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Cruiseship officer describes how his emergency training 'absolutely kicked in' and praises fellow crew for their part in saving three men's lives at sea. Deborah McPherson reports
Max Bingle credits Merchant Navy emergency drills and fishing boat handling skills for giving him the confidence to volunteer for a daring sea rescue – a feat which led him to becoming the youngest-ever recipient of the prestigious Merchant Navy Medal for Meritorious Service.
The 24-year-old third officer with Princess Cruises is surprised by all the attention he has received for his part in the July 2019 rescue of three US nationals from a supply vessel in the pitch black during a force eight gale off the Caribbean.
'This recognition is completely out of the blue. Everybody on board acted in the highest maritime tradition by going to the aid of fellow sailors in peril on the sea. Saving lives is what we are trained to do as seafarers, and I'm grateful for this recognition,' he says.
'I was just doing my job as was everyone else, so I have been a bit taken aback by it all to be honest. I don't see myself as special.'
In November 2020 Mr Bingle, who hails from three generations of fishers in Devon, was recognised for his special efforts in the 2020 UK annual state maritime awards,. He received the Merchant Navy Medal alongside 19 other maritime professionals, who were all recognised for outstanding service and contribution to the sector. The awards celebrate the vital contribution of Merchant Navy seafarers to our country in peacetime and wartime.
In 2019, Mr Bingle was nearing the end of a world cruise which started in Sydney, and was sailing near Curacao in the Caribbean, when the ship received a distress call after sunset from the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) saying there was a sinking vessel around 60 miles away from them with three men in danger.
'I was on the bridge with a senior officer when the call came through,' he said. 'We called the captain to the bridge who took over, and we turned the ship around to navigate to the sinking vessel's last known position.
'There was a tanker that was standing by on the scene. It was a lot closer than us, but they couldn't lower the rescue boat into the water or pick the life raft up, so that is why we turned the ship and went back. There was also a coastguard spotter plane overhead guiding us in.'
About a mile away from the sinking vessel the rescue crew left the cruiseship and went down into the Fast Rescue Class (FRC) vessel, then dropped into the water.
'We then sailed around three-quarters of a mile to the life raft to recover the men. It was pitch black and a force eight gale.'
Mr Bingle managed to get to the three rescued men, who were unharmed and keenly jumped from their liferaft into the FRC. They were taken back to the cruiseship and seen at its medical centre. Not much is known about the supply vessel, but it is believed it was being repositioned from Miami to somewhere in the Caribbean.
'The recued crew did not say much when we got there. The wind was howling, and they were just were a bit wide eyed, and when they saw me they just jumped straight into the rescue boat. I asked them if they were all okay, and they all said yes, and that was pretty much it and we just headed straight back to the ship.'
Cruiseships are not always routinely equipped with a specialist FRC vessel, but one is carried on Princess Cruises as an optional extra due to its suitability over usual tenders or lifeboats for emergency man overboard manoeuvres, says Mr Bingle.
Even so the Caribbean at that time was full of seaweed, which in rough waters meant the rescue vessel also become endangered near the end of the rescue mission as the jets started to block up. But with the help of two other cruiseship crew, Mr Bingle carried on and saved the lives of the three US nationals. They made it back to the cruiseship in the nick of time, managing to deposit the crew via the pilot door.
Of his training Mr Bingle said: 'As seafarers we get the best training and every two weeks we have a drill. It gets repetitive and sometimes you think "why am I doing this?", but when something like this happens – you're grateful,' he adds. 'Plus I had just come off shift and with my background in fishing, I was used to handling small boats, so I just thought I was a natural candidate to volunteer for the FRC vessel, and no one else objected!'
Mr Bingle said it was the first time he had experienced anything so memorable or where the training 'absolutely kicks in as second nature. You don't even realise you know. Everyone knows what they have to do.'
The cruiseship, which had around 2,000 mainly Australian passengers onboard, docked in Curacao the morning after the rescue as planned, albeit six hours late, and then continued its route towards the Panama Canal and back to Australia.
Mr Bingle said that the award nomination came as a surprise: 'The medal for me is enough – I was just doing my job and it is nice to be recognised.'
But Mr Bingle says he is glad the publicity drew public and shoreside media attention to seafarer keyworkers who are responsible for 90% of world trade. 'That is a positive,' he says.
Mr Bingle, his brother and father run a small crabber, a business started by his grandfather which has come in handy as a secondary income during the pandemic. He was encouraged to go to University after leaving school, however his passion was the sea. So aged 18, Mr Bingle chose the 'happy medium of education and a career at sea' and went to Warsash Maritime Academy. He has been with Princess Cruises, his cadetship sponsor, ever since.
Since his dramatic rescue, and during the pandemic which put world cruises on hold, Mr Bingle has studied and qualified for his Chief Mate's licence ('almost as exciting as getting a Merchant Navy medal') and hopes to now become a second officer in future.
His next goals are simple: 'Just to see more of the world, and to explore. I have done two world cruises but now I want to explore places I haven't been before.'