For 22 U.S. college students on a voyage in the Caribbean, the six-week trip would have been an adventure to remember in any case, but their encounter with a boat full of Haitians adrift at sea made it a life-changing event.
The students, studying oceanography in a program called Sea Semester at Woods Hole, Mass., were about 45 miles north of Jamaica on Wednesday deploying some research equipment from their vessel, the SSV Corwith Cramer, when one student spotted what turned out to be a 25-foot open boat packed with 49 Haitians, including 14 children and infants. The Haitians had been heading for Jamaica, but were adrift after their boat lost its mast and rudder. Passengers on the distressed boat said they had been at sea for five days.
What to do was decided over the course of the next five hours. Through calls to the U.S. Coast Guard and Jamaican authorities, the students learned that the Corwith, a 135-foot sail-powered research vessel, was the only boat within reasonable range to rescue the Haitians. Jamaican authorities said they could not rescue the group of Haitians but would receive them.
But there were risks to be considered, said John Bullard, president of Sea Semester: "Piracy is one of them. Exposure to disease is another."
On the other hand, he said, if the research vessel "had just sailed away from 49 people ... our students would have been scarred in other ways."
Assessing the risks
Under the direction of the vessel's captain, Steve Tarrent, who leads an 11-person professional crew, calls went out to search-and-rescue experts and medical experts.
The decision was made to bring the Haitians aboard before the sun set. "We thought if we towed the vessel it might not survive that. We would end up fishing people out of the water," said Bullard. "We felt the safest action was to bring them aboard during the daylight when we could control some things."
As the Haitians gathered in a sheltered spot above deck on the research vessel, the crew cut the smaller boat loose after marking it with fluorescent paint to avoid sparking unnecessary search-and-rescue efforts if it were spotted later. A meal of rice and beans was prepared for the unexpected passengers.
'We're all in the same boat'
An escort boat met the Corwith off the coast of Jamaica, and delivered the Haitians safely to Port Antonio early Thursday morning. The ship's crew and student were resting in port before finishing off their sailing semester in Key West, Fla., on March 19.
The captain and students were not immediately available for comment, but Bullard said parents who were contacted expressed great pride in their children's role in the rescue.
"What we have in our planned curriculum is the study of oceanography, and the history and literature of the sea and skills like navigation and weather forecasting," said Bullard. "One thing you learn that is not in the curriculum is that we're all in the same boat.
"This group of students got a chance to learn this literally."
Waves of unrest and poverty have driven thousands of Haitians to seek refuge outside their country over the past decade. One common destination is Jamaica. Many Haitians are denied refugee status and forced to return home.