By Jessica Lipscomb For MiamiNewTimes.com
For two days, she holed up in her stateroom and hoped it wasn’t real. Stuck on the luxury yacht with her rapist, the woman — a passenger traveling on an upscale European cruise — says she spent the days after the attack trying to process what had happened.
“I was in such a state of shock… that I almost didn’t want to believe that it had happened,” says the woman, who asked to remain anonymous as a victim of sexual assault. “I wanted to just sleep the time away and wake up and realize it had all been a bad nightmare.”
When she’d boarded the ship in Croatia in June 2015, the woman was well on her way to becoming a regular with the SeaDream Yacht Club, a Miami-based cruise line with the tag line “It’s yachting, not cruising.” But midway through the trip, the woman says, she endured one of the most horrifying experiences of her life at the hands of one of the ship’s employees. As the yacht’s bar was shutting down June 24, 2015, she says, the bartender pinned her down, shut the blinds on nearby windows, and raped her.
Last week, the 46-year-old woman — a British resident of North Carolina — filed a federal lawsuit against both the cruise line and her alleged assailant, Rui Manuel Duarte Guerreiro of Portugal. Though the incident was reported to the ship’s captain and doctor, her complaint says SeaDream was insensitive in handling the situation, failed to provide a rape kit, and lacked proper safety measures such as surveillance cameras.
“I’d really like to see that this never happens onboard SeaDream or any other yacht or cruise again,” the woman says. “They didn’t have anything in terms of protecting people from sexual predators onboard.”
A SeaDream spokesperson did not return an email or phone call from New Times seeking comment.
Prior to the 2015 incident, the woman says, she had been accompanied by her husband and other family members on three or four previous trips with the cruise line. Because of the ship’s nearly one-to-one ratio of crew members to passengers, each group on SeaDream became so tight-knit that many of the 112 guests kept in touch with the ship’s crew on Facebook back on land.
“I always had amazing times onboard,” the woman says. “It was such an intimate scenario with such a small pool of employees that it was inevitable that you’d get to know some of the people really well as a repeat passenger.”
The lawsuit says Guerreiro, whom she knew from a prior cruise, held the woman against her will behind the bar and then raped her “vaginally, orally, and anally” for an extended period of time. During the assault, the woman says, she repeatedly begged Guerreiro to stop and asked multiple times: “Why are you doing this?”
The woman says she and the friend she was traveling with reported the incident to the ship’s doctor and captain and then to Italian authorities after the yacht docked in Venice. She told New Times she was examined at an Italian hospital overnight before getting back on the ship.
When it was time to disembark, however, the crew made comments about having “accommodated her enough” and forced her to leave her cabin so they could prepare the ship for the next group of passengers. When she asked if she could go somewhere where she could be shielded from Guerreiro, the woman says, crew members escorted her back to the bar area to wait to disembark.
“The only place I could go on the ship was the scene of the crime,” she says. “I was really concerned that I was going to see him.”
The woman’s attorney, Michael Winkleman of Miami, says the case is one of several incoming sexual assault cases his firm is handling.
“There’s been a dramatic increase in the past few years, but it’s hard to pinpoint why that is,” he says.
In fact, from 2015 to 2016, the number of reported sex crimes aboard cruise ships rose an astonishing 485 percent, according to the Department of Transportation. The increase is likely due to a change in reporting requirements; in 2016, the statistics were updated to reflect incidents that are still under investigation by the FBI, which hadn’t previously been included.
“It’s incredible when you realize how many times these incidents occur, and certainly once you start unfortunately being a member of that club you didn’t want to be a member of, you see that it happens more frequently than you’d believe,” the woman says. “You can be on the smallest, intimate, most lovely luxury boat in the world and still be a victim of a most horrific crime.”
The woman says she hopes her lawsuit helps hold the cruise industry accountable for crimes aboard its ships.
“I don’t feel brave in speaking up. I just feel it’s something I have to do,” she says. “I’d be very disappointed in myself if I didn’t follow this through now to bring it to justice.”