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SY Genevieve crew rescue 16 migrants at sea off the coast of St Kitts & Nevis

5 April 2023

16 migrants have been rescued at sea off the coast of St Kitts & Nevis after their fishing skiff capsized. Another 16 are presumed dead.

Genevieve was en-route from Antigua to Saint Maarten when the faint sound of a woman’s scream was heard at around 11.30pm. The sail-yacht Captain immediately slowed and backtracked and at first found a man in the water clinging to a damaged lifejacket who became unconscious once on board, and, sure of a woman’s presence, they carried on the search to find her 400m away clinging to a plastic barrel. After being pulled from the water she mentioned an upturned boat that a further 30 persons had been onboard. She was in a very distressed state.

The small boat had been heading for St. Thomas and broken down causing it to take on water that caused it to capsize in the 20kt winds and 2m seas.

Captain Thomas Auckland, then coordinated his crew’s efforts to locate and rescue anyone else that could be close to them in the water. He discharged two red parachute flares to alert anyone in the area of their presence and sent out alerts to all of the required search and rescue organizations close by, including shipping.

“With no knowledge of whether or not the vessel was still afloat, we decided to continue slowly downwind towards the brightest looms of St Kitts which would be visible from the water,” said Captain Thomas.

The boat crew would soon encounter more objects floating in the water leading them to more survivors.

“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. 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 the crew assembled on the aft deck, and together we quickly constructed a plan of how best to remove the individuals from the capsized vessel. This was a solid-hulled boat with two upturned outboards, so bringing it alongside in the given prevailing sea state was never a viable option. We therefore used the floating line and fender attached to a long Dyneema tail, which was floated downwind to them; then the line was tied around the leg of one of the outboards by one of the casualties, under instruction from our crew. We brought this to our STB stern and on to a primary winch for control. This line was at once under several tonnes of load, so once it was affixed we were very reluctant to move it. We then used a rescue sling with a thick Dyneema tail for grip and additional safety line attached. This rescue sling proved invaluable.” 

Each crew member was assigned a specific role during the rescue and incredibly 14 of the 15 migrants were brought onboard, unfortunately due to what is thought to be exhaustion, the last casualty fell into the water, and with the crew unable to recover him, was sadly lost.

The local coastguard had been informed and by now several vessels were en-route to help.

“Events now entered a new phase. I was clearly aware that we had 16 migrants on board, 13 of whom were male, of which we knew nothing other than the fact that they were willing to risk their lives being smuggled across to St Thomas. So we locked down the exterior of the boat and placed the female members of crew up forward, with everyone in direct radio contact. All casualties had been given water, sugary drinks, food and blankets, and were grouped together in the cockpit. The male crew members remained at the helm station, while I ran back and forth on the VOIP line with MRCC Fort du France, who requested that we remain at the scene until air support arrived. As there was evidently a security risk on board, at 03:42 we were given permission to depart the scene and headed directly to Basseterre in St Kitts, which was approximately 34nm away,” added Captain Thomas.

“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. The female crew came and administered basic first aid; fed, watered and tried to dry out as much of their clothing as possible, before we arrived in Basseterre. On arrival in Basseterre they were transferred via coastguard boat to their base, where I went ashore and made statements to the various authorities.”

A former PYA member, Captain Thomas wanted to share his story with seafarers in the hope that they could be better prepared for any incidents and what is now a growing issue globally, especially in both the Mediterranean and English Channel. He also wants to raise awareness for the Cameroonian Nationals stranded in Antigua with the hope of improving their quality of living. Sharing his first-hand account of the night of 27th March, his quick response and coordination with the onboard crew managed to save many lives.

“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.”

Reflecting upon the rescue mission, and having had to come to terms with the fact that not all the migrants were able to survive the incident, Captain Thomas shared the following statement for all sea crews and captains should they ever be in a situation like theirs:

“ 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”.

The rescue has reminded us how important it is for sea crews to work together during extraordinary circumstances, and to rise to the challenges that come. Thanks to their efforts and this personal account, crews can consider such events and become better prepared for them in the future.

We want to thank Captain Thomas Auckland for sharing this extraordinary account with us, and we wish him and his crew all the best.

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