Nearly 50 South Africans came home safely to their families late on Monday after their fishing vessel sank in one of the world’s most remote stretches of the ocean – deep down in the Atlantic, almost halfway between South Africa and South America.
Forty-seven South Africans – part of the 62-strong crew of the Geo Searcher fishing vessel – arrived in Cape Town last night aboard the SA Agulhas II polar supply and research ship after an 11-day sea drama which began near Gough Island, a tiny chunk of volcanic rock which has been leased from the British government since 1956 by the SA Weather Service to keep the country informed about impending severe weather systems, as well as providing insight into climate change.
It started on the morning of October 15 when the Geo Searcher struck a rock while fishing for lobsters (crayfish) near the bleak 91km² Gough Island volcanic extrusion, whose only human inhabitants are a tiny contingent of South Africans meteorologists and scientists with just enough food to last them for their year-long stints on the island.
Gough Island forms part of Tristan da Cunha, described as the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world, situated in the middle of the South Atlantic about 2,000km from the nearest inhabited island, Saint Helena, and about 2,600km from South Africa, the nearest continental land mass.
According to a rescue account published by James Glass, the Chief Islander and director of fisheries of Tristan da Cunha: “I received a satellite phone call from Rodney Green, a Sea Fishery Officer/Observer onboard the MFV Geo Searcher. Rodney reported that the vessel had hit a rock in the waters to the North West of Gough Island… water was coming into the engine room.
“The vessel was listing heavily at 45 degrees, and they were still evacuating the crew. Four of the Geo Searcher’s powerboats, which were fishing at the time, came to the rescue, picked up the rest of the 62 aboard in life rafts and towed them to the South African Meteorological Station on the other side of the island.
“This took four hours. There was a slight swell at the Met station landing, which consists of a 150ft [45m] cliff face (known as The Crane Point), where the crew were hoisted up by crane; this took a further four hours, and all were safely on the island by 1900h,” the Chief Islander wrote on the official website of the Tristan da Cunha Government & Tristan da Cunha Association.
Glass said two people with confirmed (minor) injuries were treated by the local medic, while the remainder of the small South African team on Gough Island prepared meals and accommodation for the unexpected influx of people.
He said the Geo Searcher had been fishing for lobster for some weeks, and had caught just over 50 tonnes at Inaccessible Island, and just under 50 tonnes at Nightingale Island to be transported back to Cape Town to the vessel owners, Ovenstone Agencies.
Ovenstone managing director Andrew James told Daily Maverick that the crew was made up of 47 South Africans, five Portuguese, four Namibians, two Ghanaians, two Tristan Fisheries observers, one British and one Indonesian national.
Back in South Africa, the SA Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa) spokesman, Tebogo Ramatjie, reported that a multi-organisational effort to collect the 62 seafarers of the sunken vessel had been launched by Samsa and the SA Department of Environmental Affairs vessel, SA Agulhas II.
He noted that, “The South African search and rescue region covers approximately 28 million km² of ocean stretching halfway across to South America and halfway to Australia and includes the Antarctic area up to the South Pole.
“The area is one of the biggest regions in the world and covers some of the most treacherous seas on the planet. Limited resources and the vastness of the area creates challenges, but with these efforts, seafarers can rest assured that every possible effort will be made to render them the lifesaving service they may require.”
On the neighbouring island of Tristan da Cunha, the 280 inhabitants also rallied together to collect clothing and other supplies to assist the stricken fishermen.
Late last week, the crew were finally airlifted by helicopter from Gough Island onto the SA Agulhas II – which made a detour to drop off the two fisheries observers at their homes on Tristan da Cunha.
Finally, on Monday night, the South African fishers returned to Cape Town to be reunited with their families.
It remains unclear how the loss of the Geo Searcher will affect Tristan da Cunha residents, as fishing forms the mainstay of the island economy.
The MFV Geo Searcher was acquired by Ovenstone in 2016. Originally built in 1982 as a scientific research vessel, she was converted in Gdansk, Poland, to a factory freezer vessel with cargo and passenger capacity. She made her maiden voyage to Tristan in April 2017 as the island’s main fishing vessel. DM