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Cruising Rally crew saves a life at sea

Yacht participating in an annual bluewater event comes across a fishing boat adrift in the Caribbean

Yacht participating in an annual bluewater event comes across a fishing boat adrift in the Caribbean

The crew of a yacht sailing in the World Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) plucked a fisherman from the water in pre-dawn darkness off Aruba, but they couldn’t find three others who had abandoned their skiff with him after setting it ablaze to signal for help.

Watchstanders on TilliMint, an 82-foot Oyster from the U.K., heard a faint cry about 3 a.m. Jan. 26 as the yacht ran before a 25-knot wind, about 175 miles east of Aruba, said Andrew Bishop, the rally’s managing director.

Bishop, who was on the radio with TilliMint during the rescue, said the crew dropped sail and turned the yacht around. As they motored upwind to search for the source of the cry, they saw something burning. It was Vegas, a small open fishing skiff with an engine that had broken down off St. Lucia 20 days earlier. Its St. Lucian crew had been adrift since, Bishop said. Fearful that TilliMint’s crew hadn’t seen them, the fishermen had set a small fire, but it got out of hand and they jumped overboard.

Bishop said the fishermen had taken the desperate measure of turning their boat into a signal flare because so many vessels had passed without seeing them.

“They were worried that they hadn’t been seen again,” he said.

Crew on TilliMint found Sherman John, a St. Lucian fisherman, in the water near the boat, but in the wind and 4- to 6-foot seas they couldn’t find the others. They likely were dehydrated and very weak — “exhausted,” like John, Bishop said.

While TilliMint’s crew continued to search in the dark, Bishop called the MarineRescueCoordinatingCenter in Curacao for help from the Netherlands Coast Guard. At first light, the Netherlands Coast Guard vessel Jaguar, other World ARC yachts — Southern Princess, Grey Lady, Harmonie, Blue Flier and Strega — and a U.S. Coast Guard aircraft joined the search but found no sign of the others.

Sherman “was pretty lucky to be alive,” Bishop said. TilliMint’s crew were “upset” that they hadn’t saved all four, but “it was the middle of the night, pitch black in a medium sea and strong winds,” Bishop said. “The people had been on their boat 20 days. They were extremely weak and dehydrated.”

TilliMint, owned — according to the rally scratch sheet — by Bill Mapstone, a U.K. yachtsman and food industry executive, is among 38 yachts sailing around the world in the 15-month World ARC Rally. The fleet departed St. Lucia Jan. 27.

Bishop, who has been organizing cruise rallies for 20 years, says in 2006 during the ARC from Grand CanaryIsland to St. Lucia, an entry came across a small boat with 15 illegal immigrants aboard it 400 miles southwest of the Canaries. Reportedly, the boat had left Africa with 34 immigrants aboard it and had been adrift for some time. Authorities called in a hospital ship to take them aboard while the crew of the yacht stood by.