Rescue at Sea
When I signed on for the 30-day cruise from Ushuaia, Argentina to Dunedin, New Zealand, rescuing someone at sea was not something I expected to do. Expedition cruises seldom follow the proposed itinerary, but that’s mainly due to weather conditions. So when Captain Oliver addressed the passengers at the evening recap on January 7, I was puzzled when he started talking about Murphy’s Law. This was day 10 of a 30-day cruise. (Image: Captain Oliver speaks to the passengers.)
Captain pointed out that our position was now equidistant between Argentina and New Zealand, about 2,500 miles to each as the crow flies. We were in the Bellinghausen Sea, just about to enter the Internet black hole of the Amundsen Sea where communications and emergency rescue would be impossible. I assumed he was going to lecture us to be extra careful so that we would avoid injury in this remote area. Then Captain Oliver showed us this email communication, which he received the night before, on January 6th.
TO MASTER NAT. GEO. ENDURANCE
GOOD AFTERNOON MASTER, I REQUEST THAT YOU PROVIDE IMMEDIATE ASSISTANCE TO S/F MARIGOLDS, WHO HAS A CREW MEMBER INJURED WITH 2 FINGERS OF HAND AMPUTATED, WHICH CAN PROVIDE MEDICAL ASSISTANCE, IN ADDITION TO CARRYING OUT THE TRANSFER TO BAHIA FILDES WHERE A HELICOPTER WILL WAIT FOR HIM TO PERFORM HIS EVACUATION.
Operador de Guardia
MRCC PUNTA ARENA
Gobernacion Maritima de Punta Arenas
Armada de Chile
Captain Oliver explained that our ship was the closest ship to S/F Marigolds, and the most capable. Ships do not normally travel this route. Our state-of-the-art ship is faster and more sea worthy than the shipping vessel that needs the assistance. Further, we have a medical infirmary staffed with a physician and a nurse practitioner and plenty of supplies, including anesthesia. Our physician, Dr. Rita, is a seasoned ER doctor in Cleveland with specialties in gunshot wounds, overdoses, and other trauma. The S/F Marigolds has no medical facilities. The sailor in need is risking gangrene and, if not treated soon, possible death. (Image: Location of fishing vessel (F/V), proposed meeting point, and next recreation stop. Purple is impenetrable ice.)
Captain said the rule of the sea is to provide assistance when asked. He then showed the location of the S/F Marigolds, our location, and the location of the ice pack surrounding S/F Marigolds. Captain was not sure how S/F Marigolds got into such an ice bound place, but that ship simply can’t travel the ice as we can. He and his staff negotiated through the night on a rescue operation. There were language barriers. The S/F Marigolds crew is Ukrainian with knowledge of Russian. Chilean officials speak Spanish but no Ukrainian. A consulting physician in the Ukraine understood the medical need, but didn’t speak English or German, the languages of Captain Oliver. There is one person on our navigation team who speaks Ukrainian, so that person played a key role in understanding the problem, the need, and negotiating a solution.
Captain Oliver has a mariner’s responsibility for helping another sailor. But he also has the responsibility to his 120 passengers and 100 or so crew to keep us safe and also to ensure that we don’t deviate too much from the itinerary. In other words, we could help with the rescue as long as we kept our ship safe and kept moving in a westerly direction. By the time Captain Oliver spoke with us, the preliminary plan was worked out. We’d get the sailor. While our medical team treated him, the passengers would have an off-ship expedition not too far from the rescue site. Thus began a multi-day rescue operation.
We spent the next three days crunching through ice to get to the vicinity of S/F Marigolds. The boom, boom, boom of hitting ice floes rattled the ship, but it was amazing to watch. The Southern Ocean is huge. Even with a fast, ice worthy ship, travel takes a long time. We were disheartened to learn that the sailor was not doing well, but out ship was going as fast as possible given the ice.
Finally, we were within 14 nautical miles of S/F Marigolds with a rescue in sight. Then the ship encountered multi-year ice, much too thick for us to break through. Captain Oliver told us that our ship would backtrack to the north, go west and then south to try another route through the ice to S/F Marigolds. The new route would take another day. (Movie: The bow of National Geographic Endurance as it crashes through the ice pack.)
You might think that with all the radar and charts that our navigation crew could have detected this impenetrable ice. But that’s not the case. If you look at any map of the Southern Ocean, you’ll see that Bellinghausen and Amundsen Seas are very, very remote. The ice charts are never up to date because the Antarctic ice pack constantly shifts with the wind. Satellite images are a day or two out of date. Ice navigation is so tricky that in addition to Captain Oliver, our ship also has a dedicated Ice Captain to read the ice. We were lucky to have a third captain, Emeritus Captain Leif Skøg (for whom a bay in Antarctica is named) who made this exact voyage back in the 1980’s. He is a well respected and knowledgeable Antarctic sailor. The three captains were on the bridge along with the other officers to ensure a safe route for the rescue.
On January 10, I awoke at 2:30 AM to the crunching of ice. The ship was still on its way to rescue the S/F Marigolds sailor. I figured that the rescue could be within and hour or two, so I went back to sleep with the TV set to show the camera that looks to the front of the ship. A few times I awoke to check if the S/F Marigolds was in sight. The next thing I knew, it was 6:00 AM. I went to the bridge to get the status of the rescue.
I learned that the crunching at 2:30 AM was our ship backing out of ice. It had encountered multiyear ice in this location. The three Captains on board (Captain Oliver, the Ice Captain, and our Emeritus Captain Leif) assessed the situation and concluded that a rescue is not possible from this location. The ship turned around and backtracked the way it came in.
S/F Marigolds had tried to maneuver closer to us and to find a route out, but was unable to do so. In this second location, once again, we were separated by only 14 nautical miles. Everyone on the ship was crestfallen when Brent, our Expedition Leader, announced that we abandoned the rescue.
On January 11, Dr. Rita joined Glen and I for lunch. When I mentioned I had given up on the S/F Marigolds sailor, Dr. Rita informed me that the ship was on its way to make a third attempt to get through the ice. This time, we’d approach from the southwest. The medical team was on standby and hoped that to rendezvous with the S/F Marigolds the next day. (Image: On the bridge the navigation crew struggles to read the ice through fog and snow.)
For us, January 12 did not exist because the ship opted to lose the International dateline day early. So on January 13, when I went to lunch, I heard that we would be at the rendezvous point with S/F Marigolds within the hour. Indeed, about 45 minutes later, we saw S/F Marigolds engulfed in fog and storming snow. We quickly dispatched two Zodiacs to retrieve the sailor. He was on board within 10 minutes. The joy on the ship was palpable! (Image: S/F Marigolds at the final rendezvous point.)
Our Captain received the call for help on the evening of January 6. It took more than 5 and a half days to reach S/F Marigolds. It drives home the point of our remoteness. Planes and helicopters can’t assist in this location due to the distance from an airstrip and the lack of landing facilities anywhere near the S/F Marigolds.
With the sailor on board, the real work began with our medical staff. This is one lucky sailor because in addition to Dr. Rita and a nurse practitioner, one of the passengers Gary, is an orthopedic surgeon with a specialty in hand surgery. Dr. Gary volunteered to be on the medical team for the surgical procedure. (Image: Expedition Leader Brent signals that the injured sailor is on the Zodiac. Success!)
That evening we learned that our injured sailor’s name is Andre. He has a wife and children in Mariupol, Ukraine. Our medical team successfully operated on Andre. He was recovering.
Within a few days I caught my first glimpse of Andre. Dr. Gary encouraged Andre to walk around the ship to gain strength. Andre would come out only very early in the morning, but as time went on, I saw him at other times of the day. Most days he sat alone, staring out the window. I can’t imagine what he was thinking. He speaks no English. I don’t speak Ukrainian or Russian. After a few days, Katja, our Russian naturalist, taught us a few Russian phrases. All I’ve be able to say is Privet Andre! He smiles back.
With Andre medically stable, and absolutely no way to meet aircraft for further evacuation, he was to remain on board for the duration of the voyage. At first I thought our ship might drop him at McMurdo, but the US base is totally iced in. People who work at McMurdo get there by flying from New Zealand. It’s only at the beginning of the season, late August or so, that a supply ship docks at their ice port. To do that, the supply ship is first preceded by an ice breaker. Once the summer supplies are dropped off, the channel through the ice closes.
New Zealand, where our voyage terminates, is a great place for Andre to land because that country has socialized medicine. Any further medical needs Andre has will be taken care of at no cost. What about Andre's future? Ukraine is not the best place to be right now, especially Mariupol. With the loss of two fingers, will he be able to fish again?
On January 29, the last night of our expedition, the ship auctioned off the Penguin flag that flew over the National Geographic Endurance for our month at sea. The flag was signed by all the crew and expedition staff. The proceeds were to go to Andre to help him start his new life. The bidding was fierce and finally stopped at $20,000. Andre was overwhelmed. (Image: Andre makes an appearance during the auction.)
What about the fate of the S/F Marigolds? I’m told fishing ships are prepared to wait out the weather. Ice floes shift. At some point that fishing vessel will find a clear path through the ice to bring their bounty home. S/F Marigolds is a long-line fishing vessel that catches tooth fish (sold in USA as Chilean Sea Bass). Until the accident, the fishing vessel had been operating with its location transmitter turned off. Our Captain assured us that S/F Marigolds has a license to fish (he checked). However it is unknown whether S/F Marigolds was fishing in the legally designated area when the accident happened. Why else would they have turned off their location transmitter? It's a mystery for another day.
The rescue limited the stops that we could have made, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I appreciated learning first hand about the moral obligations of one mariner to another. I also enjoyed crunching through the beautiful ice. Most of all, I am thrilled that we could help save the life of this sailor. This is one adventure that I won’t forget.