x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Sailors survive against all odds after boat sinks

Man recounts his nighttime rescue by Abu Dhabi Police after the boat he was in sank far offshore and he was left without a life jacket.

Ali Al Romaithi at Mina Zayed in Abu Dhabi. He is one of three men who were saved from drowning after their boat sank.
Ali Al Romaithi at Mina Zayed in Abu Dhabi. He is one of three men who were saved from drowning after their boat sank.

ABU DHABI // Ali Al Romaithi has been familiar with the sea for most of his life and has seen his share of accidents.

But Mr Al Romaithi, 33, said the most terrifying was last week when his friend's boat sank far offshore and he was left without a life jacket, hoping for a night-time rescue and making emergency calls on a waterlogged mobile phone.

The tale has a happy ending for the Emirati drilling engineer and his two friends, but he said he should have seen trouble coming when they set out.

"When I saw the boat, I told them the engine is too big and heavy for it," Mr Al Romaithi said.

The motor, which weighed 200 kilograms, seemed out of place on the 24-foot fishing boat, he said. There was no safety equipment, not even signal lights, and only two life jackets.

"I did not even know the boat owner before the incident," Mr Al Romaithi said. "My friend Abdullah, who works with him, insisted that I join them on the fishing cruise because I'm a professional at sea."

He said there was no safety briefing and so the men forgot the boat had a mandatory "panic button" connected to the Abu Dhabi Police operations room that would give the ship's location in an emergency.

But none of them were thinking about that as they took the boat, under clear evening skies, more than 30 kilometres off Saadiyat Island. They soon became engrossed in fishing.

"I don't know when the water started flowing in," Mr Al Romaithi said. "As soon as the water reached my ankle, I looked down and I found the sea around me on the boat; hammour fish were swimming inside the boat."

Although the water had reached halfway up his friends' calves, they were not alarmed, he said.

He told them to shift to the other end of the boat so he could turn on the engine and head back to shore.

But the motor was already damaged by the water, as were the two GPS devices they carried and two of their three mobile phones.

Next came several minutes of futile bailing.

"I asked [the boat owner] if he had a rain gutter but he didn't answer," Mr Al Romaithi said. "I don't know if he even understood what I was talking about."

There was only one option left: jump into the water.

"There were two life jackets only so I told them to wear them since I'm a more experienced swimmer," he said.

After his friends finally agreed to jump, Mr Al Romaithi grabbed some important items then followed them into the water. The boat soon sank.

The owner's iPhone was the only mobile remaining.

"So I called 999 with one hand and swam with the others," Mr Al Romaithi said. The operator, not realising the urgency of the situation, told him to call 996 instead.

So he did, and was connected to the Critical National Infrastructure Authority (CNIA) emergency operations room.

"Since I was familiar with the water channels, I told them we were between the fifth and sixth buoy," Mr Al Romaithi said.

He said capturing the attention of the rescue teams was a huge problem as it was after sundown, about 7pm, and there were no landmarks.

"We did not even have lights with us," Mr Al Romaithi said. "The helicopter passed right in front of us and a boat was very near, but they couldn't see us and they drove away."

But Mr Al Romaithi had been fishing at sea since he was 14 and had taken several marine safety and survival courses. He could feel himself tiring and knew his friends' body temperatures were dropping in the cool water.

Police eventually found them at about 9pm. Officials said the Abu Dhabi Police air wing and CNIA boats conducted the search, with pilots using night-vision gear to find the men.

The total search time was less than two hours, police said.

Mr Al Romaithi said he and the two other men climbed on to the smallest rescue boat because it was easiest to get into.

On shore, paramedics found the two other men had core body temperatures of 24°C - 3°C lower than normal. Hypothermia was not far away.

"If we stayed longer we might not have made it out alive," Mr Al Romaithi added.

Having escaped three previous accidents at sea, however, Mr Al Romaithi said he was able to remain calm.

He even went out sailing again the following day.

hdajani@thenational.ae