In challenging maneuver, Woods Hole ship saves 93 Egyptians from overcrowded boat

The Woods Hole research vessel, Atlantis, rescued 93 Egyptian migrants from a small wooden boat in the Mediterranean Sea with winds blowing at 25 to 30 knots in four- to six-foot seas.

The 274-foot Atlantis, one of five vessels on the scene, was asked to do the rescue because of its maneuverability.

Atlantis left Piraeus, Greece, on Nov. 25, 2011, heading south of the Peloponnese to conduct research on Mediterranean brine pools using remotely operated vehicles and other instruments. The vessel is owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, based in Massachusetts.

The 270-foot research ship Atlantis rescued 93 Egyptian migrants from a foundering vessel in the Mediterranean Sea. (Photo courtesy Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

At about 2000 local time, the Joint Rescue Coordination Center in Piraeus sent out a mayday call from a 66-foot wooden vessel in distress. A passenger made the call using a cell phone. The vessel was a harbor freight boat.

Atlantis was about 30 nm from the scene, according to Capt. A.D. Colburn. When Atlantis arrived, there were four other vessels on scene: the 5,462-gross-ton vehicle carrier City of Hamburg, 30,053-gross-ton chemical carrier Minerva Grace, 23,382-gross-ton chemical tanker Fabrizia D'Amato and 14,807-gross-ton containership Uni Assure. As the first to respond, City of Hamburg was the on-scene coordinator. A helicopter from the Hellenic Coast Guard was present.

The wooden vessel was tied up on the starboard side of Minerva Grace, providing a lee from the northerly wind. However, none of the men boarded the tanker. Minerva Grace's captain told Colburn why. "A lot of them are smoking, and I just can't control that," the chemical tanker's captain said, according to Colburn's account. "If I get them on my ship, there is a possibility that I will save them from the (wooden) boat and we will all blow up on the tanker."

The rescue coordination center asked Atlantis to pick up the migrants at 2200.

Colburn said he was not concerned about potential terrorism or piracy. There had been no piracy warnings for the Mediterranean. He took standard security precautions, raising the ship from Maritime Security (MARSEC) Level 1 to MARSEC Level 2, which meant a full lockdown.

A crowd of passengers transfers to the research vessel from their 66-foot boat. (Photo courtesy Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

The rescue coordination center had said there were as many as 150 people on board, including 40 women and children. Minerva Grace's captain said there were only men on board and no sign of any weapons. "They seem very peaceable," the captain said.

Communication was a challenge. Of the 93 migrants, only one man spoke any English. The only Arabic speaker among the five vessels was on City of Hamburg, which relayed messages via VHF radio to the captain of the wooden vessel. City of Hamburg told the wooden vessel that Minerva Grace would let its lines go and Atlantis would handle the rescue.

Atlantis came around the stern of Minerva Grace, parallel to the chemical tanker's starboard side. The wooden vessel was still tied to Minerva Grace. The captain of the wooden vessel was told to maneuver to the starboard side of Atlantis, to be in the lee of the research vessel. The wooden vessel came across the bow of Atlantis to get to its starboard side. "They had great difficulty in maneuvering and they actually slammed into us," said Colburn. “It (was) in dangerous gale conditions" and overloaded, he said.

Due to the lockdown, Colburn had only a dozen crew to handle the transfer. It took about an hour to get all the men on board. That was "a hell of a lot of time, with rough weather and their boat rocking alongside," Colburn said. "That boat is believed to be sinking and there are a lot of men to get off — it was like the little car in the circus when the clowns kept getting out. You think, how can you get that many people on board?"

In addition, the cleats were ripping off the wooden vessel so Atlantis had to tie the boat up again two or three times. Most of the men were in their 20s and just had small bags. They had wet feet. The migrants had been at sea for four days and thought they were going to Italy.

The distressed vessel is tied up alongside Atlantis. (Photo courtesy Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

While the men came aboard Atlantis, Colburn was on the port side bridge wing using the bow and stern thrusters to push his vessel to starboard to remain parallel to Minerva Grace, about 100 yards away. Colburn asked Minerva Grace to move forward a couple times to keep Atlantis in the lee from the 30 knot winds.

When the men came aboard Atlantis, they were sent aft. They took shelter in the hanger where the research submarine Alvin is normally kept, which is about 20 feet by 70 feet with 20-foot high ceilings. It was 50 degrees and raining. At the time of rescue, the men had no food except for pieces of honeycomb, which they offered to the crew.

Once on board, the first request from the men was for cigarettes and cognac. "We're fine on the cigarettes, but no luck on the cognac," Colburn said. Crewmembers donated socks and shoes and the cook provided bread and peanut butter. All the men were on board by midnight.

Atlantis took the men to the Greek port of Kalamata, about 86 nm from the rescue scene. It resumed the research mission Nov. 27.

By Professional Mariner Staff