Rescue At Sea: Crew of Union-Contracted Ocean Titan Saves Lives of Seven Foreign Mariners


February 2012


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Seven European mariners, a mixture of Russian, Polish and Ukrainian nationalities, today are alive and well thanks to their heroic December 2011 rescue by the crew from the SIU–contracted Ocean Titan.


The Ocean Titan is operated by Pacific-Gulf Marine for Intermarine, Inc. It is manned in the unlicensed positions by SIU members and in the licensed slots by members of the Seafarers-affiliated American Maritime Officers.


Seafarers aboard the Ocean Titan at the time of the rescue included Bosun Magdy Balat, ABs Hilario Rochez, James Luttrell and Miguel Angel Matos, QMED Electrician Michael Kelly, GUDE Stephon Thompson, Steward/Baker Lawrence Winfield and ACU Steven Holmes.


Crew members aboard the bulk carrier MV Florece, the foreign mariners, had taken to lifeboats when their vessel sank following an at-sea collision with the chemical tanker M/V Afrodite. The accident occurred at about 3:30 a.m. Dec. 9 approximately 250 miles southwest of Land’s End in the Bay of Biscay, near the United Kingdom.


The British Coast Guard (Falmouth) was alerted to the plight of the crew when the Florece’s distress radio beacon was activated as she began to sink. The Falmouth Coast Guard used long-range information tracking to locate the nearest ship to the position given. When they spoke to the master of the Afrodite, he informed them that he had been in a collision with the Florece and that the other vessel’s crew had abandoned their ship to life rafts. The Afrodite attempted a rescue via the deployment of its fast rescue craft but had been unsuccessful due to the sea swell. During this same period, the U.S. Coast Guard also had received a distress signal from the Florece and reported the situation to the Falmouth agency. The latter outfit then made a request for assistance to any ships in the area. They also discussed the incident with the Spanish coast guard who began preparing to send a helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft.


Meanwhile, Ocean Titan Master Capt. Christopher Hill on the same day was awakened from his sleep at around 4 a.m. by his chief mate. After making his way to his vessel’s bridge, Hill received information about the situation involving the Florece from his chief mate as well as other sources.


The chief mate told Hill that a vessel 15 miles ahead of the Titian had sent an undesignated distress message and that only the name of the vessel and her position had shown up with the message. The chief mate had tried several times without success to hail the vessel in distress.


Eventually another vessel, the Afrodite, answered on the VHF and announced that the Florece had been in a collision. What the Afrodite transmission did not say however was that she was the vessel with whom the Florece had collided.


Responding to the British Coast Guard’s request for assistance from any ship in the area, Hill set the Titan’s course for Florece’s position. According to reports, in addition to the Afrodite two other vessels—the Maersk Kampala and the Hammersmith Bridge—were also in the vicinity. Neither played significant roles in the pending rescue.


“A glance at the radar told me that there were precious few ships in our area,” said Hill as he recalled the particulars which came to bear during of night of the rescue. “And a glance out of the window told me that the weather was every bit as bad as the previous day’s forecast had suggested it would be: near gale force winds and 12-to-14-foot seas on a pitch-black and bitterly cold Winter North Atlantic night.”


Captain Hill said that, well before the actual rescue, he knew he had on board one of the best crews, top to bottom, that he had ever set sail with. Still, he felt that the Ocean Titan was ill-suited for rescuing anyone that night.


“My bow thruster was inoperative and without it, the ship’s controllable pitch propeller makes keeping the bow from falling off to starboard no small chore even in flat calm conditions,” he said. “The wind that morning was screaming from one direction and a heavy trans-Atlantic swell was making up from another which made any slow-speed approach a little like fighting two ninjas, one on the right and one on the left, at the same time.


“Further, I had a weather deck slap full of cargo with chain lashings,” he continued. “That on-deck cargo included a 140 metric ton shore crane with a very, very high center of gravity. That piece alone effectively eliminated rolling violently from my list of things to do that morning.”


Despite these potential obstacles, Hill while pushing his vessel towards the Florece’s location said he personally called the Afrodite’s captain to see if there was anything he could do to help in the rescue. “The Afrodite responded by saying ‘No, the situation is in hand.’


“I breathed a sigh of relief, settled into my captain’s chair and began to think about a cup of coffee,” Hill recalled.


Hill said that at about five miles away from the two vessels (Afrodite and Florece) and on a course that he thought would keep the Titan well clear of the scene, another vessel, the Hammersmith Bridge, hailed the Afrodite and offered assistance. “The Afrodite informed the Hammersmith Bridge that the Florece was sinking and that her crew had taken to the rafts, but that the Afrodite was in the process of rescuing them,” Hill said. “This caught me a bit by surprise as I had received information from the Afrodite only a minute or two before that the situation was ‘in-hand’. No mention of a ship sinking or people in the water had been made.”


At about four miles from the Florece’s location, things began coming into focus for Hill and his crew aboard the Titan. “From my bridge and with the scene of the collision lying broad on my starboard bow … I could clearly see that the Florece was in a bad way,” Hill recalled. “She lay broadside to the heavy swell and was heeled such that a goodly portion of her hull could be seen in the lights of the nearby Afrodite.


“Her appearance was grotesque,” the captain continued. “As I looked at the stricken ship and right before my eyes, the Florece sank. She sank neither by the stern nor by the bow. She sank suddenly and bodily while lying flat on her starboard side; there one second and gone the next.


“Her lights, her AIS information and her radar image were all instantly lost. Watching the Florece sink was, on the one hand, amazing and on the other, horrifying,” Hill said.


Shortly after the Florece descended into the deep, Hill said a distress flare was fired in the direction of the Titan—no more than a mile or two off his starboard bow. “My lookout immediately reported a life raft in the water,” the captain recalled. “I was closer by two miles to the life raft than the Afrodite, but was still under the presumption that the Afrodite was in the process of performing the rescue.” Hill would later learn that the sum total of the Afrodite’s rescue was an attempt to launch their rescue boat which failed because of the towering seas and stiff winds.


Upon seeing the flare, the captain backed the Titan engines hard, called all hands and raised the Afrodite’s captain on the VHF. “I explained to him that I was much closer to the life raft than his vessel and asked again if he needed assistance,” Hill said. “The captain, this time and without hesitation, acceded and asked me to make an attempt at rescue.


“I informed the Afrodite’s captain that I would try,” Hill continued, “but was not sure given the heavy weather that I could maneuver my vessel close enough to the survivors to rescue them.”


Hill steered the Titan upwind of the life raft and tried to keep enough weigh on the ship to prevent broaching while at the same time proceeding slowly enough so that he could stop upon reaching the raft. Once Hill had the Titan in position, his crew commenced the rescue operation.


“I received a call from the bridge advising me to be on deck ASAP for a rescue within two minutes,” recalled Bosun Balat. “I went on deck and headed to a rescue boat, but the captain decided not to use the rescue boat ‘cause of the heavy swells.


“So I got about eight heaving lines ready from the bow,” Balat continued. “Then we started throwing heaving lines to the first life raft and got four people. We sent them down to the ship’s office and headed toward the second raft.”


In the end, the crew hauled all seven Florece crew members to safety aboard the Ocean Titan, three men from the first raft and four from a second. Aside from being very cold and wet, each of the crew members was fine and very happy to be alive. They were given food, water and dry clothing.


“I thought that the guys in the raft had a fighting chance of making it onto my ship,” Hill said, “but wasn’t sure that it was possible given the weather conditions until I saw the first man step up onto my deck. I remember thinking I’ll be damned.”


Captain Hill later made arrangements to make a quick port call into Lisbon, a day and a half sailing from the rescue scene, to offload the survivors. Ocean Titan crew members, during the voyage which followed the rescue, got to know the survivors well enough to recognize that they were worth the risks that had been taken to save their lives.


“They were good-natured, well-mannered with wives and girlfriends, with mothers and fathers and with children and grandchildren,” Hill said. “My crew cheerfully donated shoes and clothes and even passed the hat so that the rescued crewmen would have some walking around money in Lisbon where they would have to wait a few days for their embassies to issue new travel documents.”


The seven survivors were put ashore in the Port of Lisbon during the evening of Dec. 10. All were in good health and in good spirits. According to Captain Hill, the Ocean Titan was showered with high praise and one blast on a ship’s whistle from a Portuguese naval commander blasting on behalf of his navy upon its arrival in Lisbon.


Additionally, owners and managers of the Florece (who had flown to Lisbon to greet their crew) along with the Lisbon port agent sent their regards and appreciation via VHF. Launch boat owners delivered a bottle of port wine and the Lisbon Capitania Do Porto delivered a poignant, hand-written and thoughtful letter, which read in part: “....a job very well done in the best tradition of seaman in general and those belonging to the U.S. Merchant Marine in particular.”


Bosun Balat said that while rescuing crews whose vessels have sunk is not an everyday occurrence, it can and does happen at sea. “When it does and you accomplish [the feat] of saving a seven-man crew, you feel that you won the Mega Millions Jackpot and you have to share the winnings with those involved in the rescue mission,” he said.


“I would like to salute every member of SIU who took part in the rescue mission aboard the Ocean Titan that day,” he concluded.



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