April 19, 2012— -- Princess Cruises is conducting an internal investigation after the captain of one of its ships reportedly ignored a passenger's report of a distress signal and continued on course, rather than coming to the rescue of a stranded Panamanian fishing vessel.
Two of the fishing boat's three crew members later died of dehydration, one day after the encounter with the cruise ship.
Adrian "Santi" Vasquez, 18, set out on a fishing trip Feb. 24, 2012, with two 16-year-old friends, Oropeces Betancourt and Fernando Osario. The trip turned deadly when the trio discovered that the outboard motor on their small fishing vessel, "The Fifty Cent," would not start, leaving them stranded in the middle of the ocean. The three Panamanian fishermen drifted at sea for more than two weeks, hungry, hot, and dehydrated, before they spotted the Star Princess cruise ship and started desperately signaling for a rescue.
"It was a really big, white ship. I was waving a red T-shirt, and Fernando was waving a bright orange life jacket over his head, Vasquez, the crew's sole survivor, said in an interview with panama-guide.com. "For a minute it looked like they were going to turn to come for us, but then they just went on their way."
Meanwhile, Judy Meredith of Bend, Ore., and Jeff Gilligan of Portland, Ore., were bird watching on the deck of the Star Princess with Jim Dowdall of Dublin, Ireland, when they spotted the Fifty Cent far off the ship's starboard side.
Equipped for bird watching, the group was armed with high-power binoculars, or spotting scopes, and cameras fitted with telephoto lenses, all of which gave them a good view of the fishing boat in the distance.
"I saw a young man in the front of the boat waving his shirt up and down. Big motions, up over his head and down to the floor, waving it vigorously. Frantically I would say," Meredith told "Good Morning America."
"That signal told me that they were in trouble. They were trying everything they could to get our attention."
Meredith said they told someone at a desk they wanted to call the bridge and be sure they checked on the boat. She said the man at the desk made a call, then came back out and looked through their spotting scopes at the boat, then went back inside.
"Nothing happened," she told "GMA." "The ship didn't slow down. It didn't seem to change course. And so I went back in and asked what the captain was going to do. And he said he didn't know."
Not pacified by the encounter, Meredith returned to her room where she wrote down the ship's coordinates and sent an email to U.S Coast Guard in hopes that they would take action.
"The boat appeared to be a disabled fishing boat with one person aboard and nets strung up from the masts," Meredith wrote. "The person was actively waving a shirt or fabric object up and down with both hands. Since we were so many miles off shore and had not seen ANY watercraft all day, we summoned a representative from the ship and asked him to phone the bridge.
"The rep then came back after calling the bridge of the Star Princess and looked through our scopes himself and could see the man waving something. By this time, he appeared farther away and was now waving a red flag," she continued in the email. "We took this to be a sign of distress. The boat could be disabled and the man adrift. The Star Princess did not turn around or appear to make any active attempt to deal with the information, so we were bothered and decided to send information somewhere ourselves although we realize this is NOT U.S. waters."
The Coast Guard did not find the Fifty Cent however, and the boat floated aimlessly for another two weeks, during which both Bentancourt and Osario died of dehydration. Vasquez, the sole remaining fisherman, was rescued at sea March 24, 2012, by an Ecuadoran fishing boat.
He was found 650 miles off shore, having thrown the bodies of his two friends overboard.
"It's really frustrating that those young men were at sea two more weeks and two of them died. Two of them died because the ship didn't turn around," Meredith said.
Santa Clarita, Calif.-based Princess Cruises, which is British-American owned, said in an email that it has launched an internal investigation into the matter, writing, "We're aware of the allegations that Star Princess supposedly passed by a boat in distress that was carrying three Panamanian fishermen on March 10, 2012. At this time we cannot verify the facts as reported, and we are currently conducting an internal investigation on the matter."
The consequences could be dire if it is found that the captain, who claims that he believed the fisherman were waving at him as a thank you for avoiding their nets, was acting negligently in ignoring the fishermen's signals.
Regulation 33 of the International Convention for the Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) Chapter V states:
"The master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance on receiving a signal from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance, if possible informing them or the search and rescue service that the ship is doing so. If the ship receiving the distress alert is unable or, in the special circumstances of the case, considers it unreasonable or unnecessary to proceed to their assistance, the master must enter in the log-book the reason for failing to proceed to the assistance of the persons in distress, taking into account the recommendation of the Organization, to inform the appropriate search and rescue service accordingly."
The Fifty Cent was not equipped with a functional radio, making communication between the two vessels, including confirmation that the boat was or was not sending a distress signal, impossible. When the two ships encountered each other, they were roughly 130 miles from the closest land, much farther out than a fishing boat the size of the Fifty Cent would normally go.