The Toast’s previous coverage of the Lyubov Orlova can be found here.
Since the ship broke free from its towline in Atlantic waters and the ocean current swept it over the eastern horizon a year ago, the Lyubov Orlova has become fodder for our collective lurid imaginations. Fodder that just keeps on giving. Earlier this year the Daily Mail interviewed a Belgian ship salvager named Pim De Rhoodes, and reported his assertion it might be infested with “hundreds, if not thousands” of cannibal rats.
I was the Lyubov Orlova’s bartender for two cruise seasons, before the rats. In 2007 I joined a crew in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and sailed up the Labrador coast, Baffin Island, parts of the Northwest Passage, and Greenland. In 2009 I joined the ship in Ushuaia, Argentina and sailed back and forth across the Drake Passage to Antarctica.
I spent 10 months total aboard the Lyubov Orlova. It was my Magic School Bus to a world that few get the privilege to explore, and, to the same extent, it was my prison.
I worked every day during the cruise season. I opened the bar late in the morning and worked through lunch, and then I took a few hours to myself before heading back behind the wood from five p.m. until the passengers all fell asleep.
I worked, even when passengers were advised to take shelter in their cabins during violent storms, like the one that hit the Lyubov Orlova off the coast of the Falkland Islands Christmas Eve 2009.
We got storm warnings often and in these events my job was to help make sure everything was secure, because, logically, as winds pick up the ship pitches and rolls and this sends glassware flying.
Then the storm hit. When wind blows at 70 miles per hour, the ship doesn’t just roll, it crashes. Waves tipped the ship precipitously to one side – I could see out the window how close the deck was to hitting the sea – then like a rubber band the full weight of the ship would release back the other way causing everything to fly. Furniture, refrigerators, people. A passenger broke a rib that day.
After one of the first big rolls caused 120 plates of Nicoise Salad to strew throughout the dining room, we canceled Christmas Eve dinner and decided to serve cold sandwiches and cans of pop to passengers in their rooms.
We couldn’t force passengers to do anything they didn’t want to do, so one Dutch woman stood at my bar with a bottle of white wine and regaled me with her own stories of sailing in heavy seas while I organized dinner service.
The guest areas were in bad disarray, but the galley was another story. An entire stove came dislodged from its place against the wall and slid across the room. The rolling caused an oil spill that compounded the complicated task of food delivery. Rather than step from point A to point B, it was best to hold on to a door frame and wait for the ship to roll in a direction that would give enough momentum to slide to point B and hang on to the next pole or door frame. And so on, until every sandwich was delivered.
Times like this, the Lyubov Orlova really became a Pale Blue Dot. It was my whole world. Without the ship, I was dead, and it was so easy to see how tiny and fragile it was in comparison to the elements around it.
My job on the ship also required me to work closely with Russian crew, which meant we got to know each other pretty well. For example, I once let one of the Russian cabin-cleaning staff rub shredded onion into my hair as part of a beauty regimen prescribed by her babushka.
My hair was indeed silkier, but I smelled like soup for two weeks.
I have so many memories from this time that whenever I see the Lyubov Orlova pop up in the media, I get nostalgic and wish the boat would appear so somebody can turn it into a museum or a floating casino or something.
I regret that I will have no closure with the Lyubov Orlova. It would be an utter miracle if it was still floating around somewhere, but most likely it has sunk. Likely nobody in my lifetime will know where or when or under what circumstances.
I can imagine the Lyubov Orlova, empty except for those hypothetical rats, pushed back and forth by heavy North Atlantic seas like that Christmas Eve night in 2009 until one wave, strong enough to waterlog the ship finally swallowed it whole, came along and took it down.
But maybe I will get closure. Maybe the hallways I roamed, the cabins I slept in, the sea-water pool I swam in are all now be sitting at the bottom of the ocean waiting for Peter Jackson to take his submarine down and film its discovery.
And our society is given the gift of Titanic II: The Cannibal Rat Infested Ship.