37m Genevieve involved in major search and rescue operation after fishing vessel carrying 32 capsizes

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37m sailing yacht Genevieve rescues 16 after fishing vessel capsizes off St Kitts

3 April 2023 • Written by Holly Overton

The crew of the 37-metre Alloy sailing yacht Genevieve rescued 16 people in a major search and rescue operation off the coast of St Kitts and Nevis after a fishing skiff carrying 32 occupants overturned.  

At 11.30pm on 27 March, Genevieve and her six crew were motoring from Antigua to St Maarten when the lookout heard a "faint noise that sounded like a woman's scream", according to an account by captain Thomas Auckland. 

After realising someone was in the water, the vessel sent out a mayday call and positioned four crew on deck with torches and searchlights to try to locate the individual. The sea state was moderate with two-metre waves and 20 knots of breeze.

After six minutes of searching, the crew spotted some retro-reflective tape and discovered a man in the water clinging to a damaged life jacket. Using a small circular fender attached to an additional buoyancy aid and fastened to a rescue line, two crewmembers were able to pull the man to the stern of the vessel and haul him onto the folding swim platform. He was retrieved at 11.39pm and fell unconscious in the cockpit.

"We continued our search, knowing there was at least one more person, a woman, still in the water, but unable to ascertain if there were further persons at risk," said Auckland. "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."

At 11.57pm, the crew then spotted a woman clinging to a white plastic barrel, approximately 400 metres downwind of the first casualty. She was recovered in the same fashion and, once rescued, informed the crew that she had been travelling on a small boat which had left Antigua, bound for St Thomas (USVI). The vessel had broken down, taken on water and capsized.

The captain then discharged two red parachute flares to alert any passing ships to the incident. "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 than the casualties in the water."

At 00:28, the crew spotted a number of plastic drums floating in the water, and shortly afterwards noticed a light coming in and out of sight, which later proved to be the light of a mobile phone being waved around. Genevieve eventually came across the upturned fishing skiff La Belle Michelle II with 15 persons straddling the hull approximately 1.1 nautical miles from the first casualty. Only two were wearing life jackets and the rest were unable to swim.

La Belle Michelle pictured leaving Jolly Harbour in Antigua

A floating line and a fender were floated downwind to the upturned vessel and the crew instructed one of its occupants to tie the end to the outboard engine. The crew then used a rescue sling and an additional safety line to bring each of the casualties aboard. Each casualty was required to run themselves along the rope one by one, and once they reached the starboard quarter of the vessel, transfer to the rescue sling where the crew would pull them to the midships and haul them clear of the water.

"The casualties were at first clearly reluctant to entrust themselves to the rope. 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," said Auckland.

Despite efforts from the crew to recover all the occupants of the vessel, the last casualty fell from the hull and was unable to make it along the line. Genevieve remained attached to the hull until 2am before calling off the search. The yacht was asked to remain at the scene until air support arrived to continue the recovery mission, before being escorted by the coastguard to Basseterre, St Kitts at around 3.42am. On arrival, the casualties were transferred to the coastguard base.

Most of the occupants of La Belle Michelle II are believed to be Cameroonian refugees fleeing the civil war but have not formally been identified. Of the 16 who were pulled from the water and taken to St Kitts, two have been identified as Antiguan and Barbudan nationals and 14 from "unidentified countries" in Africa. The Royal St. Christopher and Nevis Police Force later confirmed that an additional three bodies were subsequently recovered from the water.

"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," said Auckland.

"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."

On 1 April, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre suspended its search for the missing occupants of La Belle Michelle II. 

The prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, shared his condolences in a statement. “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.

"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 Organisation for Migration on the best ways of treating them as refugees."

The government will launch an investigation into the incident and has offered refuge in Antigua and Barbuda to the survivors.

The crew of Genevieve have since set up a Just Giving page to help ensure the survivors have access to basic sanitation, housing, food and water in Antigua.

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