of the vessel as it was docked near our boat in Vienna.
Fortunately for us, the mood and the weather brightened once we finally set sail for Vienna on May 30, and the rest of the cruise up to Amsterdam came off without a hitch. In fact, we had a great bunch of guests onboard, and if it hadn’t been for the accident in Budapest, this might very well have been the smoothest of the Scenic-National Geographic cruises I’ve worked on so far.
(I’ve posted photos of some of the highlights. Scroll down for more pictures.)
The cruise even ended somewhat on a farcical note – for me at least – helping to put Budapest even further into the rear-view mirror, and underscoring in my mind that this was certainly going to be a journey to remember.
As our boat rounded the bend at Rüdesheim and chugged up the Rhine for the final stretch home, we put in for the night at the German city of Koblenz and a customary trip to the nearby hilltop castle at Marksburg. The castle visit ended in one of those mock medieval dinners, where they “slaughter” a pig and raise glasses of mead. The food was excellent and it was all good fun.
For the after-dinner entertainment, the castle hosts called for volunteers from the audience, and I settled in to watch a couple of our cruise guests get pulled into some comic sketches and dance routines.
For the last trick of the night, a German woman with a sturdy build implored the audience to send up a relatively fit male volunteer. I looked around the room and wondered whom she might pick. And that’s when I first heard a low rumble of “Mark, Mark, Mark!” grow slowly into a steady chant. My group was apparently offering me up as a sacrifice and before I knew it, I’d been plucked from the audience and placed on my back on a rickety table at the front of the room.
I had no idea what was happening, but sometimes you just need to go with the flow. She mumbled to me a few instructions. We’d be performing a kind of head-to-head "handstand." The most important thing for me, she said, was to keep my arms and elbows straight without buckling.
As the passengers watched in what felt like stunned silence, she ran toward the table, hopped on top, caught my arms, and rose into the air. And as I elevated her shoulders, and above those, her outstretched legs (and prayed for nothing to go wrong), it dawned on me. We’re all going to make it this time, just fine.
(I've written about river cruises several times over the past year. For a good overview about what the experience is like (and photos of Budapest by night), click here or here. If you're interested in Christmas markets, click here.)