I wanted to take a minute to tell you all about an incident on our recent passage from the Canary Islands to the Cape Verdes. It is something that I’m confident no one onboard will ever forget.
On November 9, we were about 150 miles south of Gran Canaria and 120 miles off the coast of Western Sahara, 24 hours into a 6-day passage. At approximately 1430 local time, 19 shipmates were below decks having a class with [The Captain] while 5 shipmates and the remaining staff worked on deck. The helmsman whistled to alert me of a small powerboat approaching [our boat] off our port side, closing on us quickly. Being so far from shore in any direction, this was immediately cause for concern. After a hurried glance through the binoculars, I decided that given our location, in waters with active piracy alerts, the situation was serious enough to pull [The Captain} out of class. He came on deck and sent our shipmates who were on deck down below.
As the boat approached us at about 15 kts (our boat would have maxed out at about 9 kts under power in the given conditions), we could see through the binoculars that there appeared to be a large number of African men onboard. Per our anti-piracy standing orders, we called all male shipmates on deck and told the females to remain out of sight down below. The boys filed up on deck and stood tall on the rail facing the approaching boat as our first mate got the engine started and [The Captain] altered our course to evade them. When it was apparent that we were taking evasive action, the approaching boat turned parallel to us and cut their engine. They then began waving orange flags from the bow and stern. With their beam to us, we could see the boat clearly through the binoculars and it became apparent that this was a purpose-built open wooden boat, about 50 ft long and filled with upwards of 50 African refugees, looking to be in rough shape. As we motored away from them, they did not make any attempts to pursue us but continued to wave the flags for quite some time. This was a moral dilemma – per international maritime law, we are required to offer assistance to any mariner in distress and waving a flag back and forth is an international sign of distress. But we could not afford to risk the lives and safety of our 24 students onboard by staying in the vicinity of a boat more maneuverable than us, filled with people who easily outnumbered us and had nothing left to lose.
No longer fearing piracy, we called the female shipmates on deck and held an impromptu meeting, the result of which was that none of us could live with ourselves if we left these people to die in the ocean without rendering assistance. We turned [our vessel] around and headed back towards the boat. Meanwhile, we were looking up the contact information for the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Las Palmas and getting together some supplies to offer to the boat. We filled mesh bags with 10 gallons of our emergency water, canned food with easy-open tops, and loaves of bread in watertight bags. This we tied to a large mooring ball we’d found floating a few days earlier, then dropped the whole thing over the side and motored away, leaving it to be picked up by the refugees. They started their engine and picked up the supplies, cutting the engine again as soon as they had them onboard. We began to understand then that on top of the other grave conditions onboard, these people were also running dangerously low on fuel and conserving all they could. At first they were grateful, with several of them waving their hats and others standing up and praising us with big bowing motions. Soon though, they began waving the distress flags again, shouting and this time, waving jugs of fuel in the air too. We motored back towards them and siphoned 5 gallons of fuel into an old oil container. It wasn’t much, but it was all we could afford to lose given that this has been a windless passage. At the same time, our shipmates began scouring their bunks for all the nuts and dried fruit and bottles of water that they’d hoarded in Las Palmas in anticipation of our passage. We included a fishing line and a hand bearing compass and this time tied the whole thing to a few spare life jackets and repeated the process of floating supplies to them.
By now, we had been on the scene for almost 2 hours and [The Captain] had been in touch with the office back in the States and the rescue center in Las Palmas. The office gave us implicit instructions to not stay on the scene and with the location relayed to the rescue center, we headed off, everyone feeling pretty lousy that we were leaving these people to potentially die alone in the middle of the ocean, having only prolonged their lives and not saved them. We were all quietly doubtful that the rescue center would do anything given how far offshore these people were and how many of them were onboard. But later in the afternoon we saw the search and rescue planes flying overhead and overheard the radio transmissions of the planes standing by while a tug was dispatched from Las Palmas, arriving sometime last night to tow the men to safety in the Canary Islands.
We do not know what will happen to these people once they arrive in the Canaries and we cannot say for sure where they were coming from. The office did some research for us and reported that an estimated 800 people leave Africa by boat each day, bound for the Canaries. It is their closest in to the European Union. Here on [our vessel], we cannot imagine living in conditions so harsh and so terrifying that it would even be a choice to take to sea on a long ocean passage in the conditions we witnessed onboard this boat. The reaction by our shipmates is varied – some did not see the scene through the binoculars or a zoom lens and remain detached from the experience. Others were deeply disturbed by the things they witnessed and will likely live forever with some of the images. I will not go into graphic details as it’s not something any of us wish to sensationalize or to even relive in our minds, but these were desperate people in a way that I have never witnessed such raw desperation. The sight was the most sorrowful and pitiful thing I have ever seen, far worse than any of the third world countries we have visited. It is frustrating to be unable to help and to stare in the face something so far beyond our comprehension. Daily life on our boat continues today but I think that at least for now, we are all a little nicer to one another, a little more willing to help, a little more appreciative of everything we have. I hope all of you will be too.