The British captain of a cruise ship that steamed past a drifting fishing boat with three men on board, two of whom were later to die, was said yesterday to be "devastated" by what had happened. Captain Edward Perrin, of the Star Princess, may not have received word of the stricken boat on 10 March as the Grand Class liner made passage in the Pacific Ocean from Ecuador towards Costa Rica, even though at least three passengers have said they saw a man on the boat through binoculars and alerted crew members.
They said the man was waving a red piece of cloth in what seemed clearly to be a distress signal. Last week, the sole survivor from the boat, 18-year-old Adrian Vasquez, confirmed he had waved a red sweater upon seeing the ship, 16 days after he and his friends had set off from their Panamanian home port on a fishing trip. On the day the Star Princess sailed past, they had already drifted 100 miles out to sea following the failure of their boat's engine.
"Look what's coming over there," Mr Vasquez recalled saying to his boat-mates after spotting the giant liner in the distance. "We felt happy, because we thought they were coming to rescue us." Instead, the Star Princess steamed past them and over the blue-hazed horizon. "I said, 'God will not forgive them'," Mr Vasquez said. "Today, I still feel rage when I remember that."
It was another 18 days before Mr Vasquez was hauled to safety by another fishing vessel. By then, the tiny boat, the Fifty Cents, had been carried by currents almost as far as the Galapagos Islands. Both of his friends had died. After their bodies had started to rot he had pushed them over the side. As Mr Vasquez and the passengers who saw him start to speak to the media, the owner of the Star Princess, Carnival plc, is facing fresh embarrassment. It comes only three months after a vessel from Costa Cruises, which it also owns, sank off Italy, killing 32 passengers.
Under international maritime law, cruise ships are obliged to go to the aid of other vessels in distress if it presents no danger to passengers. In a statement yesterday, Carnival, a British-American company based in Southampton that also owns Cunard and Holland America, said its investigation was continuing but first findings suggested there had been a "miscommunication" on board after the passengers saw the small boat.
The line "deeply regrets that two Panamanian men perished," it said. "The preliminary results of our investigation have shown that there appeared to be a breakdown in communication in relaying the passengers' concern. Neither Captain Edward Perrin nor the officer of the watch were notified. Understandably, Captain Perrin is devastated that he is being accused of knowingly turning his back on people in distress." The company said that Princess cruise liners had undertaken rescue operations 30 times in the past 10 years. "If Perrin had received the information, he would have been able to respond appropriately," it said. "We all understand that it is our responsibility and also the law of the sea to provide assistance to any vessel in distress, and it is not an uncommon occurrence for our ships to be involved in a rescue at sea."
There is also anguish, meanwhile, for those passengers who tried to alert the ship to what they had seen from the deck through bird-watching binoculars. They have said they were denied access to the bridge even though they had shown the boat and man waving to a Princess representative.
Judy Meredith, of Oregon, said she not only told a crew member of what she had seen but also went to her cabin, took the ship's coordinates off a feed on her television and emailed the US Coast Guard. Last week, she said the line had told her after she had returned home that the bridge may have misinterpreted the waving to mean the fishermen wanted the ship to steer clear of its fishing nets. But Ms Meredith said she never had any doubt of the fishermen's plight. "You don't wave a shirt like that just to be friendly," she said. "He was desperate to get our attention."
"It was very disturbing," said Jeff Gilligan, another passenger from Oregon who had seen the boat. "We asked other people, 'What do you think we should do?' Their reaction was, 'Well, you've done what you could do.' Whether something else could have been done, that's a bit frustrating to think about. My only theory is the people on the bridge have seen a lot of fishing boats. And they were on a tight schedule and they let the schedule cloud their judgement."
Mr Vasquez, who agreed to go on the fishing trip in the hope of earning a little money after being laid off from his job as a gardener in a hotel, said he and his friends at first stayed alive by eating fish they had caught and conserving the little water they had taken with them. But the water ran out and the fish turned rotten. He survived only because it later rained, providing him with water to drink.