By Captain A.J. Weis
Master, Sunshine State
On October 16 at approximately 0800 while transiting the Florida Straits enroute from Jacksonville, Florida to Port Arthur, Texas, the mate on watch aboard the Sunshine State noticed what he thought to be an unusually small sailboat on the starboard bow. The Sunshine State was approximately 39 miles southwest of Key West.
Second Mate Nicholas DeFuria and Third Mate Michael Panettieri notified the vessel's master about the suspicious craft and received permission to alter course and investigate. Further investigation revealed a small makeshift craft overloaded with numerous refugees making various signals indicating they were in distress. Closer inspection revealed a homemade small craft consisting of plastic or foam blocks cobbled together along with a small windsurfing sail. The closer we got, we were able to determine that there were nine persons onboard and that the makeshift vessel was severely overloaded and not making much headway under sail and assisted by oars and paddles.
The Sunshine State notified U.S. Coast Guard Sector Key West of refugees in distress and offered to stay close and assist the small vessel until such time as the Coast Guard could get underway and enroute to the scene.
The Sunshine State made several round turns about the vessel to calm the seas and then hove to upwind of the vessel to make a lee while awaiting the authorities. About one hour later, U.S. Customs Boat US9823 arrived on the scene and effected a rescue of all nine persons aboard before returning to Key West. The Sunshine State was released from the scene by U.S. Customs immediately after the rescue and resumed her routine voyage to Port Arthur, Texas.