M/Y Gene Machine helped rescue six Cuban migrants off the coast of Miami on Friday, February 26. The 55-meter yacht was on its way from Dania Cut Shipyard to St. Thomas when Chief Officer Jesse Edge and Deckhand Kevin Dumont spotted an unidentified light around 7:30 p.m.
“Unsure of what the light was, I gave the go ahead to alter course to port and investigate, assuming in my head it was some sort of fishing boat and most likely not in distress,” wrote Capt. Fraser Gow in an account to Dockwalk via email. “As we approached to [within] earshot, nothing was heard, no waving arms, no obvious signs of distress. We lit them up with our spotlights and zoned in our FLIR camera on the small craft and counted six adult males, none of whom were wearing lifejackets.”
It wasn’t until M/Y Gene Machine’s Deckhand Nick shouted, asking if they needed assistance, that the migrants began calling for help. Gow said the migrants had broken down and been adrift for six days, during which time multiple vessels passed by without stopping to help.
Gow notified the U.S. Coast Guard, who dispatched two vessels to their location. M/Y Gene Machine remained at the scene for the next hour and 20 minutes until the Coast Guard units arrived, not wanting to leave the migrants alone in the dark.
“It is at this point my moral dilemma started; I’m standing six meters above the water on the wing station of a multi-million dollar yacht with our search lights trained on them, [and] I have just crushed any hopes they had of making it to the shores of Florida by calling the Coast Guard,” says Capt. Gow. “On the other side of the coin, myself and my crew may have potentially saved their lives by reporting them.”
Despite a three-knot current and a two-meter ground swell pushing that yacht north and rolling it around, M/Y Gene Machine was able to circle around and position the migrants roughly three meters off the yacht’s port side, where the crew tossed bottles of fresh water to them.
“At this distance, we made it clear we were not prepared to have them board, and [that] they should remain on their boat as assistance was coming,” wrote Gow, adding that at 24 nautical miles from the coast, all they wanted was a tow else they’d be taken back to Cuba once the Coast Guard arrived. He explained the United States’ “wet foot, dry foot policy,” which allows Cubans to stay should they step foot on U.S. soil, but send them back to Cuba or a third-party country if they found in the water.
Gow continued to orbit around the small craft with the yacht’s spotlights on and stabilizers “working over time to keep us from rolling in the swell” until the 110-foot Coast Guard cutter arrived and transferred the migrants to its RIB. M/Y Gene Machine was given the okay to continue its passage.
“As we got underway, several of the men clearly defeated and disheartened, raised a hand in an effort to show their gratitude,” Capt. Gow wrote.
Gow admits that he’s wondered what he should do should he come across migrants fleeing to Europe during his recent summers in the Med and calls the situation a serious issue for the marine industry.
“My naiveté has led me to assume Cuba under the regime of Fidel Castro’s brother Raul Castro and the recent ease of sanctions on Cuba would result in [fewer] Cubans attempting to flee the country,” he says. “While the numbers are not as high in Europe, it appears in the past few years the number of immigrants being intercepted by the Coast Guard fleeing Cuba is on the rise.”
He adds, “In a day [and] age where it’s all too common to throw the yacht on auto pilot and get distracted by fancy displays and readouts on the bridge, this is yet another experience that has reinstilled the need for everyone to pay attention to what is actually happening outside, look up from their smartphones and regularly scan the horizon for traffic, navigational hazards and potentially persons or vessels in distress.”
Photos courtesy of Capt. Fraser Gow