Giving thanks – Good Samaritans

What began as a family adventure to sail to Australia turned into one couple’s quest, not only as mariners, but as parents and as heroes. The courage to save the lives of three strangers was a choice that Maurice and Sophie Conti could only let their conscious decide. Maurice and Sophie had sold everything they owned in 2007 and purchased the 47-foot French flagged catamaran, Ocealys. The Contis started their sailing adventure aboard with their two young children Massimo, who was 5 at the time and Annabelle who was 3.

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Through the Thanksgiving holiday, many Americans look forward to reuniting with family, watching football and of course feasting on turkey and pumpkin pie. But, Thanksgiving is more than good food and good games. It is a time to reflect on those who have made a difference in our lives and community. Today, Compass would like to give thanks to those mariners who perform feats of bravery to save those in peril – good Samaritans. There are times when a good Samaritan vessel is a distressed mariner’s only hope, and we show our gratitude to all good Samaritans by sharing the bravery of Maurice and Sohpie Conti.

Maurice and Sophie Conti are awarded the Certificate of Valor by Vice Adm. Manson K. Brown, Pacific Area commander. The Contis were sailing with their two young children when they responded to a "mayday" call. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sondra-Kay Rivera.
Maurice and Sophie Conti are awarded the Certificate of Valor by Vice Adm. Manson K. Brown, Pacific Area commander. The Contis were sailing with their two young children when they responded to a “mayday” call. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sondra-Kay Rivera.

Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sondra-Kay Rivera.

What began as a family adventure to sail to Australia turned into one couple’s quest, not only as mariners, but as parents and as heroes. The courage to save the lives of three strangers was a choice that Maurice and Sophie Conti could only let their conscious decide.

Maurice and Sophie had sold everything they owned in 2007 and purchased the 47-foot French flagged catamaran, Ocealys. The Contis started their sailing adventure aboard with their two young children Massimo, who was 5 at the time and Annabelle who was 3. Exciting experiences, amazing adventures and memorable moments was what the Contis strived for during this new life on the water. One decision though, would make this trip unforgettable, not only to the Contis but to three complete strangers.

It was late afternoon Oct. 13, 2008, when Sophie and Maurice arrived at the Vatu Lele Lagoon, 50 miles from Sabu, Figi. Since the weather was rough earlier in the day, they anchored for the night. After dinner, the Conti family went to sleep, only to be awakened by the sound every mariner fears.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday!”

Their VHF radio blasted the words through the speaker.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday! This is the vessel Tabella, we’ve struck a reef! Mayday, mayday, mayday!”

No matter what, stay with the boat

Maurice listened closely and waited for authorities to answer the call. When there was no answer, he responded to the vessel and retrieved their location. Sophie contacted Fijian authorities and the Australian and New Zealand Consulate by satellite phone.

Maurice and Sophie Conti in London with Adm. Thad Allen in 2009, where they were presented the Exceptional Bravery at Sea Award by the International Maritime Organization. Photo courtesy of the Conti Family.
Maurice and Sophie Conti in London with Adm. Thad Allen in 2009, where they were presented the Exceptional Bravery at Sea Award by the International Maritime Organization. Photo courtesy of the Conti family.

Time was ticking, and the night was dark, moonless and very windy. Weather conditions were deteriorating and the conditions of the Tabella crew were worsening. Prior to Tabella hitting the reef, the captain received second-degree burns on his face and arm from an engine coolant leak.

The Tabella was getting smacked against the reef with the closest responder a cruise ship 130 miles away. New Zealand and Australian navy and police ensured Maurice and Sophie they were going to get a boat underway and to sit tight.

Around 3 a.m., the Tabella was underwater with no assistance in sight.

“At this point, it became clear that rescue authorities were not going to be able to do something,” said Sophie.

The Contis decided to pull up anchor and relayed one last message to the captain of the Tabella.

“We’re coming, stay with the boat, no matter what, stay with the boat, we’re coming!”

With two and a half hours sailing time and about 16 miles away from the Tabella, the Contis set out to aid the three crewmembers, now hanging on to the wreckage of the sunken Tabella in the middle of the reef.

You just have to do it

Around day break, the Contis arrived on scene; the reef was in sight but there was no sign of the Tabella crew.

Worry started to come over both Maurice and Sophie, and for the first time they began to feel grim. As they were finishing their last lap around the reef, a water container floated by. The Contis decide to do one more lap around the reef. About a quarter of the way around the reef, Maurice spotted the distressed mariners.

“I saw three little black dots pop up and then disappear,” said Maurice. “I stared in the same spot for about 30 seconds and finally seen the three little dots pop back up, and back down, pop back up, and back down.”

Maurice grabbed the binoculars and saw the three crewmembers in lifejackets, floating in water up to their neck.

“That’s when everything changed,” said Maurice. “I turned to Sophie and said ‘If I don’t go get them, these guys are dead.’”

Sophie took control of the Ocealys and steadied it close enough to the reef but remained in a safe zone. Maurice donned a dry suit, flares, a handheld radio and a portable Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon and threw anything else he could find into the dingy.

“It was the type of situation where you just have to do it,” said Sophie.

Maurice powered towards the reef in the 14-foot inflatable dingy. Starting with the smallest crewmember, Maurice plucked her out of the water and placed her aboard. He did the same thing with the second crewmember and then finally, the captain.

The Conti family fishes off the coast of Île des Pins, an island located in the Pacific Ocean. Photo courtesy of the Conti family.
The Conti family fishes off the coast of Île des Pins, an island located in the Pacific Ocean. Photo courtesy of the Conti family.

Maurice turned around and headed back to the Ocealys. With the captain and crew of the Tabella safely aboard Ocealys, Maurice and Sophie aided the crewmembers, providing blankets, food and warm tea. Within four hours the Ocealys sailed to Robinson Crusoe Island Resort, in Nadi, Fiji, where the owner of the resort provided clothes, food and rooms to the three former Tabella crew.

New Zealand nominated Maurice and Sophie for the Exceptional Bravery at Sea Award and they were presented the award in 2009 by the International Maritime Organization in London.

This month, the Contis were presented the Certificate of Valor by Vice Adm. Manson K. Brown, commander of Pacific Area, for their extraordinary lifesaving efforts.

“They were confronted with, what I consider the most fundamental duty of any mariner, the moral and legal obligation to go to the aid of those in peril on the sea,” said Brown. “They were so well prepared that they were able to provide support to others in distress and I am pleased to report that the three individuals are alive today because of your skill and preparation.”

Stick with us throughout the week as we feature more stories by family and friends giving thanks to the servicemember in their life. We also encourage you to write your own notes of thanks to friends, acquaintances and even strangers who touched your life this year.

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