Providing help to boats, passengers and anyone in distress at sea has been a long-standing maritime tradition – and has even been translated into law. In part due to pressures to arrive on time and the huge costs of delays, responses to distress calls can be scarce, even if it is a duty.
Instead, rescue missions tend to rely on the captain's good heart and the crew's initiative to act when the call is made, often plunging them into an emotive and rapidly changing scene. Here, BOAT unpacks five of the most impressive rescues at sea and how they came about.
Man Rescued from an Inflatable Ring Raft
"He was extremely weak and not quite coherent," said captain Marc Wellnitz, who was involved in the dramatic rescue of a 29-year-old man who had been stranded at sea for five days in a "pool toy" doughnut raft. In what Wellnitz recalls as a "surreal" experience, the crew of 57.6-metre Feadship yacht W spotted a hand waving at them from the water off the coast of northern Spain.
Wellnitz said: "The fact we spotted him was a miracle of its own" – especially considering the man was wearing a black wetsuit and his raft was also black. The crew "physically lifted him from the water" and, once he was on board the yacht, they treated him for sunburn, open wounds from the saltwater and suspected early-onset hypothermia. They then contacted the coastguard and a helicopter was sent to airlift the man to the hospital.
Wellnitz suspected the man, thought to be a Moroccan national, jumped from a passing ship en route to Spain before attempting to swim to shore. "Anybody wearing a wetsuit [has made] a planned move to be in the water," he said.
18 Hour Search for 15m Catamaran
Choppy seas, incorrect coordinates and darkness all around – not easy conditions to navigate, as captain Petar Milkov and his crew on the 85-metre explorer yacht Victorious know all too well. Captain Milkov received a distress signal from a 15-metre capsized catamaran 60 nautical miles away and responded immediately, beginning a search pattern issued by the local search and rescue authority.
It soon became clear this was not where the sinking catamaran was, so the search authority provided captain Milkov with another location which was a further four hours' away. Luckily, the second location was correct and the first officer on Victorious spotted a speck of light, which turned out to be the survivors' life raft. After a tough operation and challenging conditions, they were pulled on board by hand from their fragile RIB.
The passengers, all injured, were given medical assistance and the story of the catamaran's capsizing slowly emerged: The bad weather had broken and the wind had dropped, so the catamaran put up her sails. It was then that the multihull was 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.
Migrants saved by Mayan Queen IV
When an Italy-bound migrant boat sunk 47 nautical miles off Greece's southern Peloponnese peninsula, the 93.5-metre Mayan Queen IV was one of many rescue vessels involved in the major search operation – rescuing at least 100 people thought to be from Libya.
A coastal patrol vessel attempted to make contact with the boat several times before the disaster, according to the Hellenic Coast Guard. Conflicting reports put the number of passengers as high as 750.
A statement by the Coast Guard said: "The shipwreck brings to the fore once again, in the most tragic way, the need to dismantle the international smuggling rings that endanger the lives of migrants".
Stranded Vessel Rescued by Utopia IV
"It wasn't on any charts and didn't look like it was a passing ship. [The watchkeeper] woke me and we made a decision to turn towards the lights to have a better look. The closer we got we realised it was them [two stranded men] with a flashlight trying to punch out SOS," said captain Jeffrey Wierzba of Utopia IV .
The 63-metre Rossinavi yacht was on a delivery trip from Miami to New York when her crew spotted the unusual lights in the distance. They approached what turned out to be a six-metre fishing boat and found two men, believed to be in their fifties, who had left Fort Pierce earlier that day for a fishing trip in Freeport, Bahamas.
Their single outboard engine failed and the Gulf Stream took them into the Atlantic, where they had been adrift for a day when Utopia IV found them floating 65 miles off Cape Canaveral.
The men had to abandon their boat and swim to the side boarding platform of Utopia IV, where they were hauled aboard and provided with dry clothes before the crew made up beds for them.
16 Passengers Rescued from Sinking Sailing Yacht
The 37-metre Alloy sailing yacht Genevieve and her six crew were motoring from Antigua to St Maarten when the lookout heard a "faint noise that sounded like a woman's scream", according to an account by captain Thomas Auckland.
After realising someone was in the water, the situation escalated into a rescue operation and Genevieve sent out a mayday call. Four crew were positioned on deck with torches and searchlights to try to locate the individual and, after six minutes of searching, they spotted some retro-reflective tape and discovered a man in the water clinging to a damaged life jacket. They knew it wasn't over yet, though, and continued searching.
Next, they discovered a woman clinging to a white plastic barrel and then, approximately 1.1 nautical miles from the first casualty, they found the upturned fishing skiff La Belle Michelle II with 15 persons straddling the hull. The crew of Genevieve used a rescue sling and an additional safety line to bring the casualties, believed to be Cameroonian refugees fleeing the civil war, aboard one by one. Despite efforts from the crew to recover all the occupants of the vessel, the last casualty fell from the hull and was unable to make it along the line.