Sailing Yacht GENEVIEVE Rescues 16 After Fishing Vessel Capsizes Off St Kitts

The sailing yacht GENEVIEVE completed a rescue mission on March 27th, when a small fishing skiff capsized off of St Kitts. Read more.

The 121.5 foot (37m) sailing yacht, GENEVIEVE completed a rescue mission just before midnight on March 27th, when a small fishing skiff capsized off of St Kitts.

The French fishing vessel LA BELLE MICHELLE sank off the coast of St Kitts, carrying 32 African nationals believed to have paid thousands of dollars to emigrate to the U.S. Virgin Islands. It is believed the boat encountered engine problems and quickly began to capsize, losing 16 passengers, while sailing yacht GENEVIEVE managed to save the remaining 16 passengers stranded at sea.

The 121.5 foot (37m) sailing yacht, GENEVIEVE completed a rescue mission just before midnight on March 27th, when a small fishing skiff capsized off of St Kitts.
Photo Credit: Genevieve News Rescue

Official Statement Released by Captain Thomas Auckland of S/Y GENEVIEVE 

Dear All, 

I hope you are all well. 

As some of you may know, S/Y GENEVIEVE was involved in an operation earlier in the week, which involved rescuing 16 people from a capsized fishing skiff off the coast of St Kitts & Nevis.

The 121.5 foot (37m) sailing yacht, GENEVIEVE completed a rescue mission just before midnight on March 27th, when a small fishing skiff capsized off of St Kitts.
Photo Credit: Captain Thomas Auckland

I have been contacted by a number of captains, asking about the incident from both a personal and Search and Rescue perspective. As is often the case, there seems to be a lot of nonsense circulating in the media, so I thought it would be helpful to clarify what actually occurred. 

At 23.30 on 27th March 2023, while motor sailing from Antigua to Saint Maarten, approximately 16nm NE of Conaree, St Kitts, the lookout heard a faint noise that sounded like a woman’s scream. We immediately throttled back, and then both heard a clear audible scream. She at once mustered the crew, who donned lifejackets with PLBs and radios, as I furled the headsail, activated a DSC and called a Mayday. (In retrospect, this should have been a Mayday Relay.) 

We then positioned four crew around the vessel with torches or search lights to try to locate the woman or women. The First Mate was in charge of all radio comms and alarms from this muster until we found the capsized vessel. Six minutes later we spotted some retro-reflective tape and discovered a man clinging on to part of a damaged life jacket. We used a small circular fender, attaching an additional buoyancy aid to aid grip, fastened to a rescue line to throw downwind at mid-ships. We were able to pull him to the stern, where two crew members hauled him onboard from the folding swim platform. He was retrieved at 23:39. While we had not compromised our safety, we had taken a considerable amount of water into the lazarette, and it was clear that this was not an ideal way to retrieve someone from the water in this sea state (roughly two meters & 20kts). By the time he reached the cockpit, he was unconscious. So we continued our search, knowing there was at least once more person, a woman, still in the water, but unable to ascertain if there were further persons at risk. 

At 23:57 we spotted a woman clinging to a white plastic barrel, approximately 400m downwind of the first casualty. She was recovered in the same fashion, although it was much harder to get her out of the water: it took three of us to haul her onboard, and had she slipped under the swim platform I have no doubt she would have been knocked unconscious. Once in the cockpit she informed us that she had been traveling on a small boat which had left Antigua, bound for St Thomas (USVI), with approximately 32 people onboard. The vessel had broken down, taken on water and capsized. I discharged two red parachute flares at this point. 

With no knowledge of whether or not the vessel was still afloat, we decided to continue slowly downwind towards the brightest looms of St Kitts which would be visible from the water, assuming that if afloat it would have more windage that the casualties in the water. 

At around 00:28, the crew started spotting plastic drums floating in the water, and shortly afterwards they noticed a light coming in and out of sight, which later proved to be the light of a mobile phone being waved around. On approach we discovered the upturned fishing skiff, “LA BELLA MICHELLE” with 15 persons straddled on the hull, approximately 1.1nm from the first casualty. 

All the crew assembled on the aft deck, and together we quickly constructed a plan of how best to remove the individuals from the capsized vessel. This was a solid-hulled boat with two upturned outboards, so bringing it alongside in the given prevailing sea state was never a viable option. We therefore used the floating line and fender attached to a long Dyneema tail, which was floated downwind to them; then the line was tied around the leg of one of the outboards by one of the casualties, under instruction from our crew. We brought this to our STB stern and on to a primary winch for control. This line was at once under several tonnes of load, so once it was affixed we were very reluctant to move it. We then used a rescue sling with a thick Dyneema tail for grip and additional safety line attached. This rescue sling proved invaluable. 

Our plan was for the casualties to run themselves along the rope one by one, and once they reached the starboard quarter of the vessel, to transfer to the rescue sling, with which we would pull them to the midships and haul them clear of the water, (we have a midships freeboard of just over two meters and discussed using a halyard at this stage, but we were rolling too violently for this to be safe or effective).

At this point all the crew were assigned new roles: 

  • Captain: throwing the rescue sling, communicating with casualties, removal from water at midships.
  • Engineer: hauling casualties up side deck, communicating with casualties, removal from water at midships.
  • First Mate: ensuring rescue line and safety were free to run, resetting the sling, removal from water at midships.
  • Chef: ensuring rescue lines and safety were free to run, removing casualties from the water, then clearing the side deck.
  • Stewardess: triage, assessing injuries, getting casualties into the cockpit, water, bedding etc.
  • Deck/Stewardess: illumination, using the large spotlight to light the vessel and then the casualties as they came across.

The casualties were at first clearly reluctant to entrust themselves to the rope. Only two of the persons were wearing life jackets (who turned out to be the drivers) and most of them were unable to swim. We later discovered that they were wearing all the clothes they owned, often three pairs of jeans, and over six upper layers each, which obviously made swimming very challenging. (Even though this made the casualties very heavy, this actually ended up proving helpful, as it gave us something to hold onto as we pulled them onboard.) 

After three or four persons had been successfully retrieved, they needed much less encouragement to come across, and the process worked very well providing they left the vessel one at a time, as holding the “tow line” as it was under load was clearly very challenging. The teamwork displayed by the crew here was astounding, without them creating such an effective process of recovery, there is no way we would have got 14 people off that hull.

The 121.5 foot (37m) sailing yacht, GENEVIEVE completed a rescue mission just before midnight on March 27th, when a small fishing skiff capsized off of St Kitts.
Genevieve Rescue – Photo Credit: Captain Thomas Auckland

It became apparent that towards the end the casualties were becoming less and less physically able, and unfortunately the last casualty fell from the hull and was unable to make it along the line. We remained attached to the hull searching for the last individual until 01:57. Thereafter, I decided that marking the upturned hull with lights strapped to a lifejacket and cutting it loose was the best option, as I felt the situation was becoming hazardous. In hindsight, this was perhaps my biggest error, as we had spare PLBs on board and should have affixed one, as this would have served as a helpful search marker for MV BRITANNIA, who had just taken up the role of on-scene MRCC. 

Events now entered a new phase. I was clearly aware that we had 16 migrants on board, 13 of whom were male, of which we knew nothing other than the fact that they were willing to risk their lives being smuggled across to St Thomas. So we locked down the exterior of the boat and placed the female members of crew up forward, with everyone in direct radio contact. All casualties had been given water, sugary drinks, food and blankets, and were grouped together in the cockpit. The male crew members remained at the helm station, while I ran back and forth on the VOIP line with MRCC Fort du France, who requested that we remain at the scene until air support arrived. As there was evidently a security risk on board, at 03:42 we were given permission to depart the scene and headed directly to Basseterre in St Kitts, which was approximately 34nm away. 

Once the day dawned and we were under coastguard escort, it became quite clear that these terrified Cameroonian nationals were extremely grateful to us and posed no risk to us at all. The female crew came and administered basic first aid; fed, watered and tried to dry out as much of their clothing as possible, before we arrived in Basseterre. On arrival in Basseterre, they were transferred via Coast Guard boat to their base, where I went ashore and made statements to the various authorities. 

I think what I take away most from this is just how well the crew performed under immense pressure: they were all making very sensible and rational decisions in a situation in which they have had very little training. We of course were incredibly lucky to hear a scream in the dark over the wind, and also unbelievably lucky that we were able to save so many people. We have sat together with an industry professional and dissected the night’s events in great detail, and we are also discussing it very openly among ourselves. 

All of the crew, myself included, are still in a stage of processing all that occurred. It is affecting everybody in a slightly different way, but knowing that there were 32 people on board, and only 16 survived is perhaps the hardest part for us all to comprehend. 

I sincerely hope that none of you ever has to encounter such an event during your time at sea, but if you do I hope this account may be of some use. In conclusion, never underestimate the importance of good watch-keeping – and rest assured that the teamwork and professionalism exhibited by your crew will leave you feeling very, very proud. 

I would like to thank, MRCC Fort du France, MV BRITANNIA, Marine Assist Osprey, SY MIDNIGHT, St Kitts Coast Guard and the numerous other vessels, that came together so selflessly, “it is an honor to sail the waters with you”

Thomas Auckland

Thank you to Yachting International Radio for publishing this statement on LinkedIn

A formal statement from the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, the Honorable Gaston Browne was also released on March 30:

Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, the Honorable Gaston Browne
Gaston Browne – Photo Credit: Antigua Government

“On behalf of my government and myself, I express deep sorrow at the loss of life and distress suffered by persons aboard a vessel which left Antigua and Barbuda illegally for an unknown destination, and which capsized in the open sea. 

While reports are still sketchy, we understand that the majority of persons on board the vessel may be Africans who were part of those who arrived here as tourists but with the intention of migrating to other countries. It is widely known that my government has been making every effort to be helpful to these brothers and sisters from Africa who were marooned on Antigua, including by granting them residence and the opportunity to work. We have also been engaged with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration on the best ways of treating them as refugees. 

Two things appear clear from today’s tragic events. The first is that the Africans on board the vessel wanted to leave Antigua and Barbuda for another country. The second is that the owners and operators of a vessel in Antigua and Barbuda facilitated their transport on an illegal journey.

My government will launch a full investigation into the circumstances of this unlawful and dreadful affair, including the involvement of any citizens and residents. We will also uphold our international obligations against human trafficking and illegal migration by strengthening our domestic institutions and enhancing our cooperation with regional and hemispheric partners. 

In the meantime, my government will also continue to offer refuge in Antigua and Barbuda to the survivors of today’s events, and we will make appropriate arrangements for the burial of the deceased. We will also make every effort to contact their relatives to advise them of this heart-breaking tragedy. 

We appeal to the Africans, who are in Antigua and Barbuda, not to be tempted into any schemes such as happened today, but to work with the Government, through our Immigration authorities, to help find acceptable solutions to their circumstances. All of the facts surrounding today’s calamity are not yet known. However, I know that we all want to understand what occurred and to take action to ensure it does not happen again. 

My government will further advise of all these circumstances as soon as we receive more and better particulars.” 

The crew of GENEVIEVE has set up a GoFundMe page for the stranded nationals. Please click here for more information of the GoFundMe page.

The 121.5 foot (37m) sailing yacht, GENEVIEVE completed a rescue mission just before midnight on March 27th, when a small fishing skiff capsized off of St Kitts.

Photo Credit: Genevieve News Rescue

Genevieve was completed by Alloy Yachts in New Zealand in 1995 with exterior design by Dubois Naval Architects Ltd. and interior design by Glade Johnson Design, Inc. She can accommodate up to eight guests in four cabins and six crew members. 

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