When Capt. Don Jeffrey, a senior ship pilot in the U.S. Virgin Islands,heard his VHF radio crackle with a desperate cry for help, he knew he would probably once again miss supper at home. Little did he know, however, that he was about to perform a most unusual rescue of a ship and crew in distress.
"I was taking a ship out to sea when I got this call over the radio that said, in broken English, something like, ‘Someone is sick; we need help,’" said Jeffrey, a senior pilot with the Virgin Islands Port Authority. "So I got back on the radio and told him to anchor his ship and that we could send some medical help out once they were at anchor."
But the person on the other end was not to be put off, explaining that he was the only one aboard not incapacitated by a severe bout of apparent food poisoning. "He said, ‘Everybody sick, sir; captain unconscious; mate I can’t find. I’m only one, sir.’ This guy had no idea how to operate the ship," Jeffrey said. "And the ship was steaming right toward St. Thomas at 12 knots."
Through a series of broken transmissions, Jeffrey gleaned that the nine other crew aboard the 300-foot freighter Mint Quick had all fallen ill after eating the meat of a shark caught earlier in the voyage. After disembarking the outbound cruise ship, Jeffrey mobilized a small team of emergency medical technicians and ship operators to stop the ship from running aground on barrier reefs off St. Thomas. He called three friends, a Coast Guard auxiliarist, a pharmacist, and an EMT, and arranged for a larger team of specialists to greet the ship once anchored. The four of them then boarded the pilot boat to rendezvous with the approaching ship.
"When we got alongside, we realized that it would be difficult to get aboard for two reasons: one, the vessel was going so fast, and two, the boarding ladder wasn’t deployed," he said. "So I had to instruct him over the VHF to get the vessel off autopilot by pressing the red button on the console, which he was able to do. But then he couldn’t stop the ship because no one in the engine room was answering engine bells. The engineers were too sick."
The crewmember then rousted a cook from his misery and the two were able to deploy the pilot ladder. The scene greeting Jeffrey was unpleasant. "There were people lying in the companionways, sitting unconscious on the toilets, and lying in their bunks." He went quickly to the bridge, however, and was able to anchor the vessel off St. Thomas without incident.
Several crewmembers were so dehydrated that doctors estimated they would have died if gone untreated for another hour. Medical teams immediately hydrated the victims intravenously. The remains of the tainted shark were sent to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to determine the exact nature of the poisoning.