Phantom Rider got the ride of a lifetime.
Frank Dougherty, who wrote the popular Phantom Rider column for the Daily News for many years, was one of the 88 shaken but unharmed passengers aboard a cruise ship returning from Antarctica that was blasted by a huge wave during a ferocious storm on Tuesday in the Drake Passage between Cape Horn and Antarctica.
Frank called the Daily News from Ushuaia, Argentina, last night to describe the experience as "terrifying."
"I thought this was it," he said. "I never came so close to cashing it in."
When a huge wave hit, it smashed a railing into the pilot house, knocking out all communication, including radar, he said.
Frank said he began imagining that if the ship went down, "they'd never find the bodies. You couldn't even think about putting out lifeboats in that sea."
He said the ship was "violently shaking and twisting," with winds reaching 100 mph and waves 30 to 40 feet high.
But Frank's legendary sense of humor didn't desert him. "We were like a James Bond martini," he said. "Shaken, not stirred."
The most violent phase of the storm lasted at least an hour, he said. He gave credit to the captain of the ship, the Greek-owned Clelia II, for turning the ship into the wind to keep it from rocking.
Finally, he said, a National Geographic ship nearby provided some communication equipment as the storm eased.
Frank said he and the others would stay on the ship last night and try to find flights to Buenos Aires. He said he didn't expect to be back in Philadelphia until Monday.
Frank's wife, Ann, said the Antarctic trip was one her husband had been anticipating with great joy.
"He was ecstatic," she said. "It was a dream come true for him."
Frank called her shortly after 9 last night to assure her that he was safe and that the dream had turned into a nightmare.
"He said it was a nightmare, but he was greatly relieved," Ann said. "I'm greatly relieved that he's safe.
"I'm sure it was a great adventure, but probably one he could have done without."
Ann had not been able to get in touch with her husband of 37 years since a phone call from him on Nov. 29 from Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world and the embarkation point for all Antarctica tours.
He told his wife he was ready to board the Clelia II, but the trip was delayed for a day by rough seas.
On Wednesday night she was called by Overseas Adventure Travel, through which the trip had been booked, telling her about the incident but assuring her that everyone on board was safe.
"I was very apprehensive," Ann said. "I was very concerned for everybody on board."
As the ship, operated by New York-based Travel Dynamics International, and owned by Helios Shipping of Piraeus, Greece, limped toward Ushuaia after the near-disaster, it was escorted by the Natonal Geographic ship and a vessel of the Chilean Navy.
Dougherty, 69, has been a dedicated world traveler for many years, usually seeking out exotic ports of call. His last trip was to Easter Island in the Pacific.
Ann didn't go that time, either, and, as for the Antarctic trip, she said: "I heard that sometimes the seas are rough and you are confined to your cabin. Two days in the Drake Passage with no land in sight, it would have been unsettling for me."
Frank, who retired from the Daily News in 2000 after 40 years with the paper, wrote the Phantom Rider column among his other duties as reporter and writer.
The column described the writer's experiences as he rode anonymously on various SEPTA vehicles and reported, with his typical wry sense of humor, on what he encountered. The column drew much comment and letters and often resulted in improvements in service by the transit agency.
Last night, the famous wit couldn't resist a final quip. He said the penguins he encountered in Antarctica were all named Willie and smoked Kools.