Annual Maritime SAR Awards: Cruise Ship Humanitarian Assistance Award Winner

Carnival Elation underway near Half Moon Cay, Bahamas. Photo courtesy Carnival Cruise Lines.

The captain and crew of Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Elation saved the life of a fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico, during Hurricane Irma, battling high winds and rough seas to do so, Sep. 10, 2017, and are the honorees for this year’s AFRAS Cruise Ship Humanitarian Assistance Award.

The Carnival Elation was in the midst of a scheduled month-long dry dock period in the Bahamas, which included maintenance and major retrofit projects, when Hurricane Irma started forming in the Atlantic. As the storm intensified and threatened the Caribbean, the dry dock facility crew worked diligently to get Carnival Elation seaworthy, so the captain and crew could sail the ship to a storm shelter location in the southeastern Gulf of Mexico.

Three days after leaving Freeport, the ship’s crew was alerted to a distress message coming from the fishing vessel Captain Eddie, 60 nautical miles from their position. Carnival Elation’s captain and crew sprang to action, hailing the Captain Eddie and sailing toward its position to help, into the storm, which at this point was a Category 3 hurricane. The crew battled 15-20 foot seas and 40 knot sustained winds – with gusts up to 60 knots – to get to the fishing boat’s last known position.

Near the Captain Eddie, Carnival Elation’s crew established communication and ascertained that the boat was taking on water, there were two souls aboard and that they had a life raft deployed alongside. Elation’s crew passed along survival instructions to the people aboard the fishing vessel and advised that they were making their way to the scene at the best speed possible in the rough conditions.

A final radio call from the Captain Eddie notified the crew of Elation that they were abandoning ship and boarding the life raft. A minute later, in the dark of night, a blinking light from the life raft could be seen on the horizon from the Elation’s bridge.

Capt. Gaetano Gigliotti, master of Carnival Elation during the rescue. Photo courtesy Carnival Cruise Lines.

From the Carnival Elation: “By 9:54 pm, the life raft light was visibly steady and the Captain skillfully maneuvered the 70,000+ ton, 260+ meter vessel at slow speed in the heavy winds and seas.

Conditions were too risky to place an Elation rescue boat in the water, so the Captain decided to maneuver Elation herself for the pickup. Turning the ship more broadly to the wind to create the best lee to bring a raft alongside presented a new challenge. The strong winds created enough starboard list on the ship, when coupled with the large swell, to risk shipping seawater directly in through the open shell doors where the pickup was planned. In addition to flooding risk, this placed the crewmembers manning the door for the rescue at greater risk, as well as the survivors in the raft of being smashed in the doorway. The Captain quickly adjusted ballast in trimming/heeling tanks to artificially compensate with a port list on the ship to ensure the doors had greater clearance from the seas as the ship rolled in place.

At high risk to life and limb, five Elation deck team members were able to get the life raft alongside Elation at 10:07 pm and had one survivor on board Elation within five minutes using a harness and hoisting line marked with glow-sticks. Regrettably, the crew ultimately learned from the survivor that his fellow Captain Eddie crewmember had refused to abandon ship and was lost when the fishing vessel rapidly sank about one hour before.”

The crew of Elation cared for the survivor for several days until he could be returned to the U.S. Carnival Elation’s crew didn’t just adhere to the time-honored traditions of the sea – answering the call for help from a fellow mariner in peril at sea – but did so in some of the worst conditions possible, aboard a ship that had been rushed out of dry dock, using backups for some critical systems, like communication.

The captain and crew of the Carnival Elation will be recognized during the AFRAS Capitol Hill maritime search and rescue awards ceremony in Washington DC, Sep. 13. The event will be hosted by Congressman Jason Lewis (R-MN) and is coordinated by the board and officers of AFRAS. The Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, as well as other senior maritime and congressional officials, will also attend.

The Cruise Ship Humanitarian Assistance Award was established in September 2016 and is presented to a Cruise Ship for recognition in taking part in a heroic rescue at sea anywhere in the world.