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US Coast Guard Never Received The Message About Stranded Panamanian Fishermen Spotted By Star Princess Birdwatchers

Panama News
US Coast Guard Cutter
US Coast Guard Cutter
By DON WINNER for - The US Coast Guard has formally and officially responded to the request for additional information submitted by this website on Sunday, 15 April 2012, as part of my efforts to follow-up on the story about the three Panamanian fishermen who had been stranded at sea for two weeks in a 26 foot fishing boat, adrift in the Gulf of Panama more than 130 miles from shore, who were spotted by three birdwatchers aboard the Star Princess cruise ship on 10 March 2012.

When Judy Meredith's efforts to convince the crew of the Star Princess the fishermen were indeed stranded and needed assistance, and when it became apparent the cruise ship was going to continue on without rescuing them, out of desperation she returned to her cabin on the ship, obtained the ships current location by jotting down the GPS coordinates available on the television in her room, and attempted to notify the US Coast Guard of the situation. Judy was hoping the Coast Guard would be able to notify the local Panamanian authorities of the plight and location of the small fishing boat, to coordinate a search and rescue effort, to save the stranded men.

The US Coast Guard has now formally responded to my request for additional information about this incident, as coordinated through the US Embassy in Panama City, Panama. (more)

The complete text of the message Judy Meredith attempted to send to the US Coast Guard on 10 March 2012 was reported in my first article published about this incident, Panama Castaways Were Spotted By Cruise Ship Passengers - And Ignored By Ship's Captain.

Still concerned about the men they had seen waving for help, Judy returned to her cabin and made note of the ship's position and the current GPS coordinates, which were available on one of the television channels in her cabin. She said "I went down to our cabin and got the coordinates which are posted every few minutes on a TV channel in the cabins. I wrote down the coordinates a little while after we passed by the boat. That location was at position 06 12′ 25″ N, 083 29′ 08″ W on 10 March 2012. So the photo I sent you was of the boat we saw just SW of these coordinates."

Now the cruise ship was steaming away, and the castaways were fading towards the horizon, but Judy still would not give up. Determined to do something to try to help these men, she returned to her cabin and attempted to send a message to the United States Coast Guard, in a frantic last-ditch effort to get help for the men on the fishing vessel. This is the text of the email Judy sent to the US Coast Guard;

  • "Sent to US coast guard at 6 pm local time ( between CR and Ecuador) While on a cruise ship the Star Princess, between Ecuador and heading to Puntarenas Costa Rica, 3 of us are birding off the starboard deck with good optics and spotted a boat at about position 06 12.25 N and 083 29.08 W today, possibly about 10 miles SW of that location. The boat appeared to be a disabled fishing boat with one person aboard and nets strung up from the masts. 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. 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 US waters. We are 3 birders with a lot of experience at sea and were using Swarovski binoculars 10/50, a Swarovski spotting scope at 30 to 60 power and my KOWA scope at 30 to 60 power. We have no doubt whatsoever that we saw a man appearing to be in distress and want to be sure that someone who is able to communicate such information knows about it. Respectfully submitted, Judy Meredith, Bend, Oregon, 97701, but presently at sea and unable to make a phone call."

A Missed Opportunity For Rescue: On Sunday, 15 March 2012, I sent the following request for information to the Headquarters of the US Coast Guard Pacific Area in Alameda, California, as reported in this article - Captain Edward Perrin - In Command Of Cruise Ship That Failed To Rescue Panamanian Castaways. Here's the text of the request I sent to the US Coast Guard;

  • As described in the article below and in the earlier telcon;

  • I would like to know the following;

  • 1. Did the USCG receive the email message sent by Judy Meredith on 10 March 2012?

  • 2. What was done with that information?

  • 3. Was there any attempt to relay the information provided to the search and rescue organizations of any other nation, possibly Costa Rica or Panama?

  • 4. If so, how was that information transmitted?

  • 5. To whom (specifically) was the information transmitted?

  • 6. Please provide the name of the receiving organization, any phone numbers that might have been called, the names of the official who received the information, etc.

  • Spirit and Intent: Judy Meredith did everything humanly possible to try to alert search and rescue authorities of the stranded Panamanian fishermen on 10 March 2012. The cruise ship captain should have stopped to render assistance. However lacking that, then hopefully the information passed to the USCG should have been coordinated with local SAR forces. Its possible the information was received here locally, and that SAR forces responded with aircraft or vessels to conduct a search, with negative results. I want to close the loop on this aspect of the story and event.

Official and Formal Response: I received the following today from a U.S. Embassy Spokesperson:

  • The U.S. Coast Guard heard about the rescue of Adrian Vasquez from the boat Fifty Cents in media reports in late March. Like many such incidents of people lost at sea, this case is at once a remarkable story of survival and a tragic tale of loss.

  • Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of those lost on the Fifty Cents, and we commend Mr. Vazquez for his strength, perseverance, and fortitude.

  • We very recently heard reports that a cruise ship passenger attempted to send the U.S. Coast Guard information about a boat they felt needed assistance off the coast of Panama on March 10 through the "comments" option on a web site. Our Pacific Area search and rescue center spoke with the cruise ship passenger to try to determine what website she may have used, but she did not recall the name or URL of the website.

  • We have reviewed our public information web sites and e-mail files managed here on the West Coast area and didn't find anything like the report described by the cruise ship passengers. Our national headquarters in Washington DC is checking to see if such a message was received at the main Coast Guard web site.

  • Because questions being asked about the cruise ship involve a vessel registered in Bermuda that was operating between South and Central American ports, the U.S. Coast Guard has no jurisdiction or role in reviewing the incident.

  • Anyone who feels there is an emergency situation at sea -- or on land should make direct contact with, and get a response from, proper authorities. The use of websites with "comment" or "e-mail" options is not recommended for emergency communications because they are not monitored.

That's What We Suspected: In my first conversations and contact with Judy Meredith, she explained that, in her haste, she had simply called up the first website she could find for the US Coast Guard. She entered the "Contact Us" section of the website and typed in her message. But it was one of those pages where you type in your message but then once you hit "send" it goes off into the ether, and you might never get a response. Recognizing this, Judy made a copy of the text of her message, and sent it via email to her son, and then eventually to me. So the response from the US Coast Guard confirms that they basically never got the message, in a manner that would allow them to coordinate or respond to this type of an emergency situation. There were other elements in play as well, such as the slowness of the Internet connection available on the ship for example. Surfing for websites was painfully slow, and Judy said it took more than half an hour just to send that simple message.

An A+ For Effort: Judy Meredith still deserves every recognition for trying to do something. She tried to notify the ship's crew, and that didn't work. She tried to notify the US Coast Guard, and that didn't work. But what matters most is that she cared enough to try...

The Story Has Now Gone Viral: When I first started reporting on this story, I did Internet searches via Google for keyword combinations such as "Adrian Vasquez" or "Star Princess" or "Panamanian fishermen" and got basically nothing. I was the only one reporting on this story, and early this week I was still trying to push it out, in an effort to get some wider recognition for what had happened. Over the past 48 hours or so basically everyone has picked it up, all over the world. Now those same keyword searches return more than 500 news articles, all over the Internet. It's been on all of the major news networks in the US, AP, NPR, and several European newspapers and magazines. So, "mission accomplished" as far as that is concerned.

Pound Sand...
Pound Sand...

Kicking Old Don To The Curb: Most of the news agencies who have picked up this story have done a very good and responsible job of reporting, and that's great. However this week I was contacted by ABC's Good Morning America (for example), and even though I was running around like a madman because I was about to take off for Bocas to work on another story, I took the time to stop what I was doing to participate in a live interview with their correspondent via Skype. Then when they aired their piece, it looked as though they were actively trying to find ways to cut me out (they did make exactly one reference to the website's address.) Then yesterday the local AP reporters in Panama went and interviewed Adrian Vasquez in Rio Hato, and then they reported the story, again without mentioning me or this website. I guess it's the "cut throat" attitude of the larger "professional" news agencies and organizations - and they're not used to my more simple "just please give us a mention" policy, based on trust and mutual respect. In short, they're pricks. So, thank you very (very) much to everyone who mentioned and recognized my original reporting on this story. Those who didn't can pound sand. Look it up...

Carnival Has Responded: I would like to state for the record that Carnival still has not responded to me directly with anything. I've seen their responses and press releases as quoted by other media. In a statement released Thursday evening they said;

    "The preliminary results of our investigation have shown that there appeared to be a breakdown in communication in relaying the passenger's 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. Had the Captain received this information, he would have had the opportunity to respond."

That Also Checks With What I Suspected: I knew it had to be some sort of breakdown of communications between the crew member and the bridge. However it is also Carnival's policy to "shield" the ship's Captain from the passengers to some degree. Today I received an email from another person who was also stymied in her attempts to communicate with the ship's Captain while on a Carnival cruise;

  • Mr. Winner,

  • I'm not sure whether your inquiry with Carnival Cruise has yielded a response yet, but I was on a Carnival Cruise earlier this month and during that time was made aware verbally of Carnival Cruise policies that may be germane in the Star Princess Story.

  • Earlier this April when I took my two children on board the Carnival Fantasy to cruise to the Bahamas, I had an incident wherein an unsupervised child was kicking, biting, punching other children. I made the nearest crew member aware and requested that security intervene. I filed a formal complaint with guest services and I specifically asked Carnival Employees to speak either with the Ship's Captain or First officer as from my understanding of maritime law they are the only ones authorized legally to do anything about this situation. I was told that it is Carnival policy to NOT let passengers interact or talk to the Captain or his crew, and so my request was denied.

  • If I was informed correctly, and Carnival does indeed have in place a company policy that essentially shields the Captain from direct passenger feedback, then it is quite possible the news of the fishing vessel in distress never reached the Captain. I know my complaints weren't taken seriously by Carnival "middle men" employees and I would wager that the concerns raised by passengers on the Star Princess were likewise disregarded, leading to such a tragic outcome.

  • Sincerely, Cheryl Garner

So, Who's Investigating Carnival? I'm getting tired of hearing that Carnival Cruise Lines is conducting their own "internal" investigation. I don't think that any agency or organization should be allowed to investigate themselves. I don't know who or what governmental agency or organization is responsible for officially and formally investigating these kinds of incidents and situations, but I think it's time for someone else (besides Carnival) to investigate, because by now it's obvious that Carnival is going to be most interested in damage control and spin. There's little to no chance that they will be any definitive or corrective action taken to make sure this kind of a thing doesn't happen, ever again. I know that the family members of the two Panamanian fishermen who died have hired a very capable and competent lawyer here in Panama, so I suspect soon there will be some kind of an announcement along those lines. I think this story is far from over.

Copyright 2011 by Don Winner for Go ahead and use whatever you like as long as you credit the source. Salud.

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US Coast Guard Never Received The Message About Stranded Panamanian Fishermen Spotted By Star Princess Birdwatchers | 4 comments | Create New Account
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US Coast Guard Never Received The Message About Stranded Panamanian Fishermen Spotted By Star Princess Birdwatchers
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, April 20 2012 @ 11:37 PM EDT

If contacting the Coast Guard is anything like my experiences contacting the Postal Police or the FBI, you are having an uphill battle. Forget it. Remember crimes not received never happened and it makes their stats look better. If you had sent them an email on the sixth Friday of a full moon on an odd month, you may have gotten through to a federal agency. Good luck with that one.

US Coast Guard Never Received The Message About Stranded Panamanian Fishermen Spotted By Star Princess Birdwatchers
Authored by: Anonymous on Saturday, April 21 2012 @ 02:02 PM EDT

Congratulations--made The Oregonian in Portland, OR!

US Coast Guard Never Received The Message About Stranded Panamanian Fishermen Spotted By Star Princess Birdwatchers
Authored by: Anonymous on Saturday, April 21 2012 @ 09:22 PM EDT

It does not surprise me that the Coast Guard never received the communication. Four of us were sailing the 45 foot ketch, Ludvika, from Fort Lauderdale to Boston getting an assist from the Gulf Stream in May of 1990. We put a lot of distance between ourselves and the coast because the ocean is safe, but the hard edges around it are not. After a few days we were about 200 miles off the coast of Cape Fear, NC when the wind began to grow in intensity eventually reaching about 55 to 60 knots out of the NE directly into the current. The air was perfectly clear and there was no forecast of a storm. Note that storms are measured by wind strength and are unrelated as to whether or not there are clouds and rain. The waves grew to about 35 feet which happens when wind and current collide. We had our exact position every few hours from SatNav because GPS satellites were first being launched at the time, but the system was not actually operational yet. We contacted the Coast Guard in Hampton Roads, VA to report the conditions we were experiencing. They told us that our measurements were wrong and that satellites showed no problems. We were asked if we were requesting rescue, and we informed them that everything was under control, and trying to abandon ship to get on another ship or helicopter seemed far more dangerous than just riding out the storm (or non-storm in their opinion). They requested that we call every hour to report our position and condition.

We did that for about 6 hours, but decided to heave to allowing everyone to get some sleep and be rested for what would happen as the wind began to clock around producing waves from multiple directions. We placed one more call to inform the Coast Guard there would be no more calls, but reached the Coast Guard in Boston. Boston agreed to relay the information to Hampton Roads as we were unable to raise them.

I was at the helm the next morning when I spotted a 4 engine propeller powered aircraft headed directly toward our bow from possibly 10 miles away. I informed the Captain who successfully raised Hampton Roads USCG. They were furious that we had stopped calling and had started a search. THEY HAD NEVER GOTTEN THE MESSAGE FROM BOSTON USCG. They patched us through to the aircraft which was so low that I feared it would hit our mast, but that was an illusion, and soon the aircraft appeared much higher at an altitude of about 500 feet as it came near. The aircraft, with a diagonal red Coast Guard stripe, asked what color our boat was, to which we replied "all white". The reply was that the entire ocean was solid white. At least they finally believed that we could recognize a storm when we were in one with our anemometer showing gusts over 60 knots. I was at the helm wearing all red foul weather gear, and the Captain asked me if I could try doing jumping jacks as we were rising and falling 30 feet between each wave and informed the aircraft what heading to follow to return to us and to look for a fellow in a red suit jumping up and down at the helm. The Captain was below to use the radio, but I called off the remaining distance as the aircraft approached us from the stern. When they were about 500 yards away, they finally spotted me and then the 45 foot boat. Everyone agreed that there was a storm, that we were better off continuing as we were, and that we would place no further calls unless we were in distress. Also, we said we were sorry for the screw-up in communications, but the incident did not seem to surprise them.

We spent the next 2 to 3 days just keeping our yacht in a situation to make the action as gentle as possible until the storm weakened and the waves diminished substantially. Then we put into Norfolk to have repairs made. As we made our way in, sailors lined several of the naval vessels stationed there, and the deck of one Trident submarine headed out, to salute us. I had not realized that we had become somewhat newsworthy, at least among the seafaring community. It was a very proud moment for us. We had never considered ourselves to be in terrible danger, and nor had we ever experienced much fear. We were just very busy doing what our vessel had been designed to do. We were also happy for the opportunity to try all the procedures about which we had read regarding handling sailboats in storms.

I did learn that when you report something, get the name of the person to whom you are speaking and be sure to get an acknowledgement from the eventual recipient that they have actually received your message, because they will probably not get it. Assume that they do not have it until you hear from them that they do have it, understand it and are taking action on it. Or, you have effectively reported nothing.

US Coast Guard Never Received The Message About Stranded Panamanian Fishermen Spotted By Star Princess Birdwatchers
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, April 23 2012 @ 03:30 AM EDT

First, I'd like to acknowledge the excellent reportage of this tragic news story by Mr. Winner and send thanks to him and Panama-Guide for sticking with-it. Only if enough people, world-wide, get on-board with the obvious, that there is something terribly wrong with the operational policies of the cruise providers in this case, will such events not repeat themselves.
Mr. Winner has taken the point of several issues in asking for specific details from the owners of Star Princess, who are extremely warry in responding to media query, after the Costa Concordia incident in January.
In following the Concordia story, it appears there are separate organizations involved: The Star Princess owner in Italy, registers the ship in the Bahamas, leases the ship to Princess, dba Carnival (or is it the other way around). Carnival has company policies preventing direct communication between the passengers and operational crew (Captain and Watch Officers), which may likely be contracted-out, by Carnival, to yet another company that actually operate the vessel. So far, no one has come forward with first-hand knowledge as to the operational policies of Carnival and/or the "operational division" line of responsiblity and actual onboard policies of leased vessels, if this is the case. No one has come forward as yet to challenge the ship's owner or Carnival regarding these questions and likely the term "internal investigation" will suffice until a suit is filed against Costa Crociere SpA by families of the two deceased fishermen.
Recent web research regarding the career of Capt. Perrin leaves little doubt that had he been informed of the even the slightest possibility of a vessel in distress, immediate action would have taken place. Capt. Perrin's professional expertise and resolve was put to the test when two (likely inebriated) passengers fell overboard from his ship, the Grand Princess, in the middle of the night on March 25, 2007. Not only did Capt. Perrin take immediate action once notified, he took the correct action, resulting in the rescue of the two individuals by the ship's operational crew under his direct command. From my own experience as a former member of the US Coast Guard, and having some hands-on experience with SAR, where people have been lost overboard at sea, I can assert the extreme difficulty in locating someone in the ocean and retrieving them, while still alive. Capt. Perrin received international acclaim for his actions aboard Grand Princess and from this record, any person or news organization perpetuating the idea of negligence on his part are totally unqualified to speak about the situation on Star Princess. The problem lies with the operational policies of Carnival, the cruise operator, not with professional mariners hired to man leased vessels and this is where the witch-hunt should take place.