Echoes of the Libyan civil war

We had just sailed through the Strait of Bonifacio — the treacherous seven-mile wide passage between Sardinia and Corsica that divides the Tyrrhenian Sea from the western Mediterranean — when we arrived on the bridge of the NCL Epic for a brief tour.

It was only a few days before the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and by my estimate we’d come within less than 500 nautical miles of Tripoli. So a natural question for Captain Sverre Sovdsnes was, “Ever gotten anywhere near the action?”

By “action,” I meant Operation Odyssey Dawn, the NATO military intervention to enforcing a “no fly” zone in Western Libya.

War is really the last thing you think of on the Epic. The 4,100-passenger megaship is a destination unto itself, with everything from a Cirque du Soleil show to Blue Man Group to keep you distracted. You don’t contemplate bombs dropping when you’re relaxing poolside, and the only conflict is when you tell your kids they can only choose one desert at a time at the Garden Cafe.

But up on the bridge, with the dials, gauges and monitors, you feel cut off from the rest of the vessel. With everyone in uniform, and a fire alarm sounding almost all the time (“It’s very sensitive,” a crewmember explains. “You don’t want to have a fire at sea. It’s the worst thing.”) you can’t help but wonder if theres’s a war going on somewhere close by.

In fact, there is.

Captain Sovdsnes pointed out that we were not that close to Libya, and after I studied a map of the region, I found he was right. We were sailing away from the conflict.

“But sometimes,” he adds. “You can see the aircraft flying overhead.”

He didn’t specify what kind of aircraft had buzzed the world’s third-largest cruise ship, but the United States is known the have used everything from B-2 stealth bombers to U-2 reconnaissance aircraft in the campaign. Although most of the planes originate on aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean, it’s possible the crew could have seen F-15 or F-16 fighters.

Cruise ships try to steer clear of war. It’s not good for business. Just last week, Europe’s largest cruise line, Costa, canceled Egypt and Tunisia from some of next year’s Mediterranean itineraries, blaming the “persistant negative perception” of the countries in the wake of recent turmoil.

As I write this, the Libyan civil war appears to be over, thankfully. The rebels have taken the city, and there is heavy fighting reported near Gaddafi’s compound (here’s an interactive map of the skirmishes).

Our tour of the Epic bridge didn’t last long, but my conversation with the captain was a reminder of the troubling times we live in, and that even on a cruise ship that’s a world unto itself, you can’t escape from the world you live in.