On March 28, 37-meter S/Y Genevieve and her crew rescued 16 people from a capsized fishing skiff off the coast of St. Kitts and Nevis. The boat had left from Antigua with 32 people but broke down and capsized.
At approximately 11:30 p.m. on March 27, while transiting from Antigua to St. Maarten, the lookout on Genevieve “heard a faint noise that sounded like a woman’s scream. We immediately throttled back, and then both heard a clear, audible scream,” Capt. Thomas Auckland said in his statement.
He furled the headsail, activated a DSC, and called a Mayday. The captain shared that in retrospect he should have called a Mayday Relay. The lookout mustered the four other crew who donned lifejackets with PLBs and radios and then positioned themselves around the vessel with lights in search of the woman or women.
Six minutes later, they spotted some retro-reflective tape and a man clinging to part of a damaged lifejacket. They used a small circular fender, attached an additional buoyancy aid to it, and fastened a rescue line to throw downwind at midship. At 11:39 p.m., the crew were able to pull him to the stern, and two crewmembers hauled him aboard from the swim platform. He was unconscious by the time he made it to the cockpit.
“While we had not compromised our safety, we had taken a considerable amount of water into the lazarette, and it was clear that this was not an ideal way to retrieve someone from the water in this sea state (roughly two meters and 20 knots),” he shared. “We continued our search, knowing there was at least one more person, a woman, still in the water, but unable to ascertain if there were further persons at risk.”
Approximately 400 meters downwind from where the man was, they spotted a woman clinging to a white plastic barrel at 11:57 p.m. She was recovered in the same fashion, but it took three crew to get her on board. Once safely in the cockpit, she told them she had been traveling on a small boat that had left Antigua for St. Thomas with about 32 people aboard.
Without knowing if the vessel was still afloat, they continued slowly downwind toward St. Kitts. At about 12:28 a.m., the crew began spotting plastic drums floating in the water and then shortly after noticed a light coming in and out of sight, which was discovered to be from a phone being waved around. On approach, they found the fishing skiff La Belle Michelle with 15 people straddling the hull, about 1.1 nautical mile from the first person they rescued. Together, the crew quickly developed a plan to rescue them.
“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,” Auckland shared. “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.”
The plan was to have each person run themselves along the rope one by one and then transfer them to the rescue sling at the starboard quarter of the vessel. They would then be pulled to midship and hauled out of the water.
At first, they were reluctant to entrust themselves to the rope as only two were wearing lifejackets, but once a few people had been brought aboard, they needed less encouragement. They later learned that they were wearing all the clothes they owned, which made swimming challenging but proved helpful for when the crew needed something to grab onto as they pulled them on board.
“The process worked very well providing they left the vessel one at a time, as holding the ‘tow line’ as it was under load was clearly very challenging,” he shared. “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.”
Unfortunately, the last person fell from the hull and was unable to make it along the line. They remained attached and searching for the individual until 1:57 a.m.
“Thereafter, I decided that marking the upturned hull with lights strapped to a lifejacket and cutting it loose was the best option, as I felt the situation was becoming hazardous,” Capt. Auckland said. “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 MV Britannia, who had just taken up the role of on-scene MRCC.”
All grouped in the cockpit, those rescued were given water, sugary drinks, food, and blankets. MRCC Fort du France requested Genevieve remain at the scene until air support arrived, receiving permission to depart at 3:42 a.m. to Basseterre in St. Kitts, about 34 nautical miles away. They were then transferred via coast guard boat to their base, and Auckland went ashore to make statements to the authorities.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Capt. Auckland shares in his statement to never underestimate the importance of good watchkeeping and his pride for the teamwork and professionalism by his crew during the situation.
In a brief update, he shared, "My intention in publishing last week’s statement on the St. Kitts search and rescue operation was twofold: Firstly, to better seafarers understanding of what is unfortunately a growing issue in the waters in which we sail. Secondly, to raise awareness for the Cameroonian nationals stranded in Antigua, with the hope of improving their quality of living. My crew have now launched a JustGiving page with the aim of raising funds, which will be used to help provide basic housing, sanitation, and food for this community."