Vessel Watch Keeping Saves 2 Lives

By February 7, 2011 General No Comments

“Standing the Watch” is a term used by mariners when guiding a vessel’s safe passage or on-going up keep. The term emphasis the need not only to be present but attentive. The following email is a very moving account of how in only seconds a watch keepers attention to details can save lives. This is my twin brother’s personal account of a day spent as 1st officer on a commercial tanker skirting the coast of Puerto Rico last week.
Jan 30th 2011
From: 1st Officer Alec Cunningham
To: Josh Cunningham
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We saved two human lives yesterday.
At the turn of the watch, simply by chance, a needle in a haystack, I spotted the figure of a very small boat off the horizon. Visible for a few seconds at a time only. Situation in some ways is consistent with a struggling and desperate coastal fishing economy. But altogether stinks badly of trouble. Reluctant to turn a 28,000 ton ship around for someone that might just be drift fishing. Checked the chart, middle of nowhere. 3,000 feet of water 70 miles north of the Mona Passage between Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Ship blowing by them at 18 knots, burning feeling in my gut that they need help but can’t make out their movements with binoculars just the dark human shapes. One might or might not be standing up. Can’t say for certain.
Called Captain but unable to reach him because he is out of his office, in the gym or out on the deck. Drifting boat now at this point behind us and almost out of sight. Ship already delayed sailing San Juan, tight schedules and ever observant of fuel cost cutting pressure from the company. Down on my knees with the binoculars steadied on the rail looking aft. Can see one body standing up but too far away to see arms on him. Thought I might have seen a piece of clothing wave up and down. Overwhelming and unbearable feeling of guilt. Made a decision to turn back at any cost. Called for the lookout to go into hand steering with right 10 degrees of rudder.
Commence a round turn, ship starts to shutter in small convulsions from turning at full sea speed. Captain to the bridge immediately. Informed of the situation he backs me and rings the General Alarm. All crew muster. Relieved of the con, bull horn in hand, I head back aft to instruct crew and to put into motion a plan should the small boat be a security or safety threat. First approach found two lethargic men with life jackets in a 10 foot homemade wooden fishing boat with an outboard motor, bailing out their boat which was taking on water at an alarming rate.
Much harder to control a 720 foot ship than one might expect and maneuvering is very precarious in an open sea. We got within 300 feet and fired a rocket line with 700 feet of floating line. A lucky shot that went straight across their bow. Lowered the pilot ladder, first man falls off the ladder and back into the boat, unable to muster the strength to climb our 45 feet of free board. Gets it on the 2nd attempt. One collapses on deck when finally aboard. 2 hours to get them on board. Moved them to the hospital on board in the after house. No shortage of finding, in the ship’s compliment of 28 crew, a Spanish translator. Treated them for severe dehydration and shock. Reported to be Puerto Ricans that left 2 days ago to go fishing when their motor died they continued to drift with no idea of where they were and even more surprised to find they had drifted 120 miles. Boat started to take on water when a fiberglass over wood patch gave.
They had been bailing for 24 hours without stopping. They had made a pack between each other to stop bailing and accept death at sunset, which was to occur in 1.5 hours after we spotted them. They reported a shark stalking them the entire day that was as long as the boat. Also two black whales that rolled so close to them that the spray from its blow hole covered them with the misty stink of fish, which would not leave their clothes. They reported a mysterious “all white whale” that came out of the water nose up and then back down. Unusual to see a white wale below 45 degrees North but the act they describe is common of “spy hopping” which whales are known to do when investigating objects on the surface so I credit their story. They had no supplies, had thrown all their fishing gear and a large catch of fish overboard a day ago to lighten the load on the little boat…it wouldn’t have mattered because both were exhausted and soon to give up the effort to keep the boat afloat.
Vital signs slightly elevated body temp low. One speaks broken English and constantly loosing control of his eye movements as they roll awkwardly into the back of his head, he drifts in and out of sleep. Clothes are saturated with the most unpleasant smell of salt water, fish, body odor and urine. Feet are swollen with toe nails starting to lift from the skin. Arms and neck on the verge of third degree burns.
The other has bulging blood shot eyes, unflinching and is reported by his friend to be psychotic usually medicated with Prozac and xanex and without these medications should be considered a danger to others and himself. Great. Steward department picks two vacant crew rooms and bolt locks are fashioned to the outside and the hallway is put on a 24 hour manned watch. I give him Diazepam, should do. Coast Guard informed, boat set adrift where it probably sank within hours. Captain donates some of his old clothes. They shower and he allows them to call their next of kin on the Sat phone. Unforgettable phone call from the Captains office.
Both rooms are joined by a bathroom so they are essentially together. They slowly and painfully move around like two old people with spasms in their back muscles and legs from standing and bailing relentlessly for so many hours. I leave them for the night with a large trash bag of an assortment of fruit, snacks and drink. The steward translates to them that I will be back at 0800 and will take them out on deck for a while for fresh air and to stretch their legs. He tells them I am the chief officer, medical officer on board and I was the one who spotted them and turned the ship. Smiles create visible pain and cracking in their lips. They thank me repeatedly in Spanish as we shake hands. One will not let go of my hand and forearm as I try to back out of the room, a bit awkward uncomfortable long minute but understandable considering what they have gone through.
The small derelict fishing boat that was cast adrift was their livelihood and had a new $3,000 outboard motor purchased the day before they left. It’s his only way of making a living on the Rincon coast of Puerto Rico. His first child, a son, was born January 13th, two weeks ago. I will post a donations sheet in the galley for any crew wanting to contribute something against their next week’s draw. Captain will try to spin a PR motive for the company to pay for their flight back, I’ll give them a couple hundred for travel.
A Right Whale in the St. John’s River in Jacksonville delayed me joining the ship and put us behind schedule, a fire that broke out on the shore terminal crane in San Juan delayed us further from sailing. The ship’s routine schedule is such that it would normally transit these waters in the middle of night. By chance we passed in day light hours. By chance it was near sundown with reduced glare and good visibility. By chance the weather was clear. By chance the shark lost interest and the whale didn’t surface directly under their poorly constructed wooden boat.
Sunday morning now. Sunrise finds us 100 miles north of the Turks and Caicos and leaves me wondering how far does chance go before it becomes something else?

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