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Vignette at Sea

Rescue Aboard the Westerdam


Vignette at Sea

Rescue boat in orange; rowboat directly above; cruise ship at left.

© Susan Breslow Sardone.
Updated June 01, 2007

Imagine the scene: Formal night aboard a ten-deck luxury cruise liner, Holland America’s Westerdam in the Mediterranean Sea, sailing toward the port of La Goulette in Tunisia.

Men are dressed in dinner jackets or dark suits; women wear long skirts or gowns. Music softly plays, and quiet conversations are heard over the tinkle of crystal glasses and silver cutlery as liveried waiters deliver appetizers. Special occasions — wedding anniversaries, birthdays, graduations — are joyously celebrated.

Suddenly, the ship lurches. Some passengers feel it and remark. Soon after, Captain Henk Keijer announces that a tiny rowboat has been spotted, and the ship swerved to avoid colliding with it in the vast night sea.

In their finery, passengers put down their linen napkins and rush to the railing to watch the drama unfold. Who are these men in a tiny rowboat, sailing at night in the large, lonely sea without a light to guide them or a motor to hasten their journey?

They shout in French, and our crew makes contact with them; they are Algerian. Eight of them, men ages 23-28, are aboard a small boat whose motor has stopped working. They are out of food and water; one has heatstroke.

Are they pirates? Terrorists? More likely refugees, fleeing untenable circumstances.

Captain Keijer directs one of the giant ship’s rescue boats to be lowered, and the parched Algerians consume bottle after bottle of water. Yet they do not hasten to come aboard. They know the consequences of discovery.

Following protocol, Captain Keijer notifies the Tunisian authorities and requests they send their coast guard to pick up the wanderers from their waters. After some delay, the request is declined. So the crew of the Westerdam rescue the eight Algerians from their tiny rowboat, left bobbing in the inky sea.

On Sunday, May 27, the Westerdam docked in Tunisia. In compliance with international law, the Algerian nationals were turned over to the authorities by ship officers.

Ship passengers know not what will become of the men or the circumstances that impelled the eight escapees to risk their lives in a tiny rowboat without sufficient water, provisions, illumination, or even the knowledge a safe haven awaited them.

As the luxury liner commenced its voyage, the passengers in dinner jackets and evening gowns returned to their shrimp cocktails and filets mignon, reminded of how very fortunate they are in this life.

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