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Couple's vacation cruise turns into life-changing rescue mission after hurricane

For passengers on Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas, a vacation became a first row seat to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma.
/ Source: TODAY

Jeff Moulton and his fiancée, Jane Spiess, were excited to find a great rate on a four-night cruise to the Bahamas in early September. But Hurricane Irma turned what could have been a relaxing vacation into a 10-day adventure and relief mission that has changed their perspectives forever.

"It was much more than a three-hour tour," Moulton told TODAY with a laugh.

Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas left Cape Canaveral, Florida, on schedule Sept. 4. Moulton, 45, and Spiess, 47, who live in nearby Daytona Beach, knew the hurricane was forming in the Atlantic, but the cruise was scheduled to end far enough in advance that they thought they'd be home before it made landfall in the Sunshine State.

Irma cruise ship story
Floridians Jeff Moulton and Jane Spiess, far right, grew close with the other passengers who chose to stay aboard Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas through Hurricane Irma.Jane Spiess and Jeff Moulton

However, by Thursday, Sept. 7 — the day before the ship was supposed to return to port — the captain made a ship-wide announcement: After a scheduled visit to Nassau in the Bahamas, the Majesty of the Seas would head back to port a day early so passengers who wanted to go home could leave safely. Then, the ship would ride out the hurricane somewhere west of Cuba, where it would be safe from the weather, and passengers were welcome to stay aboard if they wanted to avoid enduring the storm on land.

When the ship docked at port, all but 76 passengers chose to leave and end their trips early. Moulton, who works as a speech-language pathologist, and Spiess, a tearcher, were among those who decided to stay aboard. "We're adventurous like that," said Moulton. "We knew if we stayed on board, we weren't going to have to be in any bad weather."

Later, the remaining passengers learned that after the hurricane passed, the Majesty of the Seas would be sent to Puerto Rico to pick up supplies, and then to St. Maarten and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands to provide humanitarian relief, drop off food and necessities, and pick up evacuees.

The 900 crew members still on the ship "treated us like kings and queens," said Moulton. "The 76 of us bonded pretty quickly and grew really close." The ship had plenty of food, and the casinos remained open through the hurricane, he said, until the ship went into evacuation mode. Then, most of the restaurants and all of the shops and casinos closed for the remainder of the trip.

Irma cruise ship story
Moulton and Spiess said everyone on the Majesty of the Seas, from the captain to the passengers, pulled together to comfort the evacuees of Hurricane Irma. Royal Caribbean Cruise LInes

On the evening of Tuesday, Sept. 12, when Irma had already made its way north through Florida, the ship arrived in St. Thomas. "It was pretty devastated," said Moulton. "Once we woke in the morning, we could see people getting in line to board the boat.

"The island looked brown," he said. "All the leaves were blown off the trees. The trees were all brown, like the desert."

Hurricane Irma cruise rescue mission
Majesty of the Seas passenger Jeff Moulton described St. Thomas as "brown, like the desert" after it was devastated by Hurricane Irma.Jane Spiess and Jeff Moulton

The ship delivered food and supplies — including batteries and toilet paper — to the storm-battered island, and 300-400 evacuees boarded, by Moulton's estimation. The Majesty of the Seas then headed to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Moulton and Spiess decided to disembark and spend the weekend before flying home to Florida. By that time, they had been on the ship for 10 days.

After seeing news reports of the damage caused there this week by Hurricane Maria, the couple has mixed emotions about the weekend they spent in Puerto Rico. "San Juan was beautiful. Everyone was so nice to us there — the governor of Puerto Rico even came to the port and waved to us from the docks," Moulton said.

"Now it is all wiped out," he said. "When we talked to the people who were working there, just doing their jobs, they were really worried about Hurricane Maria. Now I think about their faces and the people we met and I am really just devastated for them."

Moulton said his most memorable experience on the ship was watching the feeling of desperation in the evacuees fade as everyone on the ship pulled together to support them. "There was a real message of 'We've got your back,'" he said, "from everyone from the ship captain to the passengers. The little gestures of kindness were good to see."

And though they dodged two hurricanes during the cruise, the couple is eager to get back out on the seas soon. "We decided the 76 of us should reunite and go on another cruise together sometime," said Moulton. "We felt so safe the whole time. Royal Caribbean was good to us and the evacuees. They kept us informed and communicated well, and they kept us safe and happy. I have to hand it to them for how they treated all of us."