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Today's Weather
Lat: 35.23 N
Long: 21.47 E
Air temp: 15°C, 59°F
Humidity: 63%
Bar pressure: 1025.5 mbar
Sea surface temp: 19.7°C, 67.5°F
Wind: ENE; 11.6 knots
Visibility: unlimited

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Greek Origin
Word of the Day:


from the Greek "Atlantis," daughter of Atlas, a Titan god who supported the sky on his shoulders

Research mission starts with
rescue mission

November 27, 2011 (posted November 28, 2011)
by Cherie Winner

I have never been on a research cruise before, so some of my more experienced colleagues gave me some advice: “Don’t count on things happening exactly as scheduled,” they said. “Something unexpected happens on every research cruise that you have to adapt to.”

So I was on guard to expect the unexpected. But none of us could have anticipated the sudden events that occurred on the first day of our voyage, before we had even begun our research.

We left Piraeus, the port of Athens, Greece, at 9 a.m. and headed south of the Peloponnese, the southern portion of Greece that was home to ancient Sparta. Throughout the day, scientists and technicians assembled equipment, and we all went through safety training that included learning how to don the bulky flotation suits that could save our lives if we ever had to abandon ship.

About 10 p.m. I had just grabbed another sliver of pumpkin cheesecake and was heading into the main lab when Ginny Edgcomb, the expedition’s chief scientist, caught me in the corridor. “Find everyone in the science party and bring them to the main lab, right now,” she said. “We have a situation. There’s a disabled vessel ahead, and we may be asked to take on passengers.”

In the main lab, Ginny gave us the news. Atlantis’s captain, AD Colburn III, had responded to a distress call from a boat that claimed it was taking on water and needed to be evacuated. From the deck out back, we could see two sizeable ships nearby and a helicopter flying low toward one of them.

The first reports said the boat carried 150 men, no women or children, claiming to be refugees from Egypt. Other ships had also responded to the distress call, but they were oil tankers; the men on the foundering boat were smoking and would pose a danger to a petroleum-laden vessel, so Atlantis was the likely choice to take all 150.

How could the ship accommodate 150 more passengers? The entire roster on this cruise is 50.

Then there was the fear of not knowing what we were really dealing with. What if it’s a ruse? What if the men are armed?

A few minutes later the word came down—we would take on everyone from the disabled boat. By the law of the sea, if help from another vessel is requested, it must be provided.

Following established procedures, Atlantis raised its U.S. Coast Guard Maritime Security Level from I to II and took protective measures. Non-crew members were ordered into “full lockdown,” which meant all exterior hatches were closed and locked, all portholes covered and locked, and all windows covered so the rescued men couldn’t see inside. We were ordered to stay out of sight. We were to stay together in the main lab and the computer lab across the corridor. If we left the room, we had to go in pairs.

The first scheduled research work of the cruise, a dive with the remotely operated vehicle Jason, was certainly canceled. WHOI scientist Joan Bernhard had already loaded it with special sample chambers for the mission slated to begin in the wee hours. She joked about not having to get up super-early for that first dive, but that begged the question: Would she, or any of us, get to sleep at all this night?

Atlantis, which had been rolling moderately, rolled more as it changed heading and came to a halt. The winds had picked up in recent hours and now stood at Force 6, just below gale force.

We didn’t know it at the time, but later we learned that the high winds and waves created quite a challenge. An oil tanker had tied lines to the disabled boat, which lay in the lee of the tanker, protected from the wind. Language was also a barrier. There was one Arabic speaker on the tanker and another English/Arabic speaker on another boat nearby. Somehow they and Captain Colburn did sort of an at-sea conference call. They communicated to the disabled boat that the tanker was not abandoning it when it retrieved its lines, but rather another ship was coming to the rescue.

When the tanker released its lines, Captain Colburn maneuvered Atlantis in between, so that the boat was in the lee of Atlantis, which was in the lee of the tanker. Due to wind, the tanker kept drifting toward us, but we weren’t catching as much wind as it was, so Captain Colburn had to keep us moving ever so slightly to the right, pushing against the boat. Looking at the waves via closed circuit TV from the lab, it looked very, very rough out there.

Greatly overloaded and in heavy seas, the disabled boat could not maneuver effectively. We felt a jolt that we later learned was caused by the boat hitting our ship while attempting to come alongside. Later, Captain Colburn said he was glad the little wooden boat didn’t fall apart when it hit Atlantis.

Ginny and several of us peeked out the aft window. We could see what looked like a fishing boat, too small to hold 150, or even 100, we thought.

Snatches of information crackled over shipboard technician Catie Graver’s walkie-talkie, including the dismaying information that the disabled boat was crammed with people. Around 11 p.m., they started coming aboard.

One bit of good news was that we would not go all the way back to Piraeus, which would have cost us two days. Instead, we were routed to Kalamata, in the southern Peloponnese (home of the delicious Kalamata olives). That port was only 88 miles away, eight hours or so from our current position.

As we settled into the reality of our situation, our unease continued. How would the survivors of the disabled boat behave once on the ship? The crew outside was definitely outnumbered.

Many of us moved to the computer lab, where two tiny screens displayed images from closed-circuit TVs showing the starboard deck area right behind our main lab and the port deck area where Jason is stowed. Ginny, along with Hans-Werner Breiner and Thorsten Stoeck of the Technische Universität Kaiserslautern in southwest Germany, took quick looks while also working at computers in the lab.

They were probably writing home, I thought. I’d done that. Before coming on the trip, my parents, who came from Colorado to care for my dogs and cat in my absence, asked what to do if we met with an emergency such as pirates. I had assured them nothing like that would happen to us. Now I wanted to reassure them that we had a great crew, a solid ship, and a good plan to keep everyone safe.

As poor as the image quality was on our TV screens, it was good to have at least some idea of what was going on outside. We watched intently as the men boarded the ship one at a time, jumping the short but ever-changing distance between the two vessels. Their boat lurched up and down in the churning water; Atlantis, much larger, offered a relatively stable landing zone.

Many of the men were in ordinary street clothes—slacks, sweaters. Few had a coat or warm jacket, and the night was cold and windy. Our crew wore overalls, jackets, and flotation work vests. The one easiest to recognize was Tito Collasius, expedition leader of the Jason team, partly because of his height but mainly because of his cargo shorts and white ankle socks, which were easy to spot in the dimly lit scene.

Tito became my gauge for how things were going. During the early stages of the transfer, he stood at the rail, closely looking at each man. By 11:20 he had moved a step back from the rail and was talking with another crew member. He was still watching, still involved with giving the rescued men a hand as they came over, but his body language had relaxed. My interpretation of what I could see on that small screen was that Tito did not think we were in immediate danger.

Inside and outside, we were all watching the same show. The men already rescued stood on the deck and watched as their companions came over. One man, in a white knit cap, appeared to be talking to our crew members.

Finally only one man was left. He seemed reluctant to come over. To our eyes he looked terrified of the jump, which was understandable, as the boat was pitching up and down. I saw Tito make a loop of rope and toss it over the man. Right after that, the man climbed his boat’s rail and came over. Some of us cheered.

In the next days, crew members told me that was the boat’s captain. He wasn’t reluctant to come over because of fear, he just didn’t want to leave his boat. But the boat was in trouble—almost all the passengers had wet feet and some had been standing in water up to their calves. They really had been in distress, and he finally was persuaded that he had no choice.

After he came aboard, the man in the white cap went back over to the boat. He appeared to be searching for something. We thought maybe someone was missing; crew members later told me they’d sent him over to make sure nobody was left behind. In all, 93 men had come aboard Atlantis.

The fishing boat began drifting away. The man with the white cap spoke a little English, so he was taken to the bridge to speak with Capt. Colburn.

In the main lab, we were at loose ends about what to do. We had had a full day’s work even before this happened, but could we safely go to our cabins? Would we be able to sleep?

The rescue soon became a humanitarian mission: The men were cold, wet, hungry, and thirsty. Steward Larry Jackson appeared with armfuls of loaves of bread he piled on the ping-pong table at the back of the lab, along with dozens of cans of Spam. We quickly realized our error—Muslims may not eat pork—and Larry returned with jars of peanut butter.

The provisions were soon joined by piles of the dark blue fleece blankets that are standard issue on Atlantis. The ship’s second shipboard technician, Allison Heater, told us to gather the fleece blankets from our cabins. We would be issued wool replacements later. A bag of clothing appeared on the table—dry socks, pants, even shoes, that had been offered by crew members.

Within minutes, Hans-Werner, Thorsten, and others were shuttling food, clothing, and blankets down the corridor to an exterior door, where crew and Jason team members took them to the rescued men.

In consultation with Joan, Catie, and Allison, Ginny decided our best option then was to go to our cabins. There was nothing more to see and nothing we could do other than try to get some sleep.

I went to bed around 12:15 a.m., fully clothed, including shoes. After about an hour I turned up the heat to compensate for the lack of the fleece blanket. We each still had a striped cotton blanket, but that wasn’t quite enough. Still, it must have been much colder for the men on deck. Other than the creaks and groans caused by water hitting the hull, the ship was quiet. I finally got to sleep around 2:30, and woke at 5:30. All still quiet.

Stopping by the mess to get a snack, I ran into Capt. Colburn. He said the crew and Jason team had been outside all night, distributing food and blankets, doing first aid for a few men, and escorting the men to the one head (bathroom) accessible from the deck. The rescued men spent the night in the hangar normally occupied on other voyages by the deep-sea submersible Alvin. Already crowded with equipment, it was small quarters for 93 men but did offer some shelter from the wind and cold.

Ordinary Seaman Ronnie Whims came into the main lab from the starboard deck and adjusted his shoes. He was cheery but weary and subdued. When I asked if it was cold and wet out there, he said yes, that water had come in over the sides and now it was starting to rain. “So it’s getting better,” he joked sarcastically.

A few minutes later, Chief Mate Peter (P.J.) Leonard stopped in and sat down. He said he’s never been involved with something like this. We were about an hour out of Kalamata. I asked if I could get to an upper deck to take photos when we reached port, and he said no—that as long as the men were on board, we would stay in full lockdown.

Back in the mess for another bite of the “breakfast baklava” the cooks had set out, I met up with Thorsten. We talked about the rescued men and their near-disaster. Many of us had speculated that recent events in Egypt might spur someone to run great risks to reach a place that offered more stability and a better chance at a good livelihood.

“Imagine what conditions must be like there for those men, to crowd with so many others onto such a small boat and try to cross the sea,” he said. “They left their families behind, they left everything. I cannot imagine what would drive you to do that.”

Down in the computer lab around 7:40 a.m., we watched the TV screens that showed our ship nosing gently into the narrow harbor at Kalamata. A crew member stopped in and said that a porthole in the lounge was uncovered, and we could see the goings-on on the dock from there. Thorsten and I went up and were pleased to find the first direct view of outside events we’d had since the whole episode began. We both had a camera, and we both started shooting photos.

Greek port police set up a tall desk and began leading the rescued men off the ship one at a time to process them. Capt. Colburn left the ship to make a report of the events of the night before.

Just before 10 a.m., Ronnie came into the lounge to finish a cup of coffee. Hans-Werner had joined Thorsten and me at the window. We asked Ronnie if the men had talked at all during the night. “They talked my ear off,” he said. “In English?” “No, in Arabic.” “Do you speak Arabic?” “No, I just nodded and smiled and used a lot of hand gestures.” The rescued men offered him chunks of a beeswax-honey sort of confection. He talked about the importance of bringing the men over one by one. He said allowing them to jump over en masse would have been disastrous, considering the high seas. It was also crucial to keep a careful count of how many boarded, so we didn’t end up with a stowaway.

Finally, at 10:45 a.m., Atlantis eased away from the dock. Two of the last small group of rescued men at the table looked up and gazed at the ship for a long time.

All of us were eager for a breath of fresh air and just the feeling of being able to go outside. A few were itching for a cigarette (smoking is not allowed in the ship’s indoor spaces.) Allison caught me on the way to a door and said we’d remain shuttered until the crew completed a thorough search for stowaways. Ninety-three men had boarded, 93 men had left, but the crew wanted to be sure.

About half an hour later, we were allowed outside. I looked in the Alvin hangar where the men had stayed. Other than a small gob of honey-soaked wax and a few used napkins, you’d never guess something unusual had happened there.

Bos’n Patrick Hennessy, Ronnie, Jerry Graham, and a couple of other crew members were moving an instrument outside and securing it to the deck. After all they’d done the previous day and night, they were still working. They all looked weary to the bone.

At lunch, Capt. Colburn came in and made a quiet congratulatory statement about the calm work by the crew. Over the next couple of days, we heard more from crew members about the events of that night. The rescued men were quiet and respectful the entire time except for a scuffle when the food showed up. Ronnie said the boat captain, distraught over the loss of his vessel, cried most of the night. Our crew knew the fishing boat was in serious trouble when the cleats and railings they grabbed onto to pull the boat closer broke off in their hands. Much of the wood was rotten. The boat had no life jackets, few if any rafts, was overloaded, and facing near gale-force winds.

“They weren’t going to make it, not in that weather,” said P.J. He said once on Atlantis, the men first went for the water hose and cups, then the bathroom, then peanut butter and bread.

Saturday night, as we neared our first scientific station and prepared to begin the real work of the mission, Capt. Colburn sent an e-mail to all members of the cruise.

“On the behalf of WHOI I would like to commend you for your efforts during the rescue of 93 persons on the fishing boat last night,” it read. “Foremost on our minds was the safety of the persons needing rescue and also the safety of all aboard Atlantis. … We all can be proud that we did our duty as seafarers. It was a long and satisfying night, knowing we helped others in need.”

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