USNS Pathfinder’s Unique Christmas Includes Rescue of Canadian Boater, El Faro Memorial

 

February 2016

 

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For crew members aboard the USNS Pathfinder, last Christmas is one they’re unlikely to forget.

 

Bosun Kelly Doyle noted, “On Christmas Eve, we had a memorial for the El Faro crew since we took the same path and passed at or near the vessel’s last known position (near Crooked Island, Bahamas). About 12 hours later, we rescued a Canadian sailor from his sinking boat.”

The nighttime rescue took place in the Bahamas and, based on video footage as well as a firsthand account, it’s no exaggeration to say it saved the life of Eric Valois, owner and sole occupant of the 43-foot sloop Flamboyant. The boat had lost its mast and had been drifting for five days between the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. On Christmas Eve it was taking on water in windy conditions and 15-foot seas, and was within about two hours of sinking.

 

“Once I was out of fuel, the situation got critical,” Valois said. “I called an emergency to passing freighters on the afternoon of Dec. 24 but no one responded. By the evening I was only a couple of hours away from having to bail out, as the boat would sink completely during the night. There was nothing else that could be done, so I put out a mayday call…. For two hours I kept calling mayday at intervals of five minutes. No one responded and I could see no other boats in the vicinity.”

 

On the verge of climbing into the emergency life raft, Valois got a response from Capt. Thomas Pearse-Drance, vessel master of the USMMI-operated Pathfinder.

“They came alongside and literally plucked me out of my life-threatening predicament,” Valois continued. “The crew was very capable and also very relieved and glad to have been able to save me. I am extremely grateful for them saving my life. My chances of survival would have otherwise been very bleak indeed.”

 

The mission was complete four days later when Valois safely arrived at the Canadian Embassy in Panama, and he was on his way back to Canada before the new year.

 

“It is a great story about our mariners, their skill and caring,” said Pearse-Drance. “Every officer and crew member on board the Pathfinder was important to bring a safe and successful effort to rescue Mr. Valois. The compassion and care shown the next five days, helping him recover from his traumatic experience, aided his transition to a new life back in his native Montreal after losing his home and livelihood on the Flamboyant.”

 

In a written message to Pearse-Drance, Rear Adm. T.K. Shannon, commander, U.S. Military Sealift Command, said, “Congratulations to you and crew of Pathfinder for swiftly responding and executing the safe rescue…. Your quick response to the mayday call … was exceptional. I applaud the skill and enthusiasm of you and your crew to provide assistance to those in need. I understand the difficulty in executing a rescue in rough seas and the associated hazards to the ship and crew. You and your crew brought great credit to yourselves and our organization…. I could not be more proud of everyone onboard.” (The Pathfinder is an oceanographic survey ship operated by USMMI for MSC.)

 

Mika Kosaki Oldham, consul at the Embassy of Canada in Panama, also sent a message to the ship that read in part, “I would like to express my gratitude to Capt. Thomas (Pearse-Drance) and the crew of the USNS Pathfinder for the tremendous efforts to rescue Mr. Valois and the subsequent hospitality extended to him during his time on board.”

 

Bosun Doyle added, “This is the first time in 15 years I have worked for the T-AGS fleet that I have been at sea for Christmas. Usually we are tied to the pier somewhere during the holiday season.”

SIU members aboard the vessel during the rescue included Doyle, AB Ricardo Hernandez, AB Michael Hodges, AB George Steube, OS Mohamed Ghaleb, OS Peter Hamm, QMED Gary Williams, QMED Antonio Watson, Chief Steward Don Lewis, Chief Cook Lonnie Jones, GVA Santos Jaime, SA Saeed Alasfor, GVA Eduardo Meregillano, Storekeeper Courtney Turner and MDR Jeffrey Koch.

 

Memorial Service

 

Hours before the rescue of Valois, Pathfinder crew members conducted a shipboard remembrance of the 17 Seafarers, 11 American Maritime Officers (AMO) members, and five Polish nationals who perished when the El Faro sank Oct. 1 in Hurricane Joaquin.

 

Pearse-Drance began the ceremony by extending sympathies to the families and friends of the El Faro’s final crew. He also pointed out the important role played by the U.S. Merchant Marine when it comes to national defense.

 

Doyle then read Psalm 107, followed by poignant remarks from Chief Mate Gary Carlson. The ship’s bell was struck and a flower was tossed into the ocean as each of the 33 names was read. The service concluded with a prayer and the playing of the Navy Hymn (Eternal Father).

 

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