HACKENSACK, N.J. – The cruise ship damaged by a freak wave Saturday had changed its itinerary to return early to New York for a taping of “The Apprentice,” a source close to Donald Trump’s TV show told The Record on Tuesday.

The Norwegian Dawn’s original schedule called for the ship to stop in Nassau, a popular port in the Bahamas, before returning to New York at 10 a.m. EDT Sunday. But shortly before the vessel set sail, passengers were told Nassau had been dropped from the itinerary and the ship would return to New York five hours early – 5 a.m. EDT Sunday.

The arrival time was changed “because of a special event happening onboard the ship that day,” according to a letter distributed to passengers at the start of the cruise. Norwegian Cruise Lines didn’t tell passengers what that event was – an 8 a.m. shoot with The Donald.

The company was not going to be paid for hosting the taping, the source said, “but it was going to be a good promotion for the ship. It’s a very hot show.”

The ship was on its way from Miami to New York early Friday morning when it encountered waves up to 25 feet high and winds greater than 55 mph. Passengers reported violent pitching for more than 20 hours, causing tables to overturn, glass to break and rooms to be swamped by seawater.

A freak 70-foot wave smashed into the ship’s bow just before daybreak on Saturday, flooding 62 rooms. Four people were treated for injuries.

“This was my ninth cruise, and I was never scared before,” said Teresa Joyce, a retired schoolteacher from Clifton, N.J. “This time, I was scared.”

As passengers sought safety in the ocean liner’s public areas, a rumor spread that the Norwegian Dawn was to be involved in an episode of “The Apprentice.”

Some wondered aloud if they were plowing through the storm to accommodate a date with Trump.

“Weather happens. We could have hit that storm anyway,” said Noah Puckowitz of Wayne, N.J., who was vacationing with his wife and two sons. “But they shouldn’t put people in harm’s way for any reason.”

Susan Robison, spokeswoman for the cruise line, dismissed the charge that the Norwegian Dawn compromised safety for its 15 minutes of reality TV fame.

“We were not rushing back for any reason,” Robison said.

Robison said the cruise line had no comment on any involvement with “The Apprentice.” A spokeswoman for Mark Burnett Productions, which produces “The Apprentice,” refused repeated requests for comment.

Even before the storm hit, some of the 2,599 passengers were grumbling about the change in itinerary.

Though some said they were notified of the change as early as two days before embarkation, others arrived at the pier in New York with suitcases and sunscreen in hand before discovering their vacation plans had changed.

“The part that frustrated me was that if they changed the itinerary, they should have told us before we got to the pier,” said Vincent O’Meara of New Milford, N.J. “They said we could cancel then, but my wife and I had already taken a week off of work, so what were we going to do if we canceled the cruise? They told us so late, so we couldn’t plan anything else.”

Because of the storm, Norwegian Cruise Lines agreed to refund passengers half their fare and offered them a 50 percent discount on a future cruise.

The Norwegian Dawn kept in contact with the Coast Guard throughout the storm. At 8:31 a.m. EDT Saturday, the crew informed the Coast Guard it was changing course and heading to Charleston, S.C., for repairs.

The Coast Guard inspected the ship in port and declared it seaworthy.

Stan Deno, director of operations for the International Council of Cruise Lines, a trade association, said that while the winds were fierce enough to make passengers uncomfortable, the situation wasn’t dangerous.

“It’s not even eyebrow-raising for a ship that size,” Deno said of the 965-foot vessel.

The only way the ship’s captain could have avoided the bad weather was to stay moored in Miami until the storm blew over Sunday morning, said David Feit, a meteorologist for the federal Ocean Prediction Center. But the captain didn’t.

“He went right into the teeth of the storm,” Feit said.

The Norwegian Dawn pulled into Pier 88 at 9:30 a.m. Monday.

Too late for “The Apprentice.”

(Record correspondent Ruth Padawer contributed to this report.)

(c) 2005, North Jersey Media Group Inc.

Visit The Record Online at http://www.northjersey.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-04-20-05 1527EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.