Two members of the Probus Club of Basingstoke, Secretary Paul Flint with partner Janet Fagg and Vice President Richard and Sibyl Wood, witnessed a rescue of over 50 people from a rubber dinghy in the darkness as their cruise ship Sapphire Princess made progress from Ceuta in Spanish Morocco en route to Lisbon.
Paul explained “We were in the theatre when an announcement from the captain around 8.15pm advised that they has spotted a small stationary vessel and following Maritime Law had to stop and check on the situation. Our ship’s position was approximately 30 miles south of the Spanish port of Cadiz and it was clear that the small vessel had no lights and did not appear to be capable of making progress.”
“I presume the small vessel had set out from somewhere in North Africa and was trying to reach Spain and if so they had a long way to go in the darkness.”
Looking later from their adjacent room balconies close to the stern they were able to watch as the Sapphire Princess (116,000 tons) prevented itself from drifting into the rubber dinghy where people were frantically baling and their outboard engine was not running. The ship used its bow and stern thrusters to maintain a steady position and because of its vast bulk it created a lea shelter from the prevailing wind which made for a much calmer surface.
The dinghy had come alongside and was secured by a rope while the ship’s crew threw life jackets and blankets to the immigrants huddled together for shelter.
The captain had decided that as there was no imminent danger to life that he would maintain a sheltering position and contacted the Spanish coastal authorities for assistance. They sent out a rescue boat with powerful searchlights which came up to the stern of the cruise ship and then manoeuvred to a position approximately 100 yards to the side of the Sapphire Princess. This was presumably to ensure that there could be no dangerous physical contact between all three vessels.
At this stage the dinghy was cast off from the Sapphire Princess and it drifted towards the Spanish rescue ship. The immigrants could be heard shouting and using their whistles and lights from their life jackets as they drifted away from the cruise ship. All fifty or so were safely transferred to the Spanish vessel which it is believed would take them to the Spanish mainland after which they would be returned to the port from which they departed in north Africa.
The operation lasted just over two hours. The captain said that over the past ten years the crews and ships of the Princess Cruise Lines have participated in over 30 such rescues.