A sinking ship, Cuban gun boats and a rude morning wake-up were not things that Alfred and Sherry Zappola had in mind when they set out on a Caribbean cruise in 1989. But the Philadelphia-area couple got all of that and more when they sailed on the Carnival Celebration, making them contenders for the world's unluckiest travelers.
Today, two decades after they were passengers on the Celebration -- which hit a disabled Cuban freighter and split it in two -- the Zappolas remember all the details of the accident.
The couple were asleep in their cabin and were shaken awake by the crash.
"We dressed, donned our life vests and rushed on deck. People were crying and hysterical. We could see both halves of the ship in the water," Alfred Zappola said. "My wife prayed for the crew of what we learned was a Cuban freighter. Our crew struggled to lower lifeboats, not knowing if they were for us or the survivors."
Some of the freighter's crew wanted political asylum. The Zappolas remember Cuban gunships arriving.
"They manned the guns," Sherry Zappola said. "They had two gunships and they were aimed at our ship."
There was an eight-hour confrontation. The couple came through fine -- three members of the freighter's crew died -- but today the memory still lingers.
The Zappolas have had better vacations since: They have gone on more than a dozen other cruises.
Their travel horror story is just one of hundreds submitted in a new contest by Travel Guard International, a travel insurance company. The firm is trying to show that travelers face real risk every day and -- of course -- that insurance can "provide protection and peace of mind to satisfy even the World's Unluckiest Traveler."
The winner of the contest can get a camcorder or a $10,000 dream vacation grand prize. The Zappolas will take a trip to the Mediterranean and Italy if they win. But they face some stiff competition from other hard-luck travelers.
People have had their trips ruined by food poisoning, marathon flight delays, freak snowstorms in Vegas and many other mishaps. Some contestants describe being hit by surfboards or snowboards.
Take the case of Erin, who was planning 12 days of hiking in Bhutan and another five in Japan to visit a friend.
The misery started with a delayed flight, which meant arriving in Bangkok too late to get anything but a quick shower and change. Erin arrived in Bhutan 24 hours late, after two days of sleepless traveling.
"Not a good start," she said, but she thought some good hiking would make everything all right. Until a slide down a hill led to a knee injury -- followed quickly by news of an uprising at the Bangkok airport and a bombing in India.
"Airports are shut down, phone lines jammed, all flights rerouted and with no way out -- we're trapped in Bhutan," she said. "Eight days later, we get an emergency visa through Delhi and I fly around the world in the opposite direction to get home."
She limped away from the trip with a 40-hour flight, a bad knee and no visit to Japan.