This article is based on a submitted account from Captain Thomas Auckland of S/Y Genevieve.
Six crew members on board the 37 meter S/Y Genevieve rescued 16 people after a fishing skiff carrying 32 people capsized off the coast of St. Kitts and Nevis.
On March 27, at approximately 11:30 p.m., the lookout on board S/Y Genevieve heard a faint noise that sounded like a woman’s scream as they sailed from Antigua to St. Maarten, according to a submitted account by Cpt. Thomas Auckland.
They immediately throttled back, now hearing an audible scream. The rest of the crew was called on deck to help, donning lifejackets and using torches or search lights to locate the woman or women. Six minutes later they spotted a man clinging on to a part of a damaged life jacket. Using a small circular fender with an attached buoyancy aid fastened to a rescue line, the crew were able to pull him to the stern where he was pulled on board.
S/Y Genevieve had taken a considerable amount of water into the lazarette during the process, but the crew’s safety was not compromised. By the time the man was taken to the cockpit he was unconscious, according to Auckland’s account.
At 11:57 p.m. the crew spotted a woman clinging to white plastic barrel, approximately 400m downwind of the first casualty. The crew recovered her in the same fashion as before, but this time the process was much harder.
“Once in the cockpit she informed us that she had been traveling on a small boat which had left Antigua, bound for St Thomas (USVI), with approximately 32 people on board,” Auckland wrote in his account. “The vessel had broken down, taken on water and capsized.”
Auckland discharged two red parachute flares at this point. The crew continued to head downwind towards the brightest looms of St. Kitts, assuming that the vessel would have more windage than the casualties in the water if it was still afloat.
“At around 00:28, the crew started spotting plastic drums floating in the water, and shortly afterwards they noticed a light coming in and out of sight, which later proved to be the light of a mobile phone being waved around,” Auckland wrote. “On approach we discovered the upturned fishing skiff, “La Belle Michelle” with 15 persons straddled on the hull, approximately 1.1nm from the first casualty.”
All crew assembled on the aft deck, constructing a plan to remove the individuals from the capsized vessel. It was impossible to bring the solid-hulled boat with two upturned outboards alongside S/Y Genevieve, so the crew used a floating line and fender attached to a long Dyneema tail, which was floated downwind to them. The line was then tied around the leg of one of the outboards by one of the casualties, under instruction from the crew.
The crew brought the line to the starboard stern and onto a primary winch for control. A rescue sling with a thick Dyneema tail for grip and additional safety line attached was also used, which proved invaluable to the rescue mission.
“Our plan was for the casualties to run themselves along the rope one by one, and once they reached the starboard quarter of the vessel, to transfer to the rescue sling, with which we would pull them to the midships and haul them clear of the water,” Auckland wrote. “We have a midships freeboard of just over two meters and discussed using a halyard at this stage, but we were rolling too violently for this to be safe or effective.”
The crew were now assigned new roles, with Auckland throwing the rescue sling and communicating with casualties. The engineer was hauling casualties up the side deck and communicating with the casualties. The first mate was ensuring the rescue line and safety were free to run and resetting the sling. Auckland, the engineer, and the first mate also were in charge of removing casualties from the water at the midships.
The chef was in charge of ensuring rescue lines and safety were free to run, removing casualties from the water, and clearing the side deck. The stewardess was in charge of triage, assessing injuries, and getting casualties into the cockpit while providing water, bedding, and more. The deck and stewardess also illuminated the vessel and casualties using a large spotlight.
“The casualties were at first clearly reluctant to entrust themselves to the rope,” Auckland wrote. “Only two of the persons were wearing life jackets (who turned out to be the drivers) and most of them were unable to swim.”
It was later discovered that the casualties were wearing multiple layers of clothing, often three pairs of jeans and six upper layers each, making swimming challenging. The layers did however help the crew pull them on board. Once three or four people had successfully been rescued, the rest of the casualties left on the hull needed less encouragement to cross on the tow line.
“The teamwork displayed by the crew here was astounding, without them creating such an effective process of recovery, there is no way we would have got those 14 people off that hull,” Auckland wrote.
The casualties were becoming less physically able as time passed, and the last casualty fell from the hull and was unable to make it along the line. The crew remained attached to the hull searching for the last individual until 1:57 a.m., according to Auckland’s account.
Auckland then decided to mark the upturned hull with lights strapped to a lifejacket and cut it loose, as he felt the situation was becoming hazardous.
“In hindsight, this was perhaps my biggest regret, as we had spare PLBs on board and should have affixed one, as this would have served as a helpful search marker for M/V Britannia, who had just taken up the role of on-scene MRCC,” Auckland wrote.
Now that S/Y Genevieve had 16 migrants on board, 13 of them being male, Auckland locked down the exterior of the boat and placed the female members of the crew up forward, according to his account. All of the migrants were given water, sugary drinks, food, blankets, and were grouped together in the cockpit. At 3:42 a.m., Auckland was given permission by MRCC Fort du France to depart the scene and head directly to Basseterre in St. Kitts.
“Once the day dawned and we were under coastguard escort, it became quite clear that these terrified Cameroonian nationals were extremely grateful to us and posed no risk to us at all,” Auckland wrote.
The female crew members administered basic first aid, fed, watered, and tried to dry out as much of the casualties’ clothing as possible before arriving in Basseterre. Once they arrived the casualties were transferred via Coast Guard boat to their base, while Auckland went ashore to speak with various authorities.
Auckland ended his report with the following.
“I think what I take away most from this is just how well the crew performed under immense pressure: they were all making very sensible and rational decisions in a situation in which they have had very little training. We of course were incredibly lucky to hear a scream in the dark over the wind, and also unbelievably lucky that we were able to save so many people.
We have sat together with an industry professional and dissected the night’s events in great detail, and we are also discussing it very openly among ourselves. All of the crew, myself included, are still in a stage of processing all that occurred. It is affecting everybody in a slightly different way, but knowing that there were 32 people on board, and only 16 survived is perhaps the hardest part for us all to comprehend.
I sincerely hope that none of you ever have to encounter such an event during your time at sea, but if you do I hope this account may be of some use. In conclusion, never underestimate the importance of good watch-keeping – and rest assured that the teamwork and professionalism exhibited by your crew will leave you feeling very, very proud.
I would like to thank, MRCC Fort du France, MV Britannia, Marine Assist Osprey, SY Midnight, St Kitts Coastguard and the numerous other vessels, that came together so selflessly, ‘it is an honour to sail the waters with you.’”
Following the rescue, the crew of S/Y Genevieve has set up a JustGiving crowdfunding page to raise funds to help support Cameroonian Nationals stranded in Antigua.