by Leon Norville
Distraught relatives of two fishermen missing at sea for more than a week have spoken of their heartbreak after the search for their loved ones was called off.
The Antigua and Barbuda Defence Force Coast Guard has discontinued the search for the men who went out fishing on June 23 and have not been seen or heard from since.
Lester Small, 49, of St Johnston’s Village, and Leon Sears, 56, of Cashew Hill, reportedly left Parham Harbour aboard fishing vessel Eden and should have returned home a day later.
Their families are left trying to cope with the harrowing ordeal of them disappearing without a trace.
Lt. Elroy Skerrit confirmed to Observer that the search had to be suspended as his team had followed up on every lead, and more than a week has now passed with no sign of them or the vessel.
But relatives of the missing men told Observer they were upset at what they claim is poor handling of the case from day one.
“Astounded and absolutely surprised” is what Lester Small’s niece said when she received the news.
“I don’t understand how they can give such minimal effort and quit, when they were late to the party from the beginning by ignoring the distress call on Friday,” she said.
Captain Dorian Davis, Staff Officer for Operations and Training at the ABDF, said the coast guard received the notification about the missing men on June 25. He said a search was launched in the general area of where the men were thought to be fishing, around Antigua’s north-eastern shores.
Working along with the coast guard was the Antigua and Barbuda Search and Rescue (ABSAR) as well as regional counterparts, including the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) in Martinique and Regional Security Systems (RSS) in Barbados.
On Sunday and Monday this week, ABSAR, MRCC and RSS conducted an aerial search using aircrafts covering some 1,800 nautical square miles over waters to the north of the country, as well as sea searches, and there is still no sign of the fishermen or their vessel.
One of Small’s relatives told Observer the family have not had the chance to even sit down and take it all in. They are in overdrive mode pushing to do all that can be done, with “no time for giving into the emotions right now. There is just a big sense of wonder right now”, she said.
Sears’ cousin Lorraine Sears said, “To know that the coast guard has called off the search is very heart-breaking because we were depending on them to go out there and find them and to hear now the search has been called off… the family isn’t holding up well at all.”
Lennox Agard, a close family friend of Sears, told Observer that he really cannot understand what is going on.
“Nobody is telling the family nothing…I cannot eat or sleep,” he said. In a sombre tone he said the hardest part of this experience is that every time Sears’ family members call from Guyana, he cannot give them any answers to bring them comfort or put their minds at ease.
The story of the missing men has been pulling on the hearts of the public too, and last Sunday former Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge participant Eli Fuller, who is a boat captain, fisherman and vlogger, took to his social media space “Vlog Island” to raise awareness and share his concerns on the very unfortunate situation.
He also suggested safety tips that local fishermen and boaters can use when heading out to sea. Fuller left no stones unturned during his discussion and spoke extensively on the importance of communicating one’s location at sea to a friend or family member.
This, he said, helps in the event there is an emergency, so the coast guard and search and rescue teams know where to begin their search. He also recommended devices and gadgets that every fisherman and boater should have, including GPS trackers and equipment that can be used to send messages via satellite to keep in contact with loved ones.
He also spoke to the fact that the country’s coast guard operations are understaffed and under financed which limits their operational capacity in situations like these, a concern Prime Minister Gaston Brown spoke about addressing imminently in parliament recently.
Owner of the fishing vessel the two men went to sea in, Sydney Retemyer, said he is still trying to wrap his head around what could have happened to his friends at sea.
“My vessel is equipped with all the mandated requirements by the fisheries division and is also emergency ready,” he said.
Retemyer thanked the Calvin Ayre Foundation for executing an aerial search on Saturday and Sunday at the request of the family to get the ball rolling on search and rescue operations.
The coast guard previously appealed for anyone with information that might assist search efforts to call their base on 462-3206/ 462-2843/ 462-2841/ 462- 0671.
Mariners are also being asked to be on the lookout for the missing fishermen. Sighting reports can be relayed to the coast guard’s centre via VHF channel 16 or 26.