In the morning of February 28th, MV Mount Steele was passing through the Mindoro Strait on its way towards Port Hedland. The bulk carrier had diverted from its original course, at the request of the master, due to bad weather – yet this quirk of fate proved essential to saving the life of one man.
At 08:30, A/B Balwinder Singh and ETO Parvez Shaikh spotted from the main deck what appeared to be a person in the water off the starboard side of the ship. The officer on watch, 3/O Deepak Khokhar, sighted similar from the bridge and immediately notified Capt. Rajesh Antil.
On closer observation, they could make out that it was a man desperately clinging to an object, while frantically waving and shouting to them for help. There was no boat in sight. With this confirmed to be a distress call, the crew leapt into action – the first rescue operation for many of them and one they put all their effort into.
Activating the second generator to assist with emergency manoeuvring, the ship slowed down and managed a turn in order to approach the drifting man at minimal speed, reaching him half an hour after the first sighting. Unfortunately, the waves and current kept pushing him away from the ship, hindering rescue attempts.
A second turn was ordered to try again, while the crew contacted MRCC Philippines and prepared to lower a rescue boat. But despite getting within 60 metres of the man and firing line throwers out towards him, he was unable to grab hold of them before the ocean pushed him back.
Once more, the ship began turning, and it was on this third attempt that they succeeded. Pulling up only 30 metres, a lifebuoy and several heaving lines were thrown towards the man. This time, he managed to grab hold of the lifebuoy and was reeled in an hour and a half after the initial sighting.
The survivor, a Filipino national self-identified as Rodel Francisco Esponola, had been at sea for far longer than that: once aboard, he revealed that he had been adrift for an astonishing four days, without another ship in sight the whole time, and nothing to hold onto except a remnant of his long-lost fishing boat. What an incredible will to survive!
The ship’s medical team brought Mr Esponola to the hospital room, where he was provided with blankets and had his health checked. It was determined that he had no major issues besides a few scratches and a fatigue so deep he could barely speak, with language also being an issue, though the crew could make out that he was extremely grateful to them for saving his life.
Mount Steele proceeded towards a Philippine Coast Guard vessel, which brought Mr Esponola safely aboard at around 14:00. With the survivor in good hands, the bulk carrier resumed its passage to Australia, thus concluding a miraculous tale of incredible luck, fortuitous circumstances, and survival against the odds.
Indeed, had Mount Steele not diverted course due to the weather, Mr Esponola may never have been rescued – a stark reminder of how one small decision can change so much. Well done and congratulations to the crew of Mount Steele for their heroic efforts!