Drama at Sea

Somewhere in the Caribbean, between the western tip of Cuba and the Yucatan peninsula, a small boat bobbed over the waves as it rushed through the dark from Cancun to Royal Caribbean Cruise line’s Voyager of the Seas. Four hours earlier the captain had announced to the cruise ship passengers that this action would take place at around 9:30 that night. The timing was precise. The cruise ship, much more able to ride the waves comfortably than the approaching craft, stopped as it waited for the rescue boat to arrive.

From the Voyager’s fourth deck, passengers stared at the spectacle below. The small boat, operated by a Mexican rescue unit, approached the side of the ship. Aboard the boat were men wearing protective helmets, preparing for the difficult task of taking on a heart attack victim while maintaining balance on a churning sea. Spotlights from the cruise ship illuminated the scene as the stern of the rescue boat was prepared to receive a stretcher. Once the boats were securely tied to each other, a crane swung over the rescue boat, lowering the victim (who was tied into a metal stretcher). The men in helmets reached for the stretcher and secured it in the boat. Within moments the tethering ropes were released and the small boat began swinging toward the Mexican coast five miles away, its helmeted crew standing guard over the transferred passenger. For those of us on the fourth deck, the operation seemed totally heroic. As the Mexican boat began to speed away there were loud applause and cheers from along the deck. Having felt their moment of glory, the rescue crew was now alone, riding the waves while a life lay in the balance.

On the last full days of cruises captains routinely have a question-and-answer session with passengers. The first question was about the rescue. Captain Frank Martinsen explained that with more than 3,000 passengers, sometimes incidents such as this happen. All along the sailing route, records are kept of land-based emergency help in the vicinity. Cuba was technically closer, but the Mexican side had more to offer. The ship made a wide swing west toward Cancun. Helicopters, according to Martinsen, are sometimes used for such actions, but that is up to the rescuers. The Mexican unit chose to use the boat. Passenger ships have a clinic, in this case one with the capability to transmit medical records for second opinions or where needed. The captain praised the ship’s doctor who, he said, had saved a life that day.

Stories at sea beget other stories. A crew member told me of an incident in another ship in which a person became seriously ill during an Atlantic crossing. There was no nearby land; however, contact was made with a U.S. Navy hospital ship, which happened to be in the vicinity. The Navy vessel steered toward the ship, from which the patient was transferred before receiving emergency surgery.

Statistically, such incidents are extremely rare, but what is heartening is that when they do happen, there’s more rescue infrastructure available than might be expected. The sea at times can look desolate, but it’s what’s beyond the horizon that can make the difference.

By cruise’s end there was no word about the condition of the passenger, although the captain did say that he heard he was in stable condition. For the victim it was a life-saving experience; for the witnessing passengers it was a gallant spectacle; for the crews of both boats it was another night at sea.

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