EXCLUSIVE: Captain involved in boat rescue shares heartbreaking testimony of tragedy at sea

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Surviving Cameroonians aboard superyacht Genevieve, moments after they were rescued by the captain and crew (Photo courtesy Captain Thomas Auckland)
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By Observer media’s Shermain Bique-Charles and Carlena Knight

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It’s unlikely there will be more survivors but it is the responsibility of the responders to keep looking, even if it’s just to retrieve bodies.

That was the stance of luxury yacht captain Thomas Auckland who played a leading role in the search and rescue efforts on Tuesday after a boat carrying African migrants capsized off the coast of St Kitts.

Auckland spoke exclusively with Observer a day after he and the crew of superyacht Genevieve rescued several survivors of La Belle Michelle which overturned 12 nautical miles north of St Kitts, near the east coast village of Conaree, with 32 persons on board.

According to Captain Auckland, based on his years of experience at sea, the bad weather and the lack of safety gear onboard La Belle Michelle means the likelihood of finding more passengers alive is slim.

Up to last night, around 13 people were still missing. Local Defence Force officials continued to scour the waters on Wednesday.

The captain went on to give a grim recount of the ordeal.

He explained that they were sailing around 20 miles north of St Kitts when they heard a woman’s screams.

They saw a man and a woman clinging to a barrel and managed to pull them out of the water.

Auckland said the woman revealed that they had travelled from Antigua with around another 28 persons, but that the boat suffered engine failure and capsized.

Captain Auckland then proceeded to make a mayday call which prompted the cruise ship Britannia and other nearby vessels to make their way to the location.

But it would take another hour before Auckland and his six-member crew located the overturned vessel and were able to get another 14 survivors onto their boat.

The rescue coordination was carried out by MRCC Fort De France of Martinique with MV Britannia as the on-scene coordinator. A US Marine vessel was also on the scene to help.

Although Auckland and his crew managed to save a significant number of people, he revealed that they had to witness one person drown as the water was just too rough for them to save them.

In all, they managed to rescue 16 persons. Of those, two were Antiguan, Antigua and Barbuda Defence Force officials confirmed, and the rest were Africans believed to be migrants in search of a better life.

The 30ft La Belle Michelle, believed to have originated from one of the nearby French territories, was reportedly cleared by the Antigua Port Authority for travel to St Thomas with its captain and two other persons.

However, the boat allegedly took a detour to Urlings on Antigua’s southwest coast. It was said to be dangerously overcrowded for its size.

It is alleged that the Africans on the boat were trying to get to St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands in a bid to ultimately reach the US mainland.

And while Defence Force officials at the time could neither confirm or deny these reports, Auckland did share that 14 of the passengers they rescued said they were from Cameroon.

During his interview with Observer, Auckland admonished persons not to risk such dangerous journeys.

He said it is imperative for top officials and others to do all in their power to dissuade other Africans from attempting risky sea voyages.

In a statement issued on Tuesday afternoon, Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne expressed “deep sorrow” at the loss of life and distress suffered by the passengers who were aboard La Belle Michelle.

He said the government would launch “a full investigation into the circumstances of this unlawful and dreadful affair, including the involvement of any citizens and residents”.

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