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HOLLAND
AMERICA
LINE
NOORDAM
RESCUE AT SEA:
 M.S. NOORDAM
OF HOLLAND
AMERICA LINE

By RICHARD H. WAGNER
(Originally published in The 104th
Anniversary Dinner Program, Navy
League of the United States, New York
Council, March 2007)

CLICK HERE FOR PDF VERSION
OF THE ARTICLE
In the pre-dawn light of 7 June 2006, two sailors
began cleaning the aft deck of the M.S.
NOORDAM in preparation for her port call at
Kusadasi, Turkey later that day.  The 85,000-ton
ship is the newest in the Holland America Line
fleet, having premiered in New York the
previous February, and it was routine practice to
make sure that she looked her best upon entering
a port.   As the sailors began to work, they heard
what seemed to be shouting.  Looking into the
grey light, they saw something in the water.  
Since it appeared to be human, they immediately
called the bridge.

     "We got a report that there was a man
overboard so we started the [man overboard]
procedure," recalled Third Officer Aafke
Bergsma who was on the bridge at the time.   
The ship launched its man-overboard buoys so
that it could return to the spot where the man
was sighted.  Since the ship was approaching the
pilot station for the port it had already slowed to
16 knots.

     "I came on the bridge a minute or so later,"
Captain Hans Matebor remembered. “The bridge
officers had released a smoke and light signal
attached to a light buoy. They also had pulled the
engines down to stop. I reversed this decision, as
I wanted to sail back to the location of the
smoke. From where we were at that time from
the bridge, we could not see anyone in the water,
and it would be very difficult to direct the Man
over Board boat. The Chief Officer came on the
bridge right after me, and still thinking we were
dealing with a MOB, we decided that he would
be part of the boat crew. The other person would
be the assistant duty officer and the third person,
would be that officer reporting to the bridge next."

     Bergsma along with First Officer Mark
Rowden was given the assignment of launching
one of the ship's fast rescue boats to search for
the man in the water. "Initially, we thought it was
one of our own sailors who had fallen overboard
during washing but as soon as we arrived on
deck to lower a boat, the guys told us that they
saw people in the water, some of them wearing
life jackets."

     "One person on the bridge reported seeing
the person in the water." Captain Mateboer
added.  "He was closer than I anticipated, and
we had not come to a complete stop yet, when
he passed on our port side. To my surprise, I
saw three persons in the water, wearing life
jackets. As this did not add up to a 'Man over
Board' situation, I was still trying to figure it out
when a lookout reported sighting another person,
somewhere on our starboard side. At that time, I
realized that this situation was developing into
something different. We had not heard any
distress signals, so my initial thought was that
maybe a pleasure boat had sunk or so. Our fast
rescue boat started picking up people and from
their reports, it quickly became clear that we
were dealing with refugees."

     Indeed, the fast rescue boat's search quickly
confirmed that there were multiple people in the
water.  Designed for six people, the boat had
soon pulled 18 people from the water.  
Accordingly, NOORDAM dispatched two
tenders to aid in the rescue.     

     Since the deck officers were involved with
launching the boats, Captain Mateboer enlisted
the help of the ship's hotel officers as lookouts.  
Christel Mensink, Guest Relations Manager,
watched the scene from the deck of the
NOORDAM.  "The sound that they were making
was almost un-human.  I could hear it for days
afterward.  It was an un-human throat sound that
they were trying to throw out.  The sound of
'help' wasn't there anymore.  It was just a
sound.  There were these heads popping up and
down.  Looking with binoculars, you could see
more and more people, everywhere in the water."

     "The big struggle we had was that they were
all spread out.  There was like one here, three
there, two there, starboard side and port side, in
front of us, we just did not know where to start."
Mark Zeller, who was acting Hotel Manager
during the voyage, remembers. "Guests were
coming in saying that they saw them on port side
and starboard side and they were all trying to
help to locate them."

     Meanwhile, NOORDAM sent out a May-day
signal asking for assistance.  Although there was
traffic in the area, no other vessel would stop.
"The whole atmosphere out there, they are so
used to people in the water that if you have a
brown skin they will just call the coast guard and
just let you be there," comments Mensink.  

     Approximately, an hour and a half after the
signal was sent a Greek Navy helicopter arrived
but by then the rescue was over.

     The shell doors, used when the ship is
tendering at a cruise port, were opened and the
rescue boats brought the people that they had
found to them.  A medical team, a team with
blankets, and hot food were waiting.  Members
of the ship's crew donated dry clothing to replace
the survivors' wet clothing, which was washed
and dried.  Because of security considerations,
the survivors were taken to non-public areas of
the ship.      

     One question of immediate importance was
how many people were out there in the water.  A
man who spoke some English said that there
were 20 people in the group.  However, as
NOORDAM had already picked-up 22 survivors,
this information was clearly wrong.  Piecing
together information from several of the
survivors, it was finally determined that there had
been 23 people in the group but that one, a child,
had died in the water during the night.  At that
point, NOORDAM discontinued the search.

      However, the survivors' story did not
ring true. "We began to talk amongst ourselves, if
a man were onboard for three days, he would
have a beard.  I would be sunburned after three
days in the hot sun and none of them was
sunburned and they were all cleanly shaved."  
Mensink explained.  In addition, there was
Turkish writing on the life jackets some of the
survivors were wearing and some had Turkish
coins.
      Illegal immigration is clearly not just
an American problem. According to the
United Nations, "over the last decade,
thousands of people including migrants,
asylum seekers, refugees and victims of
human trafficking, have died attempting to
reach Europe by sea."  Indeed, UN
Assistant High Commissioner for
Protection Erika Feller has said: "Rarely a
week goes by without some news of an
unseaworthy boat that has sunk with its
passengers on board, dead bodies being
washed ashore on the holiday beaches of
southern Europe, and people who have
paid huge sums of money to human
smugglers whose last concern is the welfare
of their clients."       

      At first, the survivors were quite
grateful for their rescue.  However, "the
minute they found out that we going to
Turkey their whole attitude changed,"
Zeller recalls.  They became bitter and
began complaining about the cruise ship's
food and making demands.  This is
because, under international law, persons
rescued at sea should be disembarked at
the next port of call and that country is
required to admit them.  

      Yet, when NOORDAM arrived in
Turkey, she found that some Turkish
officials were not eager to have the
refugees back and would not accept them.  
Turkey has become a "transit country" for
a large number of people trying to reach
Western Europe, placing considerable
strain on that country's resources.  While
the UN notes that: "Turkey has made
considerable efforts to improve the
institutional, legal and administrative
framework and procedures in the areas of
immigration and asylum," the realities of
the situation make reluctance a natural
reaction.

      "The Turkish authorities initially were
very understanding and told me that they
would take the refugees," Captain
Mateboer said. "I had to fill in some
paperwork (of course) and then everything
would work out. The paperwork they
needed was on its way, but never seemed
to arrive. By early afternoon, I figured that
they were keeping me quiet till departure
time, at which, I think they hoped I would
leave. We collected a lot a small pieces of
evidence from the refugees, which did
prove that they originated from Turkey,
such as recent bus tickets, nearly new
Turkish lifejackets, Turkish SIM cards in a
few mobile phones etc. However, the
Turkish government insisted they did not
come from Turkey."    

      Holland America Line's main office in
Seattle, Washington decided that
NOORDAM would stay in Kusadasi an
extra day while diplomats from The
Netherlands, the United States and Great
Britain escalated the issue within the
Turkish government. This was not an easy
decision for the cruise line to make.   

      If the ship stayed an extra day in
Turkey, she would not be able to stop at
one of the other ports on her itinerary.  As
a result, the line would lose the revenue it
would have made on shore excursions at
that port.  Furthermore, missing a port
would anger some of the 1,800 paying
passengers which could jeopardize future
cruise sales.  However, if the refugees were
not accepted here, where would they be
accepted?          NOORDAM would be left
with the choice of having a permanent
community of refugees on A-deck or
making an unscheduled voyage to the
Netherlands, her country of registry, to
offload the unwanted guests.

      Holland America Line prides itself on
its tradition of service to its passengers and
thus it put a priority on keeping its guests
informed.  "We sent out several statements
throughout the day both written and verbal
messages from the captain," noted Zeller.  

      Some guests were upset that the ship
would not be calling in Malta and a partial
refund of the cruise fare was given.  
However, when at the end of the cruise,
the officers and staff gave a presentation
reviewing the entire incident, they received
a standing ovation from the passengers.

      On the second day, the Turkish
government agreed to accept the refugees.  
"We are very thankful and appreciative of
the Turkish authorities for allowing these
people to disembark for later repatriation.  
We recognize the important commitment
the leadership of Turkey has demonstrated
to cruise ship safety as well as their respect
for international law and their compassion
for people who are less fortunate,"
commented Stein Kruse, President and
CEO of Holland America Line in a
statement issued at the time.  The refugees
were led off the ship, some in tears to be
back where they had started.  A bus drove
them away.

      The NOORDAM does not know what
became of the refugees.  Hearsay has it
that they were driven a short distance, the
doors of the bus were opened and the
authorities looked the other way.  It would
have been uneconomic to repatriate them
to their countries of origin.  Another report
has it that shortly after the NOORDAM
incident, the bodies of a group of refugees
were found washed ashore on a Turkish
beach.  Were they the same people?  No
one knows.

      Even with all the difficulties
NOORDAM encountered, Captain
Mateboer is vehement that he would do it
again.  "The NOORDAM did act. Of
course, we did. There is no way in the
world I would not act. I would not know
how far one has to lower his ethical and
moral standards before you knowingly let
people drown. Only by putting the ship and
all on board in unacceptable danger would
be an excuse not to. Also, Holland America
Line as a company would never give me
another ship if I would have sailed on. Of
course, it will give a lot of problems and
issues, but very few people can say that
they rescued 22 people. Leaving them in
the water is no option.  Vessels do
routinely ignore their legal obligation. There
is no excuse for this."
Some of the participants in the rescue: Third Officer Aake
Bergsma; Mark D. Zeller, who was Acting Hotel Manager,
and Christel A. Mensink, Guest Relations Manager.
Cruise ship feature - Holland America Line - Noordam - Noordam to the Rescue
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