What do you do if we are in the middle of a pandemic and you feel trapped in Canada, where government lockdowns have been imposed in many areas?
Ottawa Senators billionaire owner Eugene Melnyk and his girlfriend thought they had an answer, according to recent lawsuits filed by CBC News: charter a $ 500,000-a-week superyacht to the Bahamas to spend the Christmas holidays with friends and the family.
The M / Y Dream, 12 passengers and 60 meters, claims on its website “a Zen interior of sophistication and comfortable elegance” and promises “a warm and friendly nautical experience”.
But two of Melnyk’s guests allege they got nothing but, with the Caribbean excursion turning into an ego clash between the NHL owner and the yacht’s British captain, “panic attacks And “abuse” – and now a US $ 10 million litigation.
The yacht trip began on December 22, when Melnyk, 61, and his girlfriend Sharilyne Anderson boarded the Dream from Nassau, intending to spend the first five days together before friends and family got together. join after Christmas.
From the start, it seems they didn’t get along well with the captain of the superyacht.
He was “a smelly, cranky, blunt and dismissive man with guests and downright angry and insulting to the crew,” claim the two lawsuits, filed in the United States last month by Anderson and another plaintiff. The captain “was easily annoyed and overwhelmed and seemed totally unknown to the region, the crew or the ship”.
Captain sought to “punish” Melnyk, lawsuit says
It got worse when Melnyk told the British skipper that they wanted to cross a more protected inside passage from Nassau to a chain of islands in the Bahamas known as the Exuma Archipelago.
The captain “appeared angry and resentful that a charterer would consider infringing on his alleged expertise, experience and authority … and instead sought to punish the charterer and his party for their insolence by intentionally piloting the yacht in open sea, “both statements allege.
In fact, the reefs, shoals, and shallower waters of the Great Bahama Bank make the area difficult for large vessels to navigate. Navigation charts show depths between 2.4 and 6.4 meters. The defendants have yet to file a defense in the lawsuits, but a lawyer for the superyacht management company said it had a draft of 3.6 meters.
“It would have been nice if the boat had been able to take the interior route,” Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Attorney Chris Fertig said in an interview. “But you can’t. It’s just a physical impossibility. “
So instead, the captain made a route to the open ocean, according to the lawsuits. Without the protection of the Bahamian Islands, the yacht was struck by the full force of the Atlantic, leading to a “grueling 10 to 3 p.m. ordeal” where Eugene Melnyk and Anderson “fell seriously ill, vomiting all over the place. night, ”according to the lawsuits. .
Claims are false, says defendant
The boat then spent a few days in calmer inland seas before picking up the rest of its passengers, including Melnyk’s mother, Vera Melnyk of Barrie, Ont. But they, too, were subjected to “violent episodes of vomiting and illness” due to the “captain’s” intentional and reckless behavior, “according to the lawsuits.
The allegations are contained in claims filed by Anderson and Vera Melnyk in US federal court in South Florida. They are each claiming 5 million US dollars for negligence, false imprisonment and willful infliction of emotional distress.
None of the claims have been tested in court. The defendants include the master and the companies that own and operate the yacht.
Reached in Florida by phone last week, Gurmeet Ahluwalia, one of the five accused and an agent from two companies that own and operate the Dream, said the claims were false and the captain was a professional with 20 years of experience.
“He’s been around the world. Every charter he did, people praised him, and his abilities and abilities and the wonderful time they had with him, “Ahluwalia said, adding that” everyone wrote rave reviews on the quality of the charter ”. on the Melnyk trip.
“Severe emotional distress”
The dispute attempts to show the contrary.
After the additional guests and family boarded, the lawsuits say “the passengers were again subjected to hours of rough sailing, some having to crawl on all fours in order to be able to walk safely on the decks of ships.”
It is alleged that “the seas were so rough that an unsecured lounge chair on the ship’s upper deck crashed into the glass bulkhead above the dining room, raining down shards of broken glass that were missing. by little the guests but caused serious emotional distress over the risk of being injured. ”
Fertig, the lawyer for the yacht company, said the strong winds were typical of the Bahamas at this time of year and during Melnyk’s charter the swell was up to two meters, but the boat was never in danger.
“I understand that Mr. Melnyk was upset that the charter did not go as he had envisioned, but every day there were winds of 35 miles per hour. “
When the boat finally reached calmer waters at Cat Island, the captain suggested it would be a great place to spend time at the beach, according to the lawsuits. Except that “the passengers observed signs warning individuals not to swim in the water because of the sharks”.
The captain did his best, says the lawyer
Finally, on New Years Day, the private Caribbean cruise was due to come to an end. The lawsuits say the passengers planned to disembark on Exuma Island and return home, but the captain refused to let anyone get off the boat, citing rough seas.
Instead, he allegedly insisted on sailing the 18 hours to Nassau, on the high seas once again, an act of “false imprisonment” which resulted in “panic attacks, trauma, fear of death. by drowning. [and] fear of boarding ships of any kind. ”
Fertig attributed the captain’s decision to the bad weather and his need to protect everyone.
“I think he did his best. You know, they were all safe. The boat is safe, ”he said. “The weather was bad and the boats, unfortunately, are unstable platforms floating in an unstable environment. “
He provided two-page copies of the ship’s guestbook with entries he said were written by Melnyk’s family and friends.
“What an incredible way to celebrate the start of the New Year 2021! You are all wonderful! We had a wonderful time, ”says an entry dated January 1.
“Thank you very much for making this experience such a great experience! It was an amazing way to start the new year, ”says another, signed by“ The Melnyk Group ”- which Fertig says was written by Sharilyne Anderson.
“Not subject to Canadian public health regulations”
The whole alleged yacht mishap occurred because Melnyk and Anderson, who live in Toronto, were seeking to “escape their isolated Canadian existence and spend the vacations with family and friends,” according to the lawsuits.
When they planned the trip, in mid-December, most of south-central Ontario was either under a provincial lockdown against COVID-19, or classified a step below, as a “red” zone. . The federal and provincial governments had been advising against non-essential travel for months, and the Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, had pleaded with Canadians not to take unnecessary travel during the holidays.
But Melnyk told CBC News he hasn’t broken any protocols or health rules.
Although he is an owner of the Ottawa Senators and a Canadian citizen, he has resided in Barbados since the 1990s.
In a statement from an NHL team board attorney, Melnyk said he returned home to Barbados in mid-December and has not traveled from Canada to the Bahamas for the yacht excursion.
“Any subsequent travel from his residence to Barbados, for whatever reason, is not subject to Canadian public health regulations,” the statement said.
As for Melnyk’s girlfriend and mother, a lawyer representing them in the lawsuits noted that the federal government has said it will not prevent anyone from traveling abroad.
“At all times,” Michael Bowe said in an email to CBC, “Ms. Anderson and Ms. Melnyk have fully complied with all public health protocols in Canada and abroad. “