Only 12 hours into its 15-day mission on the Mediterranean Sea, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) research vessel Atlantis put science on the back burner when a mayday call came in late Friday, the vessel's captain said in a ship-to-shore interview with the Times on Sunday.
An emergency call relayed by the Greek coast guard around 9 p.m. reported a fishing boat in distress about 40 miles away.
"We could tell it was on our track line," Capt. A.D. Colburn III, captain of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution vessel, said Sunday. Not knowing who was on board, how many of them there were or just what the Atlantis could do to help, the ship nonetheless responded to the call.
Thus began a high-seas adventure that ended with the rescue of 93 cold and frightened Egyptians who were later transported safely to Greece.
According to Associated Press reports, the Greek coast guard said the men were trying to get to Italy from Egypt.
Colburn said he later learned the events had been kicked in motion by a cellphone call from one of the people aboard the small wooden fishing boat. An hour later, the coast guard alerted the Atlantis it was needed to pick up everyone on board.
"We had to put our own ship security in place," Colburn said, locking down all hatches so the fishing boat passengers couldn't gain access to the ship.
Only about a dozen people aboard Atlantis stayed on deck while the rest of the crew, scientists and others stayed below for their own safety, he said.
The 274-foot Atlantis worked through 6- to 8-foot waves with 30-knot winds to effect the rescue, Colburn said.
An oil tanker was on the scene, but its crew was worried about the safety of taking on the fishing boat passengers, particularly because many of them were smoking.
The Atlantis learned those on the roughly 50-foot-long overcrowded fishing boat were Egyptian men, most in their 20s. They were peaceful and happy to be rescued, but no one aboard the Atlantis or the oil tanker knew how to speak Egyptian, Colburn said. Another ship on the scene had a crew member who knew the language and facilitated communications.
Though early reports indicated the fishing boat had suffered engine failure, Colburn said the engine appeared to be working. But with far too many people on the boat, it struggled in getting close to the research vessel.
"It was sort of a crash landing coming alongside of us," he said. He said the fishing boat was in danger of eventually sinking.
The Atlantis crew helped all 93 people board the research vessel, including the Egyptian captain, who at first resisted.
"They were really happy to be off that fishing boat," Colburn said.
The crew supplied the tired but relieved men with water, soft drinks, food, blankets, cigarettes and clothing. Some of the rescued men gave the crew honey candy as thanks.
Speaking with the coast guard every hour, the Atlantis forged through heavy rain northward toward the Greek port of Kalamata. Eighty-eight miles and about 7½ hours later, they arrived.
By late morning, the crew was heading back on their mission, a 15-day excursion to research the chemistry and possible life in brine lakes about two miles deep in the Mediterranean Sea, according to WHOI's website.
In a news release issued by WHOI Sunday night, Colburn said he and others on the Atlantis were happy to be back at sea.
"We all can be proud that we did our duty as seafarers," he said. "It was a long and satisfying night, knowing we helped others in need. Now let's concentrate on our science mission."
By Robert Gold
Source: Cape Cod Times