The white ghost ship rolled in the Atlantic swell as the rescue boats approached it 130km off Ragged Point, one of the most easterly places on the Caribbean island of Barbados.
The yacht was unmarked, 6m long, and when Barbadian coastguard officers boarded it, they made a gruesome find. The boat's phantom crew was made up of the desiccated corpses of 11 young men, huddled in two separate piles in the small cabin. Dressed in shorts and colorful jerseys, they had been partially petrified by the salt water, sun and sea breezes of the Atlantic Ocean. They appeared to have come from far away.
The sea-battered yacht, identified by one local ship's captain as of French design, was towed into the port at Willoughy Fort, Bridgetown, and the bodies, by now wrapped in plastic bags, were heaved on to the quay. In a part of the world where its legends and myths have often been furnished by the sea, the mystery of the dead men soon provoked curious speculation.
An air ticket from Senegal Airlines and a tragic note written by one of the men as he was preparing to die have, however, helped investigators from several countries set about unravelling the mystery.
For, although the floating coffin appeared off the coast of the Americas, those on board had set off four months earlier from the Cape Verde islands, off the African coast, and had been heading for the European soil of the Canary Islands.
The evidence reportedly points to them having been cut adrift in the Atlantic and left to drift off to a slow, painful death. Barbados police have said the cause of the deaths was starvation and dehydration.
"I would like to send to my family in Bassada [a town in the interior of Senegal] a sum of money. Please excuse me and goodbye. This is the end of my life in this big Moroccan sea," the note said, according to a Barbados paper, the Daily Nation.
Relatives of those aboard have been contacting the Barbadian authorities from as far apart as Senegal, Spain and Portugal. They have added pieces to the puzzle -- based on telephone calls with relatives before they boarded and with people who stayed in contact with it during the first stage of the voyage.
The story of the 11 dead and some 40 other would-be immigrants from Guinea Bissau, Senegal and Gambia starts on Christmas Day last year at Praia, a port in the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde.
There, for 1,300 euros (US$1,656) each, they were promised a trip to the Canary Islands by a mysterious Spaniard. Their boat was to be a motorized yacht, recently repaired but bearing no name and no flag.
They paid to make the voyage, assuming that the Spaniard -- a mechanic based in the Canaries -- would be skippering the boat. At the last moment, however, a Senegalese man took over and the Spaniard disappeared. Several then refused to make the journey. One, according to a report in the El Pais newspaper on Sunday, jumped from the yacht as it set sail.
It is by no means clear what happened next. Somewhere near the Mauritanian port of Nouadhibou the yacht ran into trouble. Another boat was sent to its aid, apparently after the skipper had contacted the Spaniard. The yacht was towed but, at some stage, the line was severed. El Pais reported that it had been hacked with a machete.
With no fuel left and food and water running out, the migrants' fate was left in the hands of the sea, the weather and luck. The latter soon ran out.