Battling 30-knot winds, 25-foot swells and complete darkness, Green Lake maneuvered alongside an overboard mariner from the burning vehicle carrier Sincerity Ace. More than an hour later, the exhausted man clung to Green Lake’s pilot ladder while crew tried to coax him up the last few rungs.
The mariner struggled for nearly 45 minutes as the 655-foot U.S.-flagged vehicle carrier pitched in the swell. He fell several times but each time managed to regain his footing on the ladder. Finally, he succumbed to exhaustion, slipped into the water and drifted away.
His death stunned Green Lake’s crew, who had worked together to try to save the man in a desolate corner of the Pacific Ocean about 1,800 nautical miles northwest of Honolulu. Green Lake Capt. William Boyce saw the devastation on his crew’s faces. But as they continued toward the burning ship, he reminded them there were more people to save.
Green Lake ultimately rescued seven people from Sincerity Ace despite extremely challenging conditions. Other ships rescued nine more people, but five crew died in the incident. For their actions, Boyce and his crew earned a certificate of commendation from the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and the Gallant Ship Citation and Merchant Marine Medals for Outstanding Achievement from the U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd).
“What has gotten lost in all the accolades is the performance of the crew of Green Lake,” Boyce told Professional Mariner. “They worked together as a team during a real long, tough, emotional day under extreme conditions.”
The 650-foot Panama-flagged Sincerity Ace left Yokohama, Japan, for Honolulu with 3,500 vehicles a few days before the incident. Crew spotted the fire below deck late on Dec. 30, 2018. The flames quickly grew out of control and spread to other decks. Crew took refuge in the wheelhouse while awaiting help from nearby ships.
Sincerity Ace was in Yokohama when Green Lake arrived for a load of vehicles bound for Vancouver, British Columbia. Green Lake’s roundabout route to Canada stemmed from severe storms in the North Pacific, but it brought the ship within 47 miles of Sincerity Ace when the distress call went out at 2300. Boyce ordered his ship full speed ahead to the stricken vessel’s last known position.
Green Lake reached that location about three hours after the distress call. Lookouts noticed life rings in the water and a strobe light blinking. As the ship got closer, crew heard a whistle and then a voice calling for help. Without searchlights to illuminate the area, they aimed hand-held lights at the mariner while others coordinated the rescue from the pilot door roughly 10 feet above the water.
A U.S. Coast Guard air crew flies over Sincerity Ace as the vehicle carrier burns on Dec. 31, 2018, in the North Pacific. The plane dropped rescue supplies to the bulk carrier Genco Augustus, which can be seen in the background. In the foreground is the U.S.-flagged vehicle carrier Green Lake, which rescued seven people from Sincerity Ace.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
Conditions worsened during the ordeal, with winds gusting to 30 knots and waves reaching 25 feet. The man clung to the pilot ladder for nearly an hour before letting go. Boyce learned the man’s fate from a deck officer who said, “Captain, he’s gone.”
That mariner was one of four who fell into the sea while trying to launch a lifeboat during a chaotic period after Sincerity Ace caught fire. Green Lake crewmembers spotted the lifeboat about 15 minutes after collectively regrouping from when the mariner drifted away.
Boyce guided his ship alongside the lifeboat and suddenly spotted someone inside. In a matter of seconds, the man leapt onto the pilot ladder and climbed on board Green Lake. This was the first of seven people Boyce and his crew would rescue.
Green Lake remained in radio contact with Sincerity Ace throughout the ordeal. Conditions were increasingly dire. The remaining 17 crew huddled in the wheelhouse, where toxic smoke had made it hard to breathe. Cars exploded below deck, while metal on the boat deck was white-hot. Crew reported their survival suits melted as they crossed the deck, and smoke kept them from launching any more lifeboats or life rafts.
As conditions got worse, crew aboard Sincerity Ace left the wheelhouse for the forward end of the boat deck. They found a rope and lowered it to the water to escape as darkness lifted. As Green Lake came within a quarter-mile of the burning ship, the rescuers watched as several crew fell nearly 10 stories to the water. At about the same time, a U.S. Coast Guard HC-130 from Honolulu arrived overhead, dropping life rafts into the ocean.
Green Lake’s crewmembers each played critical roles in the rescue. Under the guidance of chief mate Kevin Camarda, engineering crew worked with the deck crew to jury-rig the bunker crane with a harness to lift Sincerity Ace mariners out of the water. Second mate Chelsea Martin worked the bridge telegraph, thruster, satellite phone and Coast Guard communications, all while keeping a detailed log. Third mate Matt Morgan served as a lookout as the hulking ship approached each survivor in the water.
Other crewmembers performed just as admirably, from the bridge crew to the cooks, who stepped up and continued to feed the crew and the survivors throughout the ordeal.
“It was rewarding to me as a captain to witness how every single person in the crew contributed and responded, where and when they were needed the most, with little direction from me,” Boyce said. “The emotional trauma that the crew and particularly the survivors experienced was very real, as the highs and lows of that day really took a toll on all of us.”
Boyce said the seven survivors all required medical attention. Some were hypothermic and others were severely traumatized. For instance, the cook aboard Sincerity Ace hit his head on the ship’s bulbous bow after falling from the rope. He was nearly sucked into the propeller of another good Samaritan ship that attempted three times to rescue him before Green Lake intervened.
The rescue took nearly 18 hours to complete. Boyce and his crew were mentally and physically exhausted. Green Lake diverted to Honolulu, five days away, to drop off the Sincerity Ace survivors. Eight days after departing Hawaii, Green Lake arrived in Vancouver.
The rescue turned heads around the world. The IMO commendation cited the “exceptional seamanship, tenacity and leadership” of Green Lake’s captain and crew during the rescue. U.S. Maritime Administrator Mark Buzby praised the crew, operator Seabulk and owner Waterman Transport Inc. during a recent ceremony in New York.
“Green Lake was there to respond in the time-honored tradition of mariners coming to the aid of fellow mariners,” Buzby said when presenting the Gallant Ship Citation and Merchant Marine Medals. “This American-trained crew highlights the professionalism and valor of our nation’s mariners.”
Boyce, who is nearing retirement, said the rescue will stay with him for the rest of his life. He said it highlighted the need for proper retrieval gear on vehicle carriers and containerships with high freeboard to rescue mariners during extreme conditions. Boyce also called for high-wattage, narrow-beam searchlights to be installed on the wings of all ships.
“Simulator training on maneuvering and bringing a large ship alongside a spent survivor in extreme sea conditions should be established,” he said.
The incident and its aftermath also called attention to the lasting mental effects on mariners following a traumatic event. Boyce recalled struggling to help his crew as they worked through the emotional trauma. Seabulk and Waterman arranged for support and resources as the ship arrived in Vancouver, a step that Boyce said was “extremely helpful.”
“I am now a firm believer of the importance and value of counseling, or at the very least talking through the events with someone off the ship,” he said. “One rarely experiences trauma at sea, but when it happens, the need is real. So is the associated stigma of trying to hide one’s true feelings and keep it inside.”