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.

Rescuer: “… we know he’s alive and we won’t give up!”

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Coast Guard Capt. Edward Marohn and Ben Strong, a representative from the Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue System, or AMVER, present the crew of the K. Coral with an AMVER pennant in New Haven, Connecticut, June 27, 2016. AMVER is a voluntary, worldwide search and rescue assistance program sponsored by the Coast Guard.

This is the third post in our series leading up to our annual Capitol Hill maritime lifesaving awards ceremony in Washington DC Sep. 26, telling the stories of lifesavers who went above and beyond in 2016 to save lives at sea.

The Amver participating ship K. Coral rescued 19 fishermen after they abandoned their burning vessel nearly 900 miles southeast of Bermuda in June 2016.

The Panamanian-flagged ship notified rescue personnel in Bermuda that they had spotted a large cloud of black smoke four miles from their position. The master of the K. Coral altered course and found a fishing vessel on fire with people in the water.

The Bermuda officials notified the U.S. Coast Guard who activated the Amver system and diverted two more ships, whose crews assisted in the search for people in the water.

“While we were hoisting the 17 people onto our ship, two people on a makeshift raft got separated from the group and drifted away,” said the captain of the K. Coral. The ships’ crews continued searching for the two remaining survivors for six hours.

Lookouts on the K. Coral spotted the last two people and hoisted the first survivor to safety, but lost sight of the second person in the darkness and heavy rain. “The final survivor is clinging to some debris so we know he’s alive and we won’t give up!” the captain of the K. Coral reported to Coast Guard authorities.

Two hours later, the last survivor, the master of the fishing vessel, was aboard the K. Coral. The crew of the K. Coral reported two of the survivors suffered third degree burns and were being treated in the ship’s hospital and that the K. Coral was sailing towards Bermuda so a helicopter could meet the ship and evacuate the injured survivors.

The K. Coral, now named EM Coral, is managed by SK Shipping Company Ltd. and enrolled in Amver on September 26, 2011, and has earned two Amver participation awards.

Commercial Ship Crews Rescue 45 in Atlantic, Mediterranean

We’re continuing to publish the stories of heroes we’re honoring at our Sep. 26 Capitol Hill maritime lifesaving awards ceremony in Washington DC. Here’s what the captains and crews of volunteer commercial ships did to earn Amver Special Awards this year!

Amver-participating vessels completed so many rescues during 2016 that the AFRAS Board of Directors decided that, in addition to the Amver Award for the EM Coral, two additional awards were merited for ship crews this year.

The tanker Orfeas’ crew rescued four French sailors from a disabled 50-foot sailboat in heavy seas more than 1,000 miles east of Puerto Rico in December.

The rescue operation started after authorities in Forte de France contacted U.S. Coast Guard personnel in San Juan about the disabled sailboat requesting assistance after their rudder failed.

U.S. rescue authorities utilized an Amver Surface Picture to locate and contact the 748-foot crude oil tanker, which was approximately 250 miles away from the sailboat. The captain of the Orfeas immediately agreed to divert and assist the sailors.

The Bahamian-flagged tanker was able to safely embark the four French yachtsmen despite 40-knot winds and 16-foot seas. The survivors were uninjured and remained on the Orfeas until it reached its next port of call in Gibraltar.

The Amver-participating bulk carrier Eastern Confidence rescued 41 migrants from a boat that capsized in the Mediterranean Sea in April.

The Philippines-flagged ship was alerted to the distress by the Greek Coast Guard and steamed to the distress location.

The BBC reported the migrants were on a voyage from Libya to Europe when they were transferred from one overloaded boat to another more-overcrowded boat. At some point, the wooden boat capsized, killing at least 500 people.

The 554-foot cargo ship embarked the survivors, mostly from Africa, and disembarked them in Greece.

Coast Guard Auxiliarists Save a Life on the Columbia River

AFRAS Vice President Wayne Spivak, right, presents the Chairman’s Award at the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary National Conference in Orlando.

The annual AFRAS Washington DC Capitol Hill maritime lifesaving awards ceremony is Sep. 26, so we’re publishing the stories of this year’s awardees during the build-up to the event. While most awardees will accept their honors in DC, these awards were accepted on behalf of these U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliarists at the organization’s annual national conference in Orlando last month.

This year’s Chairman’s Award was earned by two U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliarists who came to the aid of a sail boarder in distress on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest.

Auxiliarists Brian Rollins and Scott Robson, of Flotilla 73, were on a regatta patrol on the river to ensure the safety of participants in the Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge event. During the patrol, Rollins and Robson received a report of a sail boarder in distress on a different part of the river – Rollins, the coxswain, located the distressed person struggling to pull her sail board to the Oregon shore in 5-6-foot seas.

Once on scene, they witnessed three large waves wash over and push the victim under water. As Rollins carefully maneuvered his vessel as close as possible to the victim, she reportedly called out to the Auxiliarists, “Help, don’t leave me! I need help!”

Robson was able to throw a line to the victim, despite the 20-knot sustained winds, and pulled her alongside the boat while Rollins minded his helm and throttles in the rough conditions. Once alongside, it took both men to haul the exhausted victim aboard the rescue boat, then Rollins had to quickly get back to the controls to re-start the engines and keep the vessel into the wind and waves to prevent taking a wave broadside. Rollins and Robson then returned the victim safely back to port.

New Member Elected to AFRAS Board of Directors

AFRAS LogoA new member was elected the Association for Rescue at Sea’s Board of Directors during the charity’s annual meeting in Washington D.C. Sep. 21.

Cmdr. Donald E. Jaccard (USCG Ret.), of Chesapeake City, Md., joins fellow maritime and search and rescue professionals who work with association officers to manage and direct the non-profit’s operations. Jaccard is a 28-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, in which he served various ashore and afloat assignments, including a tour at the Joint Rescue Coordination Center in Honolulu and as commanding officer of three cutters. He is currently the Director for Program Management and System Engineering at McMurdo, Inc.

McMurdo is a global leader in emergency readiness and response, including search and rescue and maritime domain awareness solutions. Hundreds of customers around the world—in aviation, fishing, government, marine and military—have trusted McMurdo to prevent emergencies, protect assets and save more than 40,000 lives since 1982. McMurdo currently has a contract to provide Personal Locator Beacons to the U.S. Coast Guard and recently delivered its 1,000th unit to the rescue service.

AFRAS helps protect mariners from the perils of the sea by providing monetary and in-kind donations to world volunteer maritime search and rescue organizations. The charity also recognizes and honors extraordinary maritime rescues through an awards program and annual ceremony. AFRAS is a 501(c)3 non-profit charity. Visit afras.org to learn more about the organization, or make a charitable donation.

2016 Maritime Lifesaving Award Winners Announced

Our Board of Directors has reviewed all submissions for our annual lifesaving awards program, voted on the heroes most deserving of recognition and have selected the following awardees:

  • Vice Admiral Thomas Sargent III Gold Medal – Aviation Survival Technician 1st Class Benjamin Cournia, U.S. Coast Guard
  • Silver Medal – Mr. Patrick Porter, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary
  • AMVER Award – Crew of the cruise ship Veendam, Holland America Line
  • AMVER Special Award – Crew of the training ship State of Maine, Maine Maritime Academy
Petty Officer 1st Class Ben Cournia, a rescue swimmer at Air Station Clearwater, Fla., poses for a photo after being awarded the Coast Guard Air Medal at the station Feb. 24, 2016. Cournia was honored for saving 12 lives during Hurricane Joaquin. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Auxiliarist Joe Perez)
Petty Officer 1st Class Ben Cournia, a rescue swimmer at Air Station Clearwater, Fla., poses for a photo after being awarded the Coast Guard Air Medal at the station Feb. 24, 2016. Cournia was honored for saving 12 lives during Hurricane Joaquin. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Auxiliarist Joe Perez)

Petty Officer Cournia, a helicopter rescue swimmer from Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, was nominated for the Gold Medal for a rescue on the evening of Oct. 1, 2015, during which his heroic actions saved 12 lives from the sinking 212-foot freighter Minouche. The crew of the Minouche abandoned ship 60 miles west of Haiti, and just 90 miles from the eye of Hurricane Joaquin, which was a raging category four storm. Cournia and the other rescuers aboard two Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopters battled 15-foot seas and 50-knot winds to complete the rescues.

The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard rescue helicopters who rescued 12 mariners in the Caribbean while Hurricane Joaquin raged. They are displaying a personal flotation device from the freighter Minouche, with details of the rescue case written on it. Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater.
The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard rescue helicopters who rescued 12 mariners in the Caribbean while Hurricane Joaquin raged. They are displaying a personal flotation device from the freighter Minouche, with details of the rescue case written on it. Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater.

Cournia battled churning seas to get survivors from their life raft – which was continuously blown hundreds of yards away from the rescue scene – into the helicopter’s rescue basket for hoisting to safety. He spent two hours in the water to rescue the first eight, then had to be hoisted himself so the helicopter could return to their forward operating base in the Bahamas for fuel. The crew was back on-scene an hour later, but after Cournia rescued the ninth survivor, a malfunction aboard the helicopter forced the crew to once again return to base – this time to switch airframes and return to the scene a third time and deploy Cournia into the turbulent water, where he expertly completed the rescue of the three final survivors.

Auxiliarist Porter was nominated for the Silver Medal for actions that potentially prevented critical injury or death to two participants of the 2015 Bullhead City River Regatta, an event in Arizona that attracted more than 35,000 participants for tube-floating on a six-mile stretch of the Colorado River. During his patrol, Porter witnessed a person swimming against the current of the river without a personal flotation device, and then go under the water three times, due to fatigue. Porter rescued the individual by pulling him aboard his personal watercraft. Later that day, he witnessed another participant, among the thousands of people in the water, unconscious and foaming and the mouth – he rescued this individual and transported her to another vessel with emergency medical technicians aboard. During both rescues, Porter had to navigate carefully through the throngs of participants crowding the river, ensuring his own safety, the safety of others and the safety of the rescuees.

The Amver participating ship Veendam’s crew rescued the pilot from a single engine plane after he ditched his aircraft in the ocean, after experiencing fuel and engine problems, 200 miles northeast of Maui, Hawaii, Jan. 25, 2015. U.S. Coast Guard authorities launched rescue assets after the initial call for help, but found that the Veendam was in the path of the aircraft, using the Amver system. After the aircraft hit the water, the pilot got into his life raft and was quickly recovered by the crew of the Veendam. The pilot was uninjured and remained on the ship until it reached its next port of call.

The Amver participating ship State of Maine rescued a lone sailor after his sailboat began taking on water 520 miles southeast of Halifax, Canada, June 10, 2015. After the initial call for help, U.S. Coast Guard authorities launched search and rescue aircraft from both the U.S. and Canada, but soon discovered, using the Amver system, that the State of Maine was only 29 miles away from the sailor in distress and was willing to divert to attempt a rescue. Cadets aboard the ship readied rescue equipment, fast rescue boats and rigged a Jacob’s ladder to allow the sailor to board the ship. Within a few hours of the initial notification, the survivor was safely aboard the training ship.

The Association for Rescue at Sea will present these maritime lifesaving awards at our annual awards ceremony. The event will be held at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington D.C., Sep. 21, hosted by Congressman Duncan Hunter, Chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Coast Guard Subcommittee.

AFRAS Vice President on Motion Picture “The Finest Hours”

Association for Rescue at Sea Vice President Wayne Spivak is featured on this radio interview with the program Breakthrough Entertainment to talk about AFRAS and its missions, sea rescue challenges and Disney’s motion picture “The Finest Hours.” The movie details the U.S. Coast Guard’s historic 1952 Pendleton rescue, during a fierce storm off Chatham, Mass. Have a listen:

AFRAS Supports Rescuers in Mediterranean and Aegean

Refugees crossing the Mediterranean sea on a boat, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016.
Refugees crossing the Mediterranean sea on a boat, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016.

“I’ve been alone in a life raft out of sight of land, and it’s not a good feeling – even when it’s just training and you know they’re coming back for you,” said retired U.S. Coast Guard Captain and helicopter pilot Dana Goward. “I can’t imagine what it’s like if you’re also fleeing for your life, have your children with you and have no idea if you will be rescued.”

Goward is Chairman of the Association for Rescue at Sea (AFRAS), a U.S. charity that supports volunteer humanitarian maritime rescue organizations around the world.

“Most people in America don’t realize it, because we have such a strong Coast Guard,” said Charles “Skip” Bowen, President of AFRAS, “But most of the world’s sea rescue services are charities with volunteer crews. They rely almost entirely on donations from individuals and companies for funding.” Bowen’s last posting during his active duty military career was as Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, the service’s highest ranking enlisted member.

Volunteer services from across Europe have responded to the maritime refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas by deploying boats and crews. They have saved tens of thousands of lives. “While governments run the Rescue Coordination Centers and issue press releases, it’s often the charities and their volunteers who are actually pulling survivors from the water,” said Goward. “They do many, if not most, of the rescues.”

Responding to the crisis for the last few years has strained the budgets of these charities, many of which are operating far from their home bases.

AFRAS raises money in the United States to support these organizations. “People in the U.S. can make tax deductible donations to AFRAS, and we use it where it is critically needed worldwide,” said Bowen. “Donors can specify which maritime rescue service they want to support, or leave it to us to ensure it gets where it’s needed most.” Bowen likes to quote retired Admiral Thad Allen, former Coast Guard Commandant, who once said, “Beyond any other consideration, safety of life at sea is paramount.”

Individuals and organizations wanting to make donations can do so through our website donation page. Corporations and donors making larger contributions will be recognized at a reception and ceremony on Capitol Hill in September. The event will be hosted by Congressmen Duncan Hunter and John Garamendi. Other members of Congress, senior Coast Guard, MARAD and industry leaders also attend.