What do you do if it's the middle of a pandemic and you're feeling cooped up in Canada, where government lockdowns have been imposed in many areas?
Billionaire Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and his girlfriend thought they had an answer, according to recently filed lawsuits obtained by CBC News: charter a $500,000-a-week superyacht in the Bahamas to spend the Christmas holiday with friends and family.
The 12-passenger, 60-metre M/Y Dream boasts on its website of "a Zen interior of sophistication and comfortable elegance" and promises "a warm and congenial nautical experience."
But two of Melnyk's guests allege they got anything but, with the Caribbean excursion devolving into a clash of egos between the NHL owner and the yacht's British captain, "panic attacks" and "abuse" — and now, litigation demanding $10 million US.
The yacht voyage began Dec. 22, when Melnyk, 61, and girlfriend Sharilyne Anderson set sail on the Dream from Nassau, intending to spend the first five days together before friends and family joined after Christmas.
From the start, it appears, they didn't hit it off well with the superyacht's captain.
He was "an odorous, ill-tempered man who was curt and dismissive with the guests and outright angry and abusive to the crew," claim the two lawsuits, filed in the United States last month by Anderson and another plaintiff. The captain "was easily flustered and overwhelmed and seemed completely unfamiliar with the area, the crew or the vessel."
Captain sought 'to punish' Melnyk, lawsuit says
It got worse when Melnyk told the British skipper they wanted to head through an inner, more protected passage from Nassau down to a chain of Bahamaian islands known as the Exuma archipelago.
The captain "appeared angry and resentful that a charterer would deem to intrude on his alleged specialized knowledge, experience, and authority … and sought instead to punish the charterer and his party for their insolence through intentionally piloting the yacht into the open ocean," both statements of claim allege.
In fact, the reefs, shoals and shallower waters of the Great Bahama Bank make the area tricky to navigate for big vessels. Navigational charts show depths of between 2.4 and 6.4 metres. The defendants have yet to file a defence in the lawsuits, but a lawyer for the superyacht's management company said it has a draught of 3.6 metres.
"It would have been nice had the boat been able to go the inland route," said the lawyer, Chris Fertig of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in an interview. "But you can't. It's just a physical impossibility."
So instead, the captain charted a route out onto the open ocean, the lawsuits claim. Without the protection of the Bahamian islands, the yacht was pummelled by the full force of the Atlantic, leading to a "harrowing 10-15 hour ordeal" where Eugene Melnyk and Anderson "became violently ill, vomiting throughout the night," the lawsuits allege.
Claims are false, defendant says
The boat then spent a few days in calmer inner 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 bouts of vomiting and illness" because of the captain's "intentional and reckless conduct," the lawsuits say.
The allegations are contained in claims filed by Anderson and Vera Melnyk in U.S. federal court in southern Florida. They are each seeking $5 million US for negligence, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
None of the claims has been tested in court. The defendants include the captain and the companies that own and operate the yacht.
Reached in Florida by phone last week, Gurmeet Ahluwalia,one of five defendants andan agent for two companies that own and manage the Dream, said that the claims are false and that the captain was a professional with 20 years' experience.
"He's been around the world. Every charter he has done the people have praised him and his ability and capability and what a wonderful time they had with him," Ahluwalia said, adding that "everybody wrote raving comments about how good the charter was" on the Melnyk trip.
'Severe emotional distress'
The litigation tries to show otherwise.
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 to be able to safely walk the decks of the ships."
It's alleged that "the seas were so rough that an improperly secured deck chair on the upper deck of the vessel crashed into the glass partition above the dining area, raining down shards of broken glass that narrowly missed the guests but caused severe emotional distress over the likelihood of being injured."
Fertig, the lawyer for the yacht company, said strong winds are typical in the Bahamas at that time of year, and during the Melnyk charter the sea swells were hitting two metres but the boat was never in any danger.
"I understand that Mr. Melnyk was upset that the charter didn't go the way he envisioned, but every day there was 35-mile-an-hour winds."
When the boat finally got to calmer waters at Cat Island, the captain suggested it would be an ideal spot for some beach time, the lawsuits say. Except that "the passengers observed signs warning individuals not to swim in the water due to sharks."
Captain 'did his best,' lawyer says
Finally, on New Year's Day, the private Caribbean cruise was set to end. The lawsuits claim that passengers had planned to disembark at Exuma island and fly home, but that the captain refused to let anyone off the boat, citing the rough seas.
Instead, it's alleged he insisted on sailing the 18 hours all the way back to Nassau, through open ocean once again, an act of "false imprisonment" that resulted in "panic attacks, trauma, fear of death by drowning [and] fear of boarding vessels of any kind."
Fertig chalked up the captain's decision to the terrible weather and his need to keep everyone safe.
"I think he did his best. You know, they all were safe. The boat is safe," he said. "The weather was nasty, and boats, unfortunately, are unstable platforms floating in an unstable medium."
He provided copies of two pages from the ship's guest book with entries he said were written by Melnyk's family and friends.
"What an amazing way to celebrate the start of the new year 2021! You guys are all amazing! We had a wonderful time," says one entry dated Jan. 1.
"Thank you so much for making this such a great experience! This was an amazing way to start the new year," says another, signed "The Melnyk Group" — which Fertig said was written by Sharilyne Anderson.
'Not subject to Canadian public health regulations'
The whole alleged yacht misadventure happened because Melnyk and Anderson, who lives in Toronto, were looking to "escape their Canadian isolated existence and spend the holidays with family and friends," the lawsuits say.
When they planned the trip, in mid-December, most of south-central Ontario was either under a provincially ordered COVID-19 lockdown or classified one step below, as a "red" zone. The federal and provincial governments had been advising against non-essential travel for months, and Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam had pleaded with Canadians not to undertake unnecessary travel around the holiday .
But Melnyk indicated to CBC News he didn't contravene any health protocols or rules.
While he owns the Ottawa Senators and is a Canadian citizen, he's been a resident of Barbados since the 1990s.
In a statement through a lawyer on the NHL team's board, Melnyk said he went home to Barbados in mid-December, and did not travel from Canada to the Bahamas for the yacht excursion.
"Any subsequent travel from his Barbados residence, regardless of reason, is not subject to Canadian public health regulations," the statement says.
As for Melnyk's girlfriend and mom, a lawyer representing them in the lawsuits noted the federal government said it wouldn't actually stop anyone from travelling abroad.
"At all times," Michael Bowe said in an email to CBC, "Ms. Anderson and Mrs. Melnyk complied fully with all public health protocols in Canada and abroad."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Zach Dubinsky is an investigative journalist. His reporting on offshore tax havens (including the Paradise Papers and Panama Papers), political corruption and organized crime has won multiple national and international awards. Phone: 416-205-7553. Twitter: @DubinskyZach Email email@example.com
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