It was 7.12 p.m. on Saturday evening when the Gendarmerie de Saint Martin made contact with the CROSS-AG (Regional Operational Center for Rescue and Rescue of the Antilles-Guyana) and announced that a witness on land had just informed them of a vessel on fire near the Sandy Ground Bridge; possibly following a collision with another boat; then he adds that a ship has just capsized and that people are in the water and that one or two other ships are perhaps involved for a total of 3 boats…
At 7.16 p.m. the CROSS-AG hires the Saint-Martin firefighters, then alerts the volunteers of the SNSM sea rescue station in Saint-Martin at 7.20 p.m.
The first information is a little confused, but the CROSS announces that there may have been a collision between 2 or 3 boats near the Sandy Ground Bridge; with a dozen people in the water and possibly one of the burning ships.
Big intervention in perspective; it was therefore decided to hire 2 teams of lifeguards with the resort’s 2 nautical resources.
The Rescue Star sets off first at 7:50 p.m. with 4 crew members to recover any castaways; She was followed 5 minutes later by the SNS 129 boat with 5 crew members and the fire hoses to extinguish any fire … They arrived a few minutes later in front of the entrance to the channel of the Sandy Ground bridge.
Firefighters and gendarmes are already on site, ashore, and many residents of Sandy Ground are present on the coast.
The wind is blowing at 20 knots and a big swell breaks at the entrance to the channel; The Rescue Star encounters a lot of floating debris, then finds a first small 18 foot boat between two waters; but there is no one in the water. The SNS 129, less maneuverable than the semi-rigid, stays a little more out of the channel; there is no fire in the area and no burning odors.
The firefighters on land take care of those involved, who had all managed to swim to the shore and out of the water thanks to the assistance of residents of Sandy-Ground, before the arrival of help. The CROSS confirms to the VHF that all the passengers have been recovered and that there is no longer anyone in the water, but still asks the SNSM to sweep the area in order to locate the vessels involved. Besides the small 18-foot boat, close to the entrance to the channel but almost completely sunk, the first, 25-foot, capsized and drifted upside down to run aground on the coast further south.
There is no sign of the third boat; and the SNSM can do nothing in the area for the two damaged vessels, given the state of the sea and not being a refloating company.
At 9:10 p.m., the CROSS therefore gave freedom of maneuver to the two nautical means which returned to the quayside at Marina Fort-Louis at 9:25 p.m., without having been really useful, because they were alerted late.
So this is the end of this mission; but, 2 and a half hours later, the SNSM volunteer team members will be mobilized again for another rescue (story to read in the next article !!!).
We learn the next day, from one of the captains involved, what really happened near the Sandy Ground bridge:
He tells us that they are a group of friends on 3 boats which follow each other to return to the port in the lagoon of Simpsonbay, after a day at sea. Approaching the channel of Sandy Ground, the first captain, on the 25 foot boat, misses the entrance to the channel which is not marked at night (and the bridge is not lit either!). He then found himself too far to the right, in an area of shallow water, and was surprised by a big breaking wave. He did not even have time to give a boost when the boat capsized and the 8 people on board were thrown into the water, 200 meters from the coast.
The captain swims under the boat to make sure that no one is stuck under the hull; then he makes the call as soon as he goes upstairs to find out where all his passengers are. Meanwhile, the second boat behind them tries to approach to help their friends; but they are also on the wrong side of the channel, near the sandbank, and they take a big wave in their turn. Their boat does not capsize, but it fills with water; the batteries are under water; the engine stalls; the bilge pump stops and the boat begins to sink. There are 5 people (including a child) aboard this 18ft boat, but they have time to get into the water with their life jackets.
The residents hear cries of panic and come to see what is happening; the castaways all make it back to shore and the inhabitants of Sandy Ground help them out of the water; bring them towels and try to comfort them while waiting for the arrival of ground help.
Fortunately, the third boat in the group, which was not following them so closely, managed to enter the channel and return safely with its 6 passengers.
Contrary to what may have been suggested on social networks, alcohol was not a factor (blood alcohol tests carried out by the Gendarmerie); it is simply a navigation error. Human error for which the first captain takes full responsibility. “I messed up quite stupidly, in the absence of luminous markings for the channel and lighting of the bridge,” he told us…
Fortunately, there were no serious injuries; 3 people were treated in hospital, one for a slight injury to the leg, another had 16 stitches and another is treated for shock; but all were able to return home the same evening; very marked by this traumatic event.
The boat which ran aground on the coast was robbed the same night; the other continued to drift between two waters, before also running aground.
Emergencies: (590) 690 767 500 – Station telephone: (590) 590 29 20 46
CROSS AG: Emergency: 196 or (596) 596 70 92 92 or Ch. 16 and 73
Meeting every Thursday from 7 to 8 p.m. at the resort, opposite the Marina Fort-Louis
SNSM 18, Bd du Dr Hubert Petit, Marigot seafront, 97150 SAINT-MARTIN (French Antilles).