Cruise Ship Crews Rescue Refugees in Gulf of Mexico, Ionian Sea

Last year AFRAS partnered with the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) to honor cruise ship crews who save lives at sea. “Cruise ships and other passenger vessels have a long history of helping those in trouble at sea,” said AFRAS Chairman Dana Goward. “Cruising is the only exposure many people have to maritime. When a cruise ship with thousands of passengers goes out of its way to help those in peril, it is not only adhering to the highest traditions of the sea and saving lives. It is providing a direct object lesson to everyone on board about how the sea and its dangers can bond us in our common humanity irrespective of national borders and other differences.”

This year’s inaugural Cruise Ship Humanitarian Assistance Award honorees embody the ideals of mariners helping mariners, with not one, but two awards. One recognizes an exceptionally alert crew who detected and responded to a previously unknown distress and saved 18 lives that would have otherwise surely been lost. The other is for a crew who, when called upon to assist, already had all the procedures, equipment, and training in place to conduct the most professionally executed mass rescue by a cruise ship the AFRAS board of directors had ever seen.

“Crewmembers are a vital part of our industry, and the crewmembers of Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International exhibited exemplary service during their rescue operations,” said Cindy D’Aoust, president and CEO, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). “We are honored to have these two brands as part of our community and applaud them on this success.”

On an early March 2016 morning, 27 souls left Cuba in a makeshift boat. Outbound, they hit a reef, putting a hole in their boat. Sixteen days later, 18 of them were still alive – adrift in the Gulf of Mexico, dehydrated and suffering from exposure to the sun and saltwater – when the faint “blip” of their boat was picked up on the radar on the bridge of Royal Caribbean International’s ship Brilliance of the Seas. Rescue personnel from the ship went into action after lookouts reported cries for help and the ship’s captain ordered a rescue boat be launched to assess the situation.

The boat was listing and in danger of capsizing. While the ship’s rescue boat coxswain carefully maneuvered toward the disabled craft, the captain and crew aboard the 958-foot Brilliance of the Seas positioned the ship upwind, with care taken to prevent the damaged boat from entering the ship’s azipods’ or thrusters’ wash.

“Once I realized the condition of the people in the boat, I relayed this to the crew involved in the rescue, which then was carried out with a single-minded determination to rescue the lives of these people,” said the captain. “It reminded me of crews rescued after long lifeboat journeys during WWII that I have read about. For myself, I have a long career at sea behind me and have rescued people before, but this stands out as by far the most difficult and delicate I have encountered,” he said.

The Brilliance of the Seas crew kept their guests safe and the medical team provided around-the-clock care for the survivors until the ship arrived in Cozumel and they were transferred to awaiting medical personnel.

On the morning of May 11, 2016, the crew of Norwegian Cruise Line’s 879-foot Norwegian Spirit received an urgent message from the Rome Rescue Coordination Center, while underway with passengers in the Ionian Sea. The RCC needed help from the crew of the cruise ship with an overloaded ship full of refugees, about two hours from the Norwegian Spirit’s position.

The crew steamed toward the position passed by Rome, located the ship – a small cargo vessel – and stood by until a nearby Finnish Coast Guard ship could arrive on-scene, per instructions from the RCC.

When the Finnish Coast Guard crew was rescuing the refugees from the cargo ship, they discovered one that needed immediate medical attention, a woman who was 36 weeks pregnant. They quickly took action to get her help, in coordination with the cruise ship crew.

The Coast Guard crew screened the woman and her brother, and then transported them via small boat to the Norwegian Spirit.

During a medical check and security screening once aboard the cruise ship, the crew discovered that the 23-year-old pregnant woman and her brother had been at sea for two weeks with the other refugees aboard the ship. The RCC arranged for a medevac helicopter, which landed aboard the cruise ship to transfer the woman and her brother to a hospital in Italy. The ship’s doctor accompanied them, to provide continuing medical care and monitoring while enroute. While eventually not necessary, crew and spaces were quickly prepared to care for 300 refugees potentially taken aboard Norwegian Spirit, with medical, food, water and rest areas separated from guest spaces.

“At Norwegian Cruise Line, we consider it of vital importance to maintain our protocols, so that our crew can quickly and simply implement procedures when called upon,” said Luigi Razeto, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Senior Vice-President of Marine Operations. “Our Crew carry out regular trainings, exercises and drills testing all  possible scenarios to be ready to assist persons in need at any time. Situations like the one we experienced on Norwegian Spirit may easily become complex if the procedure to be deployed is complicated. We are very proud that this “live test” confirmed our readiness, since the crew was ready to board up to 300 refugees in a safe and controlled matter in a relatively short period of time.”