The Rescue: Maersk Montana Rescues Survivor of La Belle Vie

The Maersk Montana crew with the rescued sailor from the La Belle Vie. Photo: Steve Miller

By Steve Miller, Third Officer, M/V Maersk Montana – “Let me know when he’s aboard!” came the voice through the handheld radio. It was the voice of the Captain, as everyone knew. “Stop the engine!” the Captain said again, this time shouting through the bridge door from the port wing.

“Stop the engine!” I shouted back.

It was fully dark now, the ship’s deck lighting and the bridge wing spotlight providing the only illumination on deck. The wind was howling its force 8 fury and droplets of rain and spray were dancing in the beam of the spotlight. “He’s on the pilot ladder!” the Second Mates voice on the radio boomed. This was good.

Next on the radio came the Chief Mates voice, “He’s safely aboard!” This was better!

“Okay, cut the boat loose before it sinks!” the Captain said again. “And make sure he’s okay.”

“Stop both thrusters!” the Captain’s voice chanted through the door, repeated exactly by the Third Mate (‘Stop both thrusters!”).

It was now 9:19 PM or 2119 in the parlance of the sea.

A few minutes later, with the sinking La Belle Vita cast off, Captain Richard Hoey, Master of the Motor Vessel Maersk Montana walked back into the bridge to begin getting his ship back to normal, starting with ordering ahead bells and right rudder. Meanwhile, I removed the temporary, search and rescue track from the ECDIS and brought up the ships original voyage track to Antwerp, providing the Captain with a course. Now there would be calls and calculations to make. And the paperwork could start.

The Chief Mate, Forrest Halley, brought Miki (Mihail I. Chumachenko) to the ship’s infirmary to make sure he was in good health and check his documents. This left Second Mate Billy Coulter and Boatswain Sunny Mobley to secure things on deck.

As normalcy began to return to Maersk Montana, we reflect on what it took to get here. At 1332, Maersk Montana Received distress relayed through the GMDSS equipment indicating the Sailing Vessel La Belle Vie was in distress and taking on water. The Second Mate plotted the position and determined that we could provide assistance and called the Captain.

At 1700, it became necessary to leave the current course to continue closing on La Belle Vie and Maersk Montana diverted at this time continuing to run at high speed. At 1850, Miki’s voice was heard over the VHF (Bridge to Bridge) radio for the first time and it was then established that he would be abandoning his vessel. His voice caught as he said the words. His emotions, albeit briefly, in conflict with the cold logic of the situation.

After updating the other vessels closing on the scene from further away; Maersk Patras, Maersk Gironde, and Effy N, Captain Hoey agreed to be on-scene commander, as suggested by the Captain of the Maersk Patras. Maersk Patras began to take on a support role, stationing his and the other vessels to be available but not a hazard.

At 1909, a flare from La Belle Vie was sighted. Maersk Montana continued on.

At 1915,  La Belle Vie was first sighted from Maersk Montana.

At 1920, the Captain and Miki agreed upon a rescue plan. It was a basic and logical plan. Montana would remain upwind of La Belle Vie and approach close aboard until a messenger line could be sent. Then, a more sturdy line would be passed and made fast to the mast so La Belle Vie so she could lay alongside and Miki could be brought aboard by whatever means was most convenient; the pilot ladder was ready, a pair of nets were ready to lower from anywhere on the deck and many lines were made ready.

At 1945, Maersk Montana began her approach. This was the tricky part. The ship needed to be at a speed slow enough to where she could run the engine astern and yet fast enough to catch La Belle Vie, which was still under sail, to maintain a stable condition. To make this work, Chief Engineer Jeremy Travers led a gang of lookouts on the bridge wings. I picked out La Belle Vie’s weak radar return from the heavy background interference caused by the force 8 seas and continuously passed the boats position and the ships true course and speed to Captain Hoey, so that he could manage the motion of the ship to both power and drift onto La Belle Vie. A containership is anything but graceful in a windy and rough sea at slow speed.

So how could the Chief Engineer be on the bridge in such a circumstance? The answer is his confidence in his First Assistant Engineer, Eric Beausang, and his Second and Third Engineers. Between them, the best part of a century of experience. Also, he had the wisdom to know when and where an extra set of eyes would be useful.

And then it was done. Miki opened the seacocks on his boat and grabbed his bag and climbed the pilot ladder.

By 2130, Maersk Montana was back on her route to Antwerp. Everything was done. Everything but the calls the new ETA calculations and the paperwork…