The superyacht Mayan Queen IV was sailing smoothly in clear weather through the dark and calm Mediterranean in the early hours of June 14 when it received a call about a migrant ship in distress four nautical miles away.
About 20 minutes later, shortly before 3 a.m., the towering $175-million yacht, owned by the family of a Mexican silver magnate, arrived at the scene. The distressed boat had already sunk. All the four-person crew could see were the lights of a Greek Coast Guard vessel scanning the water’s inky surface. But they could hear the screams of survivors.
“Horrible,” said the Mayan Queen’s captain, Richard Kirkby, who described the sea as “pitch black” on that nearly moonless night.
In a few hours, the 305-foot Mayan Queen, more accustomed to pleasure boating to Monaco and Italy with billionaires and their friends aboard, was filled with 100 desperate, dehydrated and sea-soaked Pakistani, Syrian, Palestinian and Egyptian men, as it played an unexpected role in one of the deadliest migrant shipwrecks in decades. As many as 650 men, women and children drowned.
The incongruous image of the devastated survivors disembarking the Mayan Queen on a port in Kalamata last week underlined what has become the strange reality of the modern Mediterranean, where the superyachts of the superrich, equipped with swimming pools, Jacuzzis, helipads and other trappings of luxury, share the seas with the most destitute on smuggler-operated boats perilously crossing from northern Africa to Europe.
The world’s waterways have become a reflection of global inequalities in recent days. In the North Atlantic, a billionaire, his son and other businessmen set out to explore the wreck of the Titanic on a luxury tourist submersible that has gone missing, touching off an international search and rescue operation.
Days earlier, the Greek authorities repeatedly decided not to assist a roughly 80- to 100-foot fishing trawler stuffed with as many as 750 people fleeing desperate poverty and the displacement of war in Greece’s search-and-rescue area. Only when the ship sank in front of the Coast Guard did the authorities spur to action, calling on the Mayan Queen, one of the world’s 100 largest yachts.
“As soon as you are notified and in close proximity and you can do so, you are obligated,” to try and rescue, said Aphrodite Papachristodoulou, an expert in the law of the sea and human rights at the Irish Centre for Human Rights. She said it was not unusual to have luxury yachts in the area.
Why the Greek authorities needed to call on a passing yacht to come to the rescue of an overcrowded and rickety ship that they had been monitoring and communicating with in their search-and-rescue area for a full day, she said, was less obvious.
“The practice of nonassistance or delay of assistance and why the Greeks were not proceeding to the rescue is another question mark,” she said.
There was one Greek Coast Guard vessel already on the scene when the Mayan Queen arrived, and its seamen were in a raft saving scores of men from the water. The crew of the Mayan Queen lowered its life raft with three of its own crew, and followed the cries for help, pulling 15 men onboard, the captain said.
A vivid retelling of events provided under sworn testimony by Mr. Kirkby, and obtained by The New York Times, added that none of those saved were wearing life vests. Some clutched floating pieces of wood. For hours afterward, the yacht crew kept eerily quiet and beamed its brightest lights to better hear and see.
Investigators are still seeking to understand what exactly happened as the trawler sank trying to reach Italy — whether smugglers refused assistance and panic on the ship caused it to capsize, as the Coast Guard claims, or whether a failed attempt to tow the ship caused it to sink, as some survivors contend. In either case, it fell to the Mayan Queen to shoulder much of the rescue.
The gleaming yacht, sailing from Italy, transported 100 of the 104 survivors and four Greek coast guard officials — as well as about a dozen bodies — to port.
“I would like to think that we did what anyone would do,” said Mr. Kirkby, who used to pilot the superyacht Le Grand Bleu, of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. He added on Wednesday that, because of a nondisclosure agreement and the “contentious” circumstances of the ship’s sinking, he could not say much more.
“I wouldn’t like to see the Coast Guard get a bad rap,” he said. “They did all they could.”
Mr. Kirkby spoke briefly in a cafe in the port of Souda, where the yacht was docked near a cruise ship delivering tourists to the Cretan city of Chania, an industrial Russian vessel and a parking lot filled with stationary truck containers. The vessel’s crew carried out chores, and like the captain wore T-shirts featuring a drawing of the yacht on the back and a B, for the family of the ship’s late owner, Alberto Baillères, on the breast pocket.
On Wednesday morning one crewman carried an umbrella up the gangway that the migrants unsteadily walked down last week, some of them met by stretchers and health workers with foil blankets. By the ship’s stern, with the silvered letters of “Mayan Queen” and “George Town” sparkling in the hot sun and under pumping house music, crew members worked where the migrants huddled upon reaching the Kalamata port.
According to Boat International, a yachting news site, the Mayan Queen, which flies a Cayman Islands flag, is in the top 100 for the world’s largest superyachts. It was built by the Hamburg-based shipbuilder Blohm & Voss GmbH in 2008 and designed by Tim Heywood, a favorite of the yachting set.
“Her power comes from two diesel engines. She can accommodate up to 26 guests, with 24 crew members,” the magazine wrote. “She is built with a teak deck, a steel hull, and aluminium superstructure.”
That craftsmanship stood in stark contrast to the condition of the ship that hundreds of migrants, paying thousands of dollars a head, crammed into last week in Libya, in the hopes of reaching Italy.
Witnesses said in sworn testimony obtained by The Times that passengers suffered beatings with belts and deprivation. Smugglers threw food into the water. Pakistani men were kept in the hold and hundreds of them sank with women and children into one of the deepest parts of the Mediterranean. Only the lucky ones reached the Mayan Queen’s decks.
At around 6 a.m. on the morning of the wreck, as the sun came up, Mr. Kirkby received a call to transport all the 100 rescued men from the Coast Guard vessel to the nearest port.
He offered dry clothes and water to the men, some of whom, he said, “were in a bad way.” For hours the survivors, wrapped in gray blankets and mourning their losses, sailed on the superyacht. At 11:20 a.m. the Mayan Queen and its unexpected passengers arrived to port.
“We took them all,” Mr. Kirkby said.
Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting from Athens.
Jason Horowitz is the Rome bureau chief, covering Italy, the Vatican, Greece and other parts of Southern Europe. He previously covered the 2016 presidential campaign, the Obama administration and Congress, with an emphasis on political profiles and features. @jasondhorowitz
Matina Stevis-Gridneff is the Brussels bureau chief, leading coverage of the European Union. She joined The Times in 2019. @MatinaStevis