On a busy shipping route in the Atlantic, the 85-metre Victorious was the only vessel that immediately responded to a distress signal from a capsized catamaran 60 nautical miles away. Captain Petar Milkov tells the incredible rescue story to Katia Damborsky.
At 7am on December 14 2022, the 80-metre Victorious was entering the final leg of a transatlantic voyage towards Saint-Martin, where a charter was due to begin. They were delayed due to bad weather, which had battered the 85-metre explorer with crashing waves and vicious winds for the entire 10-day crossing.
The crew, led by captain Petar Milkov, had barely been able to sleep, eat or move around the yacht throughout the turbulent voyage. But in the early hours of that morning, the bad weather was finally breaking. Now, the crew’s main goal was making it to shore in time to pick up the charter guests.
“It was at this moment that we got the distress signal,” explains Petar Milkov, a Bulgarian-born ex-commercial ship captain, who is retelling the story several months later from in his office on board Victorious.
Milkov holds a printed distress message up to the camera, which has the co-ordinates of the capsized yacht — a 15-metre catamaran — and the number of passengers detailed on it. He says that this same message was sent to every ship in the North Atlantic and they were on an “established route of extensive traffic”, where any vessel within a 300 miles radius should have been able to arrive at the distress position within 24 hours. But according to Milkov, Victorious was the only vessel that immediately changed its course and headed towards the reported destination.
“It is compulsory to rescue people to render assistance when it comes to the saving of human lives,” says Milkov. “But still, many captains are afraid to do it.” Drawing on his experience at the helm of a commercial vessel, he says that ships are under immense pressure to arrive on time, make shortcuts and are held accountable for even a minute wasted. “If you're delayed, for whatever reason, you have to justify this delay, because it can cost hundreds of thousands — even millions — of euros,” explains Milkov. “For this reason, captains are afraid to say to the owner, ‘look, I'm deviating from the course, and this will delay the boat’ ".
But when that distress call came in at 7am, Milkov said the decision was immediate. He told the owner — Vural Ak —, the management company, and the broker who was arranging the charter that Victorious was changing course. “I told them. I didn’t ask them,” clarifies Milkov. Then he gathered the crew and told them there were five lives at stake, and “suddenly, motivating my crew was my easiest task,” laughs Milkov. “All of [the crew] suddenly forgot about the bad weather, forgot about all the difficulties.”
They arrived at the location four hours later and began a search pattern issued by the Fort-de-France Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), trawling across a still-choppy ocean with crew members from every single department standing on deck, binoculars trained to the water. A cargo ship arrived later in the afternoon and a rescue aeroplane began circling above, but its fuel capacity meant its assistance was short-lived. Hours passed and nothing was spotted. “I was almost certain that something was wrong here. Either the position is wrong, the coordinates are wrong, or something else,” recalls Milkov.
Milkov was right to be doubtful. The MRCC made a new calculation and provided another possible location, another sixty nautical miles and four hours’ cruise away.
Victorious set off again. Night had fallen by the time they arrived at the new location and began a fresh search pattern.
Milkov says it was fortunate that the second location turned out to be correct. The officer on shore received the incorrect co-ordinates from the stranded survivors but managed to make a smart calculation that pointed Victorious to the second — correct — location. It was a dark night — there was no visible moon or stars — so when the first officer on Victorious spotted a speck of light at 11:30pm, Milkov was sure it had to be the survivor’s life raft. He switched on the heavy-duty searchlights on the masts and pointed them directly at the light source.
“This is when [the survivors] decided to shoot their distress rocket,” says Milkov “Later on, I understood that they had only one rocket. They saw Victorious before the searchlights, but they did not want to waste the rocket until they were sure that we would see them.”
The operation to pull them out of the water was challenging. There was no way to communicate with the boat, which according to Milkov was a thin, fragile RIB ill-suited to open ocean. It was drifting fast in the wind, and every time Victorious repositioned herself to approach the RIB, the occupants began paddling frantically towards Victorious. “They don't want to lose a single metre or a second staying in the sea anymore. You can imagine what is in their mind, in their hearts,” says Milkov.
After several failed attempts, the survivors were finally pulled on board by hand via the swim platform. All of them were injured. “One guy had a trauma to the head,” says Milkov. “And one guy had a very bad chest injury. He had broken ribs and air trapped in [his] chest.”
The survivors were ushered into the 200-square-metre beach club to receive medical attention, and slowly, through shock, the story came out. “The skipper was very experienced, but he made one mistake,” recounts Milkov. The bad weather had broken, and the wind had dropped, so the catamaran put up her sails. The multihull was unexpectedly hit with a strong gust of tropical wind, and the combination of the wind and the swell made the catamaran capsize within the blink of an eye.
“The other lucky event which led to the rescue is that during this moment, they were all in the cabin with the door closed. So before the water flooded the cabin they had less than a minute, maybe 30 seconds, to grab the telephone and make a phone call to the guy on the land, who was providing them with the forecast weather,” retells Milkov. “But the skipper gave him the coordinates only by memory because all the equipment was already blacked out from the water. And this is why he gave a wrong position. That’s where we went first.”
With the five safely on board,Victorious continued her passage to Saint-Martin, where the survivors were taken to hospital and treated. Reflecting on the ordeal, Milkov says he doesn’t consider himself to be a hero. "We didn't do anything extraordinary. We didn't risk our lives,” he points out. But he is frustrated that he was put in a situation where Victorious was one of only two vessels that responded.
“I'm not angry against my colleagues, the other ships that didn't come to the rescue. I'm angry at the fact that they were afraid to do it,” says Milkov. “[But] it's a difficult decision to risk your job instead of saving people's lives.”
For their efforts, Petar Milkov and the crew received a Certificate of Merit issued by the MRCC. Milkov tells me a crew member got a tattoo with the date and the coordinates of the rescue. The survivors also wrote a letter to Milkov, written by hand and addressed to Vural Ak and crew. “Yesterday we consciously and profoundly realised what a saving light looks like,” read the letter. “It is a bright light in the middle of the night in front of our tiny flashlight.” It goes on: “ ‘Thank you’ seems and sounds like a little word to describe what we owe you. We will never forget you and the Victorious crew.”