The Master and owners of a cargo ship have been praised for diverting to pick up a desperately sick child on St Helena – two days after being told their vessel was unsuitable.
The MV Traveller was the only ship to respond to a call for help put out by coastguards in the UK.
The ship’s Dutch owners, BigLift, waived all the costs of doubling back the 180 miles to St Helena, and then carrying the girl the 700 miles to Ascension Island.
The ship arrived in James Bay close to midnight on Friday, 6 March 2015, but the seven-year-old child could not be lifted aboard until 3.30 in the morning.
She was landed at Georgetown on Ascension at 2100 hours on Sunday, 8 March, and taken straight to a waiting military plane, arriving at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London on Monday lunchtime.
Martin Bidmead, senior maritime operations officer at the Coastguard Operations Centre at Falmouth, was on duty for most of the three and a half days of the evacuation effort.
He said: “Although the MV Traveller wasn’t the most suitable vessel, because she wasn’t very large, in circumstances that were fairly urgent it proved to be the best option.
“Despite being turned down initially, some time later they were asked to go back. Thankfully they were willing to turn round.”
Martin said a request for help from St Helena Radio was received in mid-afternoon on Thursday, 5 March – with the RMS St Helena five days away from the island.
“They sent a message to us asking for us to see if we could contact shipping to transfer a young female who was ill on St Helena to South Africa or Ascension for medical treatment.
“We spoke to South African authorities and there was nothing they could provide that could assist.
“We then did some satellite broadcasts, using our satellite tracking equipment for ships. There weren’t very many ships at all that could possibly help. In that part of the world the amount of shipping is fairly sparse, to be honest.
“One that did offer was a Dutch ship, the MV Traveller, a heavy lift ship.
“We spoke to the Traveller initially at 9.30 on the 6th. She responded to one of our broadcasts. We then spoke to St Helena Radio who said the vessel wouldn’t be suitable.
“She had a lack of accommodation and the medical personnel initially declined the offer. As time went on it became apparent the Traveller was probably the only option there was.”
At that point, the ship had already sailed past the island on its voyage from South Africa to the Virgin Islands, in the Caribbean, said Martin.
“I got hold of the owners in Holland and asked, would they be happy for us to turn the Traveller back to St Helena, because by this time she was nearly 180 miles to the north.
“They said they would, so I went back to the Master and asked him if he would return to St Helena, which is exactly what he did.
“The Master when I spoke to him said they were able to accommodate the casualty in their sick bay. I believe it was fairly small. The four person team who accompanied her I believe had to sleep in the saloon.
“All credit to them as well. I don’t know how they were going to get back.
“They took her to Ascension where an aircraft was waiting for her and flew her to London. They did it very professionally and very quickly.
“We were very grateful and I’m sure the young child’s family were grateful as well.”
The station at Falmouth, in Cornwall, is the international liaison station for the UK’s coastguard service.
“There is a team of four of five of us on watch,” said Martin. “We were all involved and all wishing this child a full and speedy recovery.
“The job was a little bit unusual because we tend deal with emergencies that involve shipping or leisure boats.
“It is reasonably unusual for us to have to assist someone who is on land and requires assistance from shipping.”
This was not the first occasion a call has been put out for shipping to take a dangerously sick person off St Helena, but it may be the last.
The mayday call went out only four months before a test flight is expected at St Helena’s first airport – due for completion in February 2016.
“We had a look on Google Earth and we could see it being constructed,” said Martin.
“It will be good for circumstances like this but it will effect lifestyles considerably. They will end up with people like me visiting.
“It’s one of the few places in the world I want to visit – I really do.”
- BigLift, the owners of the MV Traveller, said in a statement that the ship was ten hours’ sailing time from St Helena when the request was made for the vessel to turn back to the island. “Her parents, a doctor and a nurse were taken on board. Assistance was requested and without hesitation, MV Traveller responded. The vessel was en route from Durban to the Virgin Islands so the deviation was relatively small. Despite the short notice we were pleased to assist and hope the girl will receive proper treatment and fully recover in time.”