On a typical cruise, the most stressful choice you face is what to order for dinner. But one 2018 voyage veered far from its planned itinerary when the captain called for the vessel to come to a complete stop. At that moment, the dream vacation became a life-or-death struggle. The passengers gripped the ship's outer rail with white-knuckled hands as they spotted what was floating in the water ahead of them.
Passengers boarded the Pacific Princess cruise ship ready to start their vacation and float away from their responsibilities. With their problems behind them and the open ocean in front of them, there was no reason to expect anything but smooth sailing for the duration of their trip..
The boat sailed through the North Sea and stopped in the British Isles during the 8-day-long excursion. The 670 guests on board the vessel were nearing the end of their trip as they headed back to port in Dover, England.
But rough waters were ahead.
As you can imagine, passengers were confused and startled when all of a sudden the cruise ship changed course while they were winding down from the day and enjoying dinner. Meanwhile, the crew was working in a frenzy..
Normally, cruise ships have a set course and don't deviate from it. If they do, because of a storm or rough seas, it is carefully planned out and executed.
So, this sudden change could only mean one thing — something was very wrong.
The captain of the Pacific Princess made a gut decision to change course immediately after seeing something alarming in the sky — a burst of light! He notified his crew members and set his new destination toward the bright light he'd seen..
As the boat drew closer to the location of the strange light, it became clear that the captain was correct in trusting his instincts. This wasn't an optical illusion; instead, someone in need of help had lit an emergency flare!.
The captain knew that whoever fired it must have been in desperate need of help, but he was unsure just how badly off they were. There was no mayday signal heard over the radio, and there were no other vessels for as far as the eye could see.
It was ominous, to say the least, but the captain kept up his speed all the same.
Normally the Coast Guard would handle a search mission like this, but the captain knew his vessel was closest to the scene. He feared that the people in need would soon get even more lost at sea, and he couldn't let that happen on his watch..
Not long after the captain ordered the ship's new heading, he spotted something floating in the ocean. He wasn't sure what it was at first, as there was nothing else around it.
Was it just a piece of floating refuse, or was it something more?
At this point, the passengers on the ship began to crowd the railings on every deck and balcony that the cruise ship had. They were curious, fearful, and anxious to see what had caused the captain to abruptly change course....
As they got closer, the captain realized that there was a life raft floating adrift on the open sea! Things looked grim from far away, and it looked like he might have arrived too late. However, once the captain saw some movement from the raft, the flicker of hope was restored..
There were three men floating aboard, and all three of them were alive! The men poked their heads out, relieved to see another ship. They had been floating for hours just hoping there was a soul out there who saw their flare.
It was a desperate gamble.
Rather than wait hours for the Coast Guard to arrive on the scene, the captain wanted to attempt a rescue mission so that the men didn't have to suffer anymore. The logistics of the rescue presented quite a challenge because the life raft and cruise ship were so different in size..
"Originally they didn’t think we were going to be able to rescue them," Teena Dowd, a passenger on the Pacific Princess, said. "We were on the very top deck, and people were just sort of holding their breath, everybody was anxious." Still, the ship's officers weren't willing to wait for outside assistance..
Moving ever so carefully, the cruise ship was able to get close enough to the stranded sailors to throw down a rope. Then, it would be up to the survivors to summon the willpower to climb up the side of the ship.
However, this plan proved to be more complicated than the crew anticipated.
The first man attempted to climb up the makeshift ladder to safety, but he ended up slipping and plummeting back down into the water! Luckily, the sailors were able to retrieve him and pull him back aboard the life raft. They could only hope he wasn't too badly injured..
The captain went back to the drawing board and had his crew construct a sturdier ladder. It took over an hour, but eventually, they were able to successfully get all three men out of the water and safely on the cruise ship.
But the worst wasn't over.
"Everybody clapped when they came on the ship," Teena explained. "But we didn’t know until a while later when the captain announced that there were actually two more and we were still searching for them." So who were these mystery men floating in the middle of the sea?
The captain soon learned that they were five ordinary fishermen whose ship had gone under. Unfortunately, the three survivors aboard the Pacific Princess had no idea where their comrades had ended up.
With every second that passed, the odds of rescuing the other two grew smaller and smaller.
Rather than head back to port right away, the cruise ship stayed in the area. The crew hoped to find the remaining two sailors while they waited for the Coast Guard to show up.
An hour later, rescuers arrived on the scene to provide medical attention to the three men and to take over the search.
The military sent out helicopters and patrol boats to scour the area, along with a few local ships that were requisitioned for the mission. They had reason to believe that the missing men ended up in the open water after their ship sank in a freak accident, so the authorities needed to cover as much ground as possible..
The Coast Guard scanned through the night until about 3:30 in the morning when they called off the search. Giving it one more try, they returned to the area at first light.
Sadly, they discovered the bodies of two men who were later identified as the two missing sailors.
It wasn't the outcome they wanted, but if not for the quick action by the Captain of the Pacific Princess, there could have been more casualties. The rescue echoed the attempts of experienced Captain Chase Cornell, who changed course to follow a suspicious blip on his radar, fearing his was the only boat around for miles that could intervene in a crisis.
When it happened, Cornell and his two crewmates ran a charter on their boat, Southern Eagle, for three fishermen on the Atlantic Ocean to catch blue marlin. The ship was a Viking convertible, about 52 feet in length.
Everyone aboard, including Cornell's boss, was experienced on the waters, which would soon be of critical advantage.
Their collective experience is probably why they weren't alarmed by the radar ping at first. But then again, something wasn't quite adding up.
As Cornell and his crew approached the site of the 'blip', he could see there was a strange shape bobbing above the waves. And, initially, he wasn't concerned. "Something like that floating in the water creates its own little ecosystem that attracts fish," Cornell told Field & Stream in February 2021.
"I knew it was something bobbing in the water," Cornell explained to Field & Stream. “The kiss of death out here is to run your boat into an 'iceberg' — a capsized vessel or shipping container." So when the captain saw the occasional ping on his radar, he started to slow down to investigate.
The "something bobbing in the water" was about three-quarters of a mile away.
Cornell also knew that a floating object in the water could be a stroke of luck for a group of fishermen. So he aimed the Southern Eagle toward the "blip" on the radar and no doubt hoped for the best.
The sun had just come up over the horizon at this point. Cornell may have even thought that they'd catch the blue marlin before breakfast. But he'd have been wrong.
"We steered toward [the 'blip' on the radar]," Cornell told Field & Stream. "I could see that it was probably a capsized boat with some floating gas cans tied to the rail, and I told the mates to get the rods baited up." If the fish were biting, that's where he wanted the Southern Eagle to be.
He was still not alarmed.
So the crew started to prepare their lines to try to haul in some dinner. But then everything changed.
Looking out into the Atlantic, Cornell realized that something was wrong. And when it dawned on him exactly what he was seeing, a chill ran up his spine. His mission for that day had just become very different.
The next thing the crew knew, Captain Cornell was yelling for everybody to forget about their fishing rods and double-time it to the bridge. Cornell could never have expected this would be the source of his radar "blip." "For us to cross paths, it was nothing short of a miracle," Cornell later told ABC affiliate WPBF..
Cornell later explained that the capsized vessel was about 20 feet in length. But more shocking than that was the lone man adrift in the ocean.
A million questions must have sprung into Cornell's mind: who was this man? How had he ended up 20 miles offshore? But the fishing crew didn't have time to speculate. Now, they had a new job to do.
"I saw the gentleman raise his hand up and start waving at me," Cornell explained to WPBF. "And that's when I knew we weren’t fishing anymore.
We were actually there to rescue somebody." Crewmate Lynch also said, "You have to help. And that's just what we were doing."
But the rescue wouldn't be straightforward. The man didn't know how to swim and had only survived so far thanks to his life jacket.
And to make matters worse, his boat's gas jugs had leaked. "He was basically floating in a slick of gasoline," Cornell explained to Field & Stream.
The Southern Eagle crew threw the man a life ring. Fortunately, the adrift guy was able to dive into the ring, and the crew managed to haul him safely onto the Southern Eagle.
But this was far from the end of the story. "His skin was really burned. His clothes were soaked and drenched in gasoline," Cornell told WPBF.
Time was of the essence. "We cut his clothes off with some line shears and wrapped him in towels and anything else we could find," Cornell told Field & Stream.
"Then we put him by the engine compartment, the warmest place on the boat." But even then, the man wasn't out of the woods.
"His jacket was practically corroded onto him," Cornell added. "His hands were raw from holding onto a rope all that time.
You could almost see into his hands. The gasoline had burned him pretty bad, so we washed that off with Dawn detergent and warm water. He screamed when we got to his hands." Then the crew began to settle the man down.
The fishermen watched as the rescued man downed coffee, cans of soda, and bottles of water. They also gave him a handful of candy and a sandwich to eat.
And all the while, the crew began to piece together the incredible story of this man's frightening ordeal.
The unlucky sailor was Orville Lyons — a Jamaican national. He and six other passengers had set sail for the U.S.
at least 36 hours beforehand. Cornell explained that Lyons said their captain had had too much to drink and had gone into the water. Then the boat had overturned in the rough ocean. That scary moment, however, was only the beginning of his story.
Incredibly, the man had floated more than 100 miles since going into the water, all while clinging to a capsized boat. There had been only four life jackets on the boat, too, meaning at least three people went overboard without any hope of survival.
Then Lyons shared the most tragic news.
The man lost at sea told Captain Cornell and the crew that the other six passengers on his vessel were now nowhere to be found. He said the last person he'd seen had gone adrift the night before.
The only thing everyone aboard Southern Eagle could now do was wait for the Coast Guard. They arrived to pick up the stranded survivor just 90 minutes later.
The Coast Guard later told WPBF that Lyons was recovering in hospital — and that the organization had searched for the remaining survivors. Unfortunately, though, the Coast Guard spent five days searching more than 10,000 miles of the Atlantic without success.
"The decision to suspend a search-and-rescue case is never one we come to lightly," the Coast Guard later said in a statement. Particularly as these crews know better than anyone that victory can often be snatched from the jaws of defeat.