Photo Credit: C.A. Peaden
Sleeping without air conditioning and peeing in plastic bags might be a fine way to spend your family vacation if you're camping in the wilderness. When you're on a cruise ship, floating in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico? With three kids? Not so much.
But that's the situation my husband, my children -- ages 7, 9 and 10 -- and I found ourselves in more than a month ago as passengers on the Carnival Triumph, the cruise liner that experienced an engine fire and spent five days adrift at sea.
It started out like any normal family vacation. The Triumph left from Galveston, Texas, and sailed to Cozumel, Mexico, where we relaxed on the beach and splashed in the ocean.
All that changed at 5:30 in the morning on the fourth day. Suddenly, we heard an announcement that there was a "situation" but that "everything is under control." I poked my head out of our room and saw other women doing the same down the hall. Two 20-something girls wearing life vests were running, and it became clear that we should all head to the muster station (where all the lifeboats are located) for further instructions. I grabbed my kids and rushed down there. That's when we realized there was an engine fire -- and we (along with more than 4,200 other passengers and crew) might be stuck on this ship for a long time.
So there we were, floating aimlessly in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico with our life vests secured tightly to our bodies. Honestly, I had no idea what was to become of us. Would the ship sink like the Titanic? Were we about to become shark bait? All we knew was that there was an engine fire -- one of the worst things that could happen to a ship at sea -- and what was supposed to be a relaxing vacation was now anything but.
It was a precarious situation, and there was absolutely nothing I, nor anyone else on this ship, could do to change it. As a mom, that’s such a helpless feeling. I had to do something. But what? That's when I realized that it was truly up to me to make sure this trip ended well for my kids. Children soak up our emotions like sponges, and I wanted to protect mine from the negative emotions and negative talk -- which, trust me, were plentiful -- and change this darkness into light. So we told the kids what was going on, and how the rest of the trip was probably going to be, but we also assured them that we were fine. Amazingly, they didn’t complain.
With five people, no air conditioning and no plumbing, we weren't eager to hang out in our room. Thankfully, some wonderful fellow passengers offered us their room so we could at least have a balcony. Ironically, we had the freedom to go anywhere on the ship, but we spent most of our time in the muster station. Not because I feared for our lives, but because it was a sanctuary! The sunshine was ever present, and the breeze that passed through was the same one that soothed us on the beach just a day earlier.
After it was announced that we were going to be towed back to shore by the U.S. Coast Guard, our life vests became seats and a game table where we played cards and ate. We took advantage of everything the crew had to offer, from miniature golf and scavenger hunts to games and comedy shows. We played like we hadn't played in a long, long time. It lent a closeness that we wouldn't have shared if the cruise continued its mundane course.
There was a lifetime of learning opportunities to share with our kids in those days at sea. But I also learned so much as their mother: Children are the purest, most beautiful souls around. Sometimes they utterly surprise you and do the right thing with complete abandon. I still well up with tears when I remember how my daughter selflessly offered her lovey, Cubs, as comfort to a 60-year-old stranger who was suffering from chest pains while waiting in line for food. My precious children loved their neighbors in their darkest hour.
When we finally made it to port, where buses waited to whisk us away to our clean and beautiful (and clean!) hotel rooms, CNN's live coverage unfolded on the drop down screens. One of my daughters looked up at me and said, "Mama, why do they make it sound worse than it really is?" To me, that was the greatest compliment of all.
C.A. Peaden is a 36-year-old mom from Galveston, Texas who was aboard the Carnival ship Triumph, which was stranded at sea for more than a week with her husband and three children. She's the author of an e-book about her experience.