It is a long-standing tradition of the sea to stop and render assistance to fellow seamen in distress. That’s simply the right and moral thing to do.
And the mariner who today comes to the aid of his sailing brother knows he might well find himself in dire straits tomorrow and be in need of a similar helping hand. That’s the way of the sea.
It’s also international maritime law, contained in Regulation 33 of the International Convention for the Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) Chapter V and Article 98 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
That time-honored practice appears to have been scuttled recently with tragic consequences as reports surfaced in April that a cruise ship steamed past three young Panamanian fishermen who were adrift in the Pacific about 130 miles off the coast after their small boat had broken down. Two of the three subsequently died from dehydration and exposure; the third was rescued near the Galapagos Islands after 28 days adrift.
Two weeks earlier, however, the Star Princess cruise ship passed about a mile off the castaways as two of the men frantically waved for help.
The fishermen, ages 16, 18 and 24, were spotted by three bird-watchers aboard the Star Princess who were using spotting scopes and powerful binoculars to look for seabirds.
The birders alerted a member of the crew, who looked through one of the scopes and placed a call to the bridge, relaying what the bird-watchers reported they saw, according to news reports.
The ship did not stop or change its course. Concerned when the ship did not turn around, Judy Meredith, of Bend, Ore., one of the bird enthusiasts, sent a message to the Coast Guard from the ship by way of the agency’s website and recorded the position of the ship by jotting down the latitude/longitude posted on a television in a cabin. One of the threesome took a photo of the drifting panga through a telephoto lens.
When the cruise was over, Meredith contacted Princess Cruises to follow up on the small boat that appeared to be in trouble. She told reporters that a customer service representative from the cruise line presented a story that was different from what she witnessed.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Meredith says the Princess Cruises representative told her the captain determined that the ship was approaching an area where fishermen had their nets set, so he altered course. And the men waving their shirts? That was their way of saying thank you, Meredith was told by the cruise ship representative.
When the birders later read about a young fisherman being rescued after four weeks at sea in a disabled boat, they asked themselves whether it could possibly be the same small vessel they spotted.
Don Winner, an American-born blogger living in Panama, interviewed the surviving fisherman and the bird-watchers and broke the story. The lone survivor gave Winner his account of the ordeal, including the afternoon they signaled desperately to try to get the attention of the cruise ship.
“It was a really big, white ship,” 18-year-old Adrian Vasquez told Winner, who writes for Panama-Guide.com. “I was waving a red T-shirt and Fernando [Osario] was waving a bright orange life jacket over his head. For a minute it looked like they were going to turn to come for us, but then they just went on their way.”
Vasquez said Oropeces Betancourt, 24, died the next day and 16-year-old Osario five days later.
Princess Cruises, which is owned by Carnival, said it was conducting its own internal investigation.
“Princess Cruises is dedicated to the highest standards of seamanship wherever our ships sail and we understand it is our duty to assist any vessel in distress,” the company said in a statement. “We have come to the aid of many people at sea, and we will continue to do so.”
Meredith told reporters she felt “sick” over what the three men and their families endured.
“Three people were alive on the day they saw us and the day we saw them,” she told NPR. “They tried everything they could think of to signal us. And our boat went by and his buddy died that night.”
Fernando Osario and Oropeces Betancourt — two men the sea should not have claimed.
“To sit in the rain on a small deck, on a dark and squally night at sea, when one’s only diversion is vomiting….”
— Frank Wightman
This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue.