IT ALL BEGAN IN THE ARCHIPELAGO OF SABANA
Article and Photos by Al Jacobson and Jeffrey Codallo
One of my bucket trips was to see the Panama Canal again, and we boarded the Coral Princess for ten days of cruising, relaxation, eating to extinction, and sightseeing in Aruba, Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia and Jamaica. We left out of Ft. Lauderdale on April 5th and for the next ten days refueled my batteries as I had only brought my small photo kit and NO CELL PHONES OR TABLETS.
Things were as planned till the last sea day heading back to Ft. Lauderdale when the klaxon went off. Most of the 3000 passengers and crew of the CORAL PRINCESS had the opportunity to see a real rescue on the open waters of the Archipelago de Sabana, near Sagua La Grande, just south of the Florida Straits. We were twenty-five plus miles off the northern shore of Cuba about 80 miles east by southeast of Havana.
Our first alert was an alarm and then the Captain came over the speakers, “A vessel in distress call” was announced and the crew took to their positions, following the letter of the marine law and the more importantly the humanity involved. A successful rescue took place but possibly not to a happy conclusion. These seven men were really in trouble very far from land and few other ships or vessels were in sight. Without proper flotation devices, had we missed them, I doubt seriously they would have made it.
A passenger (I was told) alerted the bridge they had spotted the craft riding haphazardly and low in the water, and under existing Maritime rules, the Coral Princess did a 180 degree turn back to lend assistance to the distressed vessel.
The Captain announced a slight diversion to our course, alerted and confirmed a vessel in distress, and immediately he went to their aid. While traveling at 19+ knots it takes a while to turn three football fields plus (965 Ft.) around and reverse direction.
Gingerly, the Captain put our vessel on the upwind side to shelter the small 16-17 footer from the wind and waves forming a lee side and the tender and crew with medical staff were sent to assess and assist.
The small vessel was obviously in poor shape, taking water and the refugees appeared to be not much
better not having potable water.
Naturally caution must be exercised since we did not know exactly why they were there , who they were and intentions, possibility of weapons, explosives, health issues, etc.
Observations: Off Cuba’s north coast, few provisions on board, vastly overloaded, either this was an escape from something (the striped shirt coincidence led to much speculation) or a grossly mis-planned act of those not familiar with the sea, sailing ability or motors 101.
It was not a fishing expedition. We were too far for this crew to reach anywhere as it would have rivaled a similar marine story of Mutiny on the Bounty’s Captain Bligh’s historic venture of 3500 miles.
We were still a couple hundred miles from either Key West, Marathon,Islamorada, or Miami. Possibly the Bahamas National Park about 100 miles away was their destination. A fairly barren place.
Professional Crew: The Coral Princess crew handled every one of those questions in a professional and positive manner inspecting everything on the small boat, which I dubbed the “Leaky Tiki” The ships Cruise Director keep everyone advised of what was going on and then “Man Overboard” signal came over the speakers.
As usual, some passengers thought someone went over the rail trying to get the shot of a lifetime. I think this was more precautionary, part of a protocol and not that indicative of someone going for a swim. It’s more of a all hands “eyes on” in case someone from the rescued vessel did go overboard.
Simple, more eyes better chances, it’s a big ocean. It was rescinded as soon as everyone was back on board. This is a very polished and professional crew and all those drills count.
Personal endorsement: I am truly confident my next booking will be on a Princess Cruise, they just did everything right, cuisine not just food, accommodations and the new beds are unreal, style, class, service beyond imagination decor and just about the best cruise we have taken including those luxury cruises.
Safety: All those drills frequent cruise passengers hate… they turn to love as soon as something does go wrong
The rubber tubes, styrofoam and mattresses really don’t count well as personal flotation devices, the sails were useless, she was shipping water, and we had just come through a few small rain showers. No one could identify the engine shown in the pictures, didn’t matter as obviously it didn’t work either. Looks like a homemade adaptation of a motorcycle size pump motor with a shaft connected to a small prop.
The sails were light canvas with wooden spars and mast and handmade paddles or a usable paddle. The rudder was a simple “S’ design. Quite a unique homemade effort. Maybe OK for fishing a small inlet with shallow water. This was ocean, this area specifically known for it currents, shallows and wind. I have sailed it before.
Little or no food and water was found and they were quickly taken to a secure area to receive medical attention, food, water, dry clothes.
Everything on their vessel, actually a homemade skiff was held together with rope, using styrofoam, tire tubes, and wire as you can see in the pictures. No guns, bombs, or anything else was found.
Unfortunately there was no way or equipment to facilitate lifting or could be affixed to the vessel, to save her or get her on board. Towing was out of the question, damage to half million dollar variable props too risky, and there was no reason to save the mini-vessel, it was sinking all by itself. In nautical terms, she would become a sea anchor”.
Removing seven men at estimated 1300 pounds allowed the “Leaky Tiki” to float higher but not for long. Cast adrift and left unchecked we believe she might have gone to the bottom, since we lost sight in ten minutes. If not maybe someone else caught the distress from our radio, doubtful as there was no radio on the little boat, and that solved that. The ships Medical team pronounced them in good condition after they were treated for the obvious.
We continued to Ft. Lauderdale and then home, with conversations as to what would happen to them. We were not going to dock in Cuba, nor any other port, than Ft. Lauderdale as the ship was scheduled for another Panama run the same day we landed, refitted and off again. We arrived on time and within two hours, had our luggage and fought the traffic in Ft. Lauderdale to get to I-75 to Tampa.
THE FINALITY OF IT ALL - YET FUTURE IS UNKNOWN
The Coast Guard Cutter Robert Yered, CG1104 home-ported in Miami, is 154-feet long, has a beam of 25-feet, and has a maximum sustained speed of more than 28 knots.
It took our refugees (term is due to unknown status) from the Coral Princess in the early morning of April the 14th. The shot in the dark of the Yered is info date stamped 4:52 AM by the camera. It became transportation for seven Cuban refugees (Again, note their information and status not determined at this time)
Wet Foot/Dry Foot: They most likely were taken to Miami, the home port for the Yered and transferred to immigration authorities. Most likely due to the law they will be returned to Cuba.
Commonly called the wet foot/dry foot law. The wet foot, dry foot policy is the name given to a consequence of the 1995 revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 that essentially says that anyone who fled Cuba and entered the United States would be allowed to pursue residency a year later.
After talks with the Cuban government, the Clinton administration came to an agreement with Cuba that it would stop admitting people intercepted in US waters. Since then, in what has become known as the "Wet foot, Dry foot" policy, a Cuban caught on the waters between the two nations (with "wet feet") would summarily be sent home or to a third country. One who makes it to shore (“dry feet") gets a chance to remain in the United States, and later would qualify for expedited "legal permanent resident" status and eventually US citizenship.
Treated Humanly: They were brought on board, through the pilot port, further accessed and given food and water, allowed to clean up, fuel and salt water are not good for the skin, and the Medical officer said they were in good condition. That basically was the last time any of the passengers saw them, their transfer and entry to the Coral Princess.
My friend of two days on board, photographer Jeffry Codallo was in journalism terms, what we call, “ In the right place at the right time”. When the ship turned the starboard side (the right side) blanketed the action. My cabin was on the port side. Even better it was literally under his terrace and he had a few clear shots at the action. He caught it all! With 2000 passengers, 900 crew plus seven newcomers it was hard to get to the starboard side and the joke was we were betting the ship was listing to starboard.
The Finali: It was still night, we were preceding on with our voyage to Ft. Lauderdale. We slowed to a halt near the Dahlia Inlet. Our rescued guests appeared to have been lucky and literally minutes from sinking, and now were transferred to the Cutter at 4:52 AM in the dark, by a smaller rubber crew served boat which was extremely fast, hard to get a shot of with only running lights and made the transfer in two runs while most of the passengers on the Princess were asleep.
Since I sleep with one eye open, a trait I picked up in the military, something woke me, I have no idea what, I managed to get one shot off in total darkness of the transfer and one of the CG Cutter Robert Yered (Anything over 65 feet in the USCG is a Cutter for you boat nerds). Their fate is in the hands of the Coast Guard and the system. We proceeded and docked at Ft. Lauderdale Pier Two.
The Coral Princesses’s crew and leadership handled this situation, professionally, humanly and all that training showed in the process. As we say when something is done right, “they were spot on”.