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Charles R. Lipcon
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Princess Captain fails to rescue fishermen and breaks the law in the process.

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On March 10, 2012, three passengers were bird watching aboard the Star Princess cruise ship when they spotted stranded fishermen at sea. One of the passengers, Judy Meredith of Oregon, described one of the fishermen, saying, “We thought he was trying to flag down the ship, vigorously waving a shirt up and down, and then switching to waving what looked like a red flag up and down and we thought he was in distress.” In fact, Judy told Don Winner of Panama-Guide.com (who was the first to break the story) that “it was perfectly clear to us that those people needed help, and they were trying to get our attention.”

At that point, the passengers contacted one of the ship’s crew and pointed out the small fishing boat. The crewmember actually used one of their binoculars and confirmed that it looked like the fishermen were waving frantically as if they were asking for help. The crewmember then contacted the bridge of the ship and informed the ship’s Captain, Captain Perrin, of what they had seen. Importantly, however, the cruise ship did not turn around. On the contrary, the ship’s Captain actually changed course to avoid the fishermen’s nets. He attempted to justify his action by saying that the fishermen did not look like they were waving for help but, rather, were waving to thank him for avoiding their nets. Judy, however, was rightfully convinced these fishermen needed help and sent a message to the United States Coast Guard. According to the Miami Herald, the United States Coast Guard is still checking on whether they ever received Judy’s message.

Unfortunately, the oldest of the fishermen, 24-year-old Oropeces Betancourt, died the next day and 16-year-old Fernando Osario died five days later. It was not until March 24, 2012 that the last fishermen, 18-year-old Adrian “Santi” Vasquez, was rescued by an Ecuadorian fishing vessel near the Galapagos Islands.

All of this begs the question: why aren’t there laws to prevent these types of incidents from happening? Well, as a matter of fact, there are… the Star Princess Captain just chose to ignore them.

Specifically, according to Miami maritime attorney, Charles Lipcon, international laws require a ship to stop and assist another vessel in trouble. “If it fails to do so, they’re liable for what happens,” he said. “If there’s any doubt, the Captain has to make absolutely sure whether they’re in distress or not. He’s got to stop.”

An example of such international laws includes the International Convention for the Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS). Regulation 33 of Chapter V provides, in part, as follows: “The master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance on receiving a signal from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance…”

In addition, the law in Bermuda (which is applicable to the Star Princess because it is the flag it flies under), also requires the “master of a ship, on receiving at sea a signal of distress or information from any source that a ship or aircraft is in distress, shall proceed with all speed to the assistance of the persons in distress“. Merchant Shipping Act of 2002.

The United States also imposes the duty to assist upon ships. In Caminiti v. Tomlinson Fleet Corp., 1981 A.M.C. 201 (N.D. Ohio June 28, 1979), the court held that a duty to rescue strangers in peril was “implicit and inherent in general maritime law” regardless of whether or not the ship caused the peril in the first place. The court reasoned that “the law of the sea has always demanded a higher degree of care, vigilance and diligence,” and anything less would be “shocking to humanitarian considerations and the commonly accepted code of social conduct”.

It is hard to find the humanitarian considerations or social conduct demonstrated in this tragic incident though. To date, Princess Cruises and the Star Princess Captain maintain that neither the Captain nor the officer of the watch were notified of the stranded fishermen. But they are continuing to investigate the circumstances surrounding the incident.