in the Mediterranean Sea
A ship captain from Dumaguete became a hero to some 60 starving and dehydrated undocumented migrants from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, when he led their rescue on Sept. 6 after drifting for 11 days in the Mediterranean Sea in an overcrowded fishing boat.
Capt. Noel Baco Uy, a resident of barangay Batinguel, and Master of the German-owned cargo vessel BBC Pearl, led the rescue operations for the migrants who had been attempting to sail from Lebanon to Italy in search of a better life.
“Our freighter was bound for Egypt when we received a message from MRCC Malta to contact them ASAP,” Captain Uy told the MetroPost. He said they were advised to proceed to a “distressed area with a white boat without power, with undetermined people onboard”.
Then he informed his superiors about the call, and instantly got the go-ahead. It was around three in the morning as they were sailing on the Mediterranean Sea.
“We immediately changed course, and sailed 12 nautical miles [about 22 kilometers] to Malta. When the white boat was sighted, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center of Malta designated BBC Pearl as On-Scene Commander, and ordered us to ‘rescue and render assistance to the boat in distress’,” Captain Uy said.
The BBC Pearl crew found 33 men, seven women, and 23 children tightly packed in a fishing boat measuring about three to four meters wide and six to eight meters long. It was also starting to leak. “More than a third of them were underage,” he lamented.
“We first pulled up into our vessel the women and children by using our heavy-duty bags,” Captain Uy said. The bags are strong enough to carry 1,000 kilos.
The bags had to be pulled up about eight meters from the fishing boat upto the closest deck of the BBC Pearl freighter. This had to be done by three to four crew men, while struggling with winds of upto 40 knots (about 74 kilometers per hour) that were smashing the freighter with waves as high as four meters.
The weather was so bad that time that the tiny fishing boat was in danger of capsizing any time, Captain Uy noted. “One of the reasons why ships capsize is when they lose engine power during bad weather,” he said.
“When facing big waves, one has to approach it head-on,” noted Captain Uy, who has been a seafarer the last 36 years (20 years of which as ship master) since completing his BS in Marine Transportation from the University of Cebu. “If big waves hit the ship at the broadside, and they are strong enough, the ship could capsize. That’s why power is essential to be able to maneuver, face the wave head on, and ride over it,” he explained.
Short video clips provided by Captain Uy to the MetroPost showed the difficulties they were experiencing during the rescue in the rough sea, as the fishing boat was bobbing up and down and “disappearing” among the high waves. At one point, a woman was trying to climb the pilot ladder but lost her grip when big waves slammed the fishing boat into the freighter.
Another video clip showed others quickly jumping from the fishing boat, swimming towards the freighter, and attempting to clamber up the freighter. One man failed and tried again.
“In about two hours [from the time we saw the boat], the rescue of 63 persons was completed,” said Captain Uy of the Antigua & Barbuda-flagged vessel. “But it was a 22-hour harrowing process for my crew who demonstrated so much patience and compassion to the migrants.”
After they were pulled up on board, the distressed migrants crouched on every space available onboard BBC Pearl, and were immediately provided food by the crew.
Captain Uy then requested authorities in Malta to airlift a severely-ill four-year-old who had to drink seawater due to extreme thirst. The toddler did not make it.
The group of migrants had also lost three other children due to dehydration even before they were rescued by BBC Pearl.
All the rescued migrants finally disembarked at a port in Crete, Greece.
According to UN figures, thousands of undocumented refugees from the Middle East and North Africa attempt to leave their countries by crossing the Mediterranean Sea enroute to Europe. Many of these migrants ride on makeshift boats.
Figures released in June this year showed that 123,300 crossings were reported in the Mediterranean at the height of the pandemic last year. More than 3,200 have been reported dead or missing.
Captain Uy said it feels good to have done something right to save more than 60 lives. “They kept repeating to me the word shukran,” which is Arabic for ‘thank you’. “One was repeatedly kissing my hand, saying shukran several times.”
Captain Uy said he decided to help “because it was something we had to do, and we’re all supposed to help each other in times of need.” He said he is proud of his crew, most of whom are OFWs under contracts with the Philippines’ largest manning agency, the German-owned Marlow Navigation, with an office complex in Malate, Manila.
The 17 officers and crew are composed of three Ukrainian nationals and 14 Filipino seafarers: Noel Uy from Tayasan, Negros Oriental based in Dumaguete City (master), Aurelio Aivan from Capiz (chief officer), Alquel Batiancila from Iloilo (2nd officer), Kirby Ayuno from Bacolod City (3rd officer), Jonathan Estano from Cebu (chief engineer), Andie Concepcion from Ligao, Albay (2nd engineer), Akim Kurilov (4th engineer), Serhiy Bessmertnyy (electrician); Ronald Maca from Mabini, Bohol; Jade Tajanlangit from Tayasan, Negros Oriental, and Ramonito Makinano from Bohol (able-bodied seamen); Glenn Trivilegio from Tigbauan, Iloilo and Andrii Abakumov (ordinary seamen); Rhussel Gundayao from Taytay, Rizal (deck cadet), Renante Rosallosa from Culaba, Biliran (wiper), Rey Anthony Ycot from Cebu City (engine cadet), and Everette Ortega from Argao, Cebu (chief cook).
After the humanitarian rescue operations that day, the BBC Pearl resumed its journey towards the Suez Canal to deliver project cargo in the next port of call. (Irma Faith Pal)
(Read related article on ‘Housewives on the Move’ by columnist Olga Lucia Alinas-Uy.)