Twenty-two fishermen and one fisheries observer narrowly escaped with only the clothes they were wearing when a purse seine vessel sank off the coast of the Marshall Islands capital of Majuro Atoll Friday morning.
American Captain Jim Santos said the over 200-foot long fishing vessel Yap Seagull began taking on ocean water as it neared Majuro in the early morning hours of Friday. The crew discovered the hull was cracked after more than a week of battering waves on the high seas heading into Majuro where the crew planned to transship their catch for shipment to an offshore tuna cannery.
“I woke up to see everyone rushing around yelling about a leak in the hull,” said fisherman Michael Lemari, 22, one of three Marshallese fishermen in the multinational crew aboard the vessel that was flagged in the Federated States of Micronesia.
In an interview Sunday morning on Majuro, Lemari said by the time he got out on the deck Friday morning, the tuna-laden vessel was already listing in the heavy seas.
“The guys were trying to pump the water out of the hold,” he said, adding that he and some other crew members were directed by the captain to ready the lifeboats. “I was by the rafts when suddenly water burst out of the hold — it was like a geyser,” he said.
That’s when the lifeboats were lowered into the maelstrom of high wind and waves with most of the crew on board, Lemari said. The fishing vessel was close to sinking as the lifeboat was released from the purse seiner, he said.
Minutes before it capsized, the captain jumped into one of the lifeboats. Only a couple of laptops and cell phones were saved, Lemari said. “Most of us got into the lifeboat with only the clothes we were wearing,” he said. “Everything we owned went down with the ship.”
After getting into the lifeboat, the crew spotted a large container ship about to enter the channel to the calm lagoon waters of Majuro’s port. The lifeboat motored to the large ship, whose crew unfurled a folding ladder for the men to ascend.
“It was scary trying to get on the ladder,” said Lemari. The small boat was being hammered by big waves and was in danger of being smashed into the hull of the container ship and had to keep circling back to the ship for the crew to try to grab the ladder, he said.
“I thought one of the guys climbing up the ladder might fall off because of the way the ship was rolling,” he said. After six men managed to clamber up the ladder, the rest gave up and motored away from the container vessel and toward the channel into Majuro.
Santos had initiated distress calls and was talking by radio with Marshall Islands Sea Patrol and other authorities. By the time Sea Patrol’s search and rescue vessel reached area where the purse seiner was it had already sunk. They picked up the crew from their lifeboat and transported them to shore where at least one was taken to hospital for unknown injuries.
“We came from American Samoa via Kiribati,” Lemari said. “The boat was battered by high waves all the way.” In the days prior to the sinking, the National Weather Service in Majuro had issued repeated small craft warning due to gusting winds and high waves. The 22-member crew is a mix of nationalities including the American captain and fishermen from Ecuador, Mexico, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, Venezuela, Yap and the Marshall Islands. The vessel also had a fisheries observer from Tuvalu. All are safe and waiting to fly home.