The Intruders

Dr. X | Dr. X

It's not uncommon for Dr X to come across refugees in boats trying to escape political oppression and lack of opportunity. Few things are as poignant as watching their tiny, rickety boats being tossed about the ocean

Ship Physician's Log: Cruise V, Fort Lauderdale to Cozumel and back

As on all ships, our ship requires some of the crew, which includes me, to do different types of jobs. For instance, after I close up our Sick Bay, I go up, above decks, as they say, to one of the piano bars and play, singing songs for the passengers. I make a little money on the tips, but mostly I enjoy entertaining people with my musical talent.

Another one of my jobs is to back up the regular crew in cases of emergency. Such was the case, recently, when I had one of the greatest adventures of my life. Had I not been on my toes, several innocent people may have been severely injured or killed.

I'll start by showing you the report of Lawrence, our chief of security, at the captain's meeting, given the day after the incident. Lawrence and I were seated around a table with about 20 other people–all chiefs or supervisors for the boat.  The Captain was there, as was the Chief Safety Officer, the Chief Security Officer, The Environmental Safety Officer and a few various other chiefs.

The Captain always ran the meetings.  We finished the Environmental Officer's report, then the Captain turned to his Chief of Security, saying, "Well Lawrence, let's fill the group in on all the goings on last night."

Lawrence was a mid-30s Indian gentlemen who kept himself in good physical condition.  We were friends and often worked out together in the ship's gym.  He pulled a report from the stack in front of him, leaned forward, cleared his throat, and began reading to the group.

Lawrence: On September 24th, Saturday, Ship clock's time 0315 hours, the port deck officer thought he heard some unusual noises coming from the back of the boat and proceeded to move in that direction, deploying his torch.  Torch means flashlight in some countries.

Note to reader: On big boats, like ours, there is a 24 hour watch maintained by deck security officers, usually one on each side of the boat. This is in case someone might fall overboard by accident, or pirates may try to board the ship and take over control of it.  Several ships had been boarded in the previous few months, with the pirates mainly interested in stealing the boat's whiskey supply which exclusively is for the passengers.

Lawrence: The security guard approached the aft section of the boat and noted the noises were getting louder. It was a dark, moonless night and seeing anything was difficult.  Leaning over the railing and shining his light, he spotted a small boat powered by an outboard motor.  It was keeping pace with the Bequest. On board were several men who appeared to be trying to board us.

The guard immediately called the steering house and reported to the Bridge Officer who declared a Code Yellow.

Note to Reader:  Code Yellow is called when there is a general emergency, including a threat of pirates boarding.  It is practiced as a drill by all guests and crew within, as was the custom at that time, 48 hours of embarking from home port.  Passengers are to stay in their rooms and all available crew are to report to their specific assignments.  Then everybody waits for the Captain's instructions

Even though I was sound asleep I woke up right away because the general alarm is this high whistle noise. The captain sounds several series of seven short whistles and then one long one. Then he speaks over the ship-wide public address system, giving information and instructions to all-aboard. 

Due to my status as secondary deck hand, I had a duty to report on deck to my assigned position, deck three, muster station 12, on the port or left side of the boat, toward the back.

Lawrence: The general alarm call sounded as crew clamored to their pre-assigned positions. The bridge ordered the boat to a full stop, according to protocol.

A general announcement was then made by the Captain that a possible boarding threat had been observed.  All guests were instructed to remain in their cabins and crew were ordered to stand fast at their positions.

Note to Reader: My job was to man one of the water hoses in case we had an attempted boarding. The hoses had powerful water pressure and could easily wash someone off the side of the boat into the water.  Firearms were never used, or as far as I know ever onboard.  Crew isn't always familiar with firearms, and it's a lot easier to wash somebody off the boat with a water cannon, especially at night when visibility is poor.  Also, an errant shot could put a hole in the boat thereby starting a leak—then we'd have a whole other emergency to deal with.

With me at water cannon #3 was Juan, who was in charge of turning on the water pressure when I gave him the order, and Mario. Mario's job was to operate the large and powerful light that could illuminate any potential boarders.

Lawrence: All outboard lights were illuminated.

Note to Reader: Suddenly it dawned on me. As I had been running to my water cannon I had noticed something that seemed insignificant at the time. Passing by the life rafts that are kept on Deck 3, out of the corner of my eye I had noted two of the snaps to the tarp that covers the rafts had been unsnapped on life raft #34, the one nearest to us.

I looked back and yes, there were two undone snaps.  Very unusual for a well maintained boat like the Bequest. I told Juan to hold the hose while I walked slowly  to the raft, carefully taking my flashlight out of my pocket. A gentle breeze was blowing and the flap of the raft cover was flapping gently, quietly, from side to side. I stopped, just an arm length away from the tarp. Had some intruder or pirate somehow gotten on board and hidden himself in the life raft without anyone noticing? What else would  explain the loose cover? I slowly and quietly inched forward. I stopped and listened for anything out of the ordinary.  Carefully I stood to the side, turned on my flashlight and quickly pulled the flap to the side, ready for whatever was in there.

"Meeooow, hissssssssssssssssss." IT WAS A CAT!

Juan was first to speak, as the cat, a large female with orange on white spots, hissed at me one last time and then leaped onto the deck and skittered around a nearby corner. "Senor, do not tell the captain. The cat is the mascot of the crew.  We keep him here in the life raft so no one will see. We take turns feeding her during our voyage and she keeps us mouse-free."

Lawrence: At 0326 hours a suspect vessel was spotted on the left side of the boat. They appeared to be boarding.  The Staff captain ordered full blast with all water cannons.

Note to reader: Juan began easing the control forward, I held onto the hose, ready to blast our intruders out of their boat. Then I noticed something curious. I took control of our large lamp from Mario and shined the beam totally around the suspect vessel. It was a row boat! A common ordinary rowboat, with a small outboard motor. Not something pirates would use.  And there were three desperate-looking men in it.  Given their appearance and where we were, I guessed they spoke Spanish.

I got on the walkie-talkie to the bridge. "Captain, stand down on the water cannons, I think I can speak with these people." 

Lawrence: A general order was given to stand down while Dr. X attempted  to communicate with the unknown vessel.

Note to Reader: We were in international waters, but I knew that as we return from the Cayman Islands, one of our regular stops, we come within 15 miles of Cuba.  Cuba is a country where many people each year try to escape–often in boats just like this one. Dangerous open boats with no cover or shade from the sun or other elements.

Fortunately, I speak Spanish and was able to discern what was going on. We could just hear each other over the sound of the heavy waves crashing onto the Bequest if we yelled.

Me: Que pasa, companeros. Donde van.

Them: Queremos escapar de Cuba. No tenemos  aqua o comidas. Puede ayudar nos?

Me: Claro que si. Acercanse, a la puerta, a  ya.  I pointed to our main boarding door.

The deck crew had opened the major, twenty foot wide portal and I directed them to go to it.

Their boat was secured to the Bequest and after security checked to be sure they weren't pirates and had no weapons we invited them to sit.

Mae, our nurse-Cyndi Lauper impersonator, and I set about evaluating the refugees.  As Mae checked their vital signs, other crew members brought food and water for them. I talked with them for about an hour. They told us they had been at sea for almost a week. Seems they had run low or out of most provisions—They had little gasoline left.  We had probably snatched them from the sea just in time.

They were just ordinary people like us, like people everywhere, who wanted a better life. I was struck with how brave they were, and with how intense a motivator the need for freedom seems to be.  All they had going for them was this small boat, a few meager provisions and lots of hope.

Maritime law requires vessels that come across boats and seafarers in distress to either transport them to the next port or supply them with humanitarian aid and let them go back to their boat.

They knew that if we transported them to our next port-of-call, which was Fort Lauderdale, they would be detained and probably sent back to Cuba. I checked them over medically and found them fit. They thanked us for our help and told us they wanted to continue on their own. The captain authorized food, water, and gasoline for them, and after a couple of hours they left, gone, into the still-dark night, on their perilous and uncertain journey. 

Lawrence: After reprovisioning the refugees with food water and gasoline they requested to be allowed back on their boat. Refugees thanked Dr. X for saving them from being washed by the water cannons into the shark infested waters.

Note to reader: And then the Bequest and I, having done our good deed, were off to our next adventure.

The refugees are at the ocean's mercy, motivated by hope, knowing the dangers they face.   I admire these people.  They face all kinds of peril and obstacles as they motor or sail to freedom and opportunity.  Many die.  How desperate they must be. Perhaps someday they will have the liberty to choose how to live their own lives.

I often still wonder about the fate of the 'Intruders'. Submitted By Dr. X, Ship's Physician

About the Author:

Come aboard as Dr X's Private Sea Journal reveals with great story telling and wit the practice of medicine on the high seas including some of the deep dark secrets of maritime medicine, as well as Dr X.


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