1986 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved
would never call an offshore passage routine. But
after a dozen Florida-to-St. Thomas yacht
deliveries, this one seemed, well, typical. Having
made our easting from the Bahamas, we had already
turned south onto "I-65", the well
traveled sixty-fifth meridian down which sailboats
glide across the trade winds on the home stretch
to the Virgin Islands.
wind was just abaft the beam and the 60-foot
schooner, Paradigm, flew southward under
sail with a bone in her teeth. Before this
particular night (for I have changed my ways
since), I had not been in the habit of monitoring
VHF channel 16 while offshore. Too much radio
chatter in the populated places has given me an
aversion to the little box. But tonight, with the
Islands hardly more than 100 nautical miles ahead,
I casually switched it on and, by picking up the
powerful signal of V.I. Radio's marine operator,
confirmed that there was still life on the planet
outside our tiny, pitching island.
was my watch. I had little to do besides keep a lookout for
ships. The autopilot was steering, the satnav was
navigating, and the mainsail was reefed for the night. Well,
I thought, let's plot the satnav coordinates onto the chart,
and I ducked below. My first mate, Tara, was curled up with
a book on the settee. The third crewmember, Dave Krause, was
asleep in his quarters. I slid into the nav station and made
the following entry in the log: "December 23, 1930 hrs.
- Course: 160º compass. Sailing 8+ knots. Wind E X NE 20-25
knots. Mostly overcast. Baro. steady. Seas 8-10 feet. Satnav
fix: 19º47' N.Lat X 64º59' W.Long."
was plotting the fix onto the chart when a man's voice came
over the VHF. The voice was calm, and occupied as I was, I
hardly paid any attention to it. A moment later, a peculiar
delayed reaction occurred; Tara and I looked at each other
and spoke simultaneously, "Hey, didn't he just
were interrupted by the same laconic voice on the VHF:
"This is a MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY. Our position
is" - I was poised with pencil in hand - "nineteen
degrees twenty-five minutes north, sixty-four degrees fifty
nine minutes west. This is a MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY."
I scribbled the coordinates down in the margin of the chart
before me. Then I responded, "Calling the vessel in
distress, this is the sailing vessel Paradigm. We are
(I made the simple calculation as I spoke) 22 miles due
north of your position. What is the nature of your
problem?" Already I was thinking the voice probably
came from a sportfisherman out of St. Thomas who, perhaps,
was having engine trouble.
reply instantly dispelled that notion and, though it
answered my question, left me wondering whether he had heard
my transmission: "This is a MAYDAY..." He repeated
his position. "We have a serious fire aboard ship.
MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY!" Then there was silence.
called back, saying that we were heading for the ship and
should arrive within 3 hours. Then I asked if the crew would
be able to stay with their boat. No reply. I called again
and again. No answer. Only the hiss and crackle of the mute
radio. Someone was really in trouble out there!
shook out the reefs and, under full sail, Paradigm
really came alive in the strong breeze, registering over 10
knots as she surged forward on the ocean swell, eating up
the miles on a southerly heading. We were at least 100 miles
from the U.S. Coast Guard base in San Juan, Puerto Rico, way
beyond the range of our VHF radio. So I tried to raise them
on the long-range single-sideband radio. I called repeatedly
but got no response. Finally, Coast Guard Cape Hatteras
answered me! The SSB was "skipping" the much
closer San Juan base.
explained the situation, carefully repeating the positions.
They contacted Coast Guard San Juan. Meanwhile, although we
kept calling on VHF channel 16, there was no further
transmission from the vessel in distress.
we established SSB radio contact with the Coast Guard cutter
Vigorous out of San Juan, which had been contacted by
Coast Guard Cape Hatteras and was heading toward the
position of the distressed vessel. However, we were
obviously going to get there hours ahead of the cutter.
2145 hrs. we were nearly at the position the vessel in
distress had given us, but the horizon revealed nothing
except dark, white-capped ocean meeting low, scudding
clouds. All eyes and ears strained for a sign. We began to
wonder if we had arrived too late.
it was there, then gone, then there again - a faint glimmer
of light way off to starboard. A ship's steaming light,
perhaps? Try to catch it in the binoculars. There again,
bearing 240°. Not a light but...definitely, it's a flame!
Miles to leeward, playing hide and seek in the building
down! Ease the sheets! Get a preventer on that boom! Wing
out the genoa! Soon we were running free and closing fast.
In 20 minutes the burning ship was close by in plain view,
and it was obvious that there could be no one alive aboard.
Again came that terrible feeling that we had arrived too
late. She was a trawler, at least 100 feet long, completely
engulfed in flames. Even as we watched, a drum of fuel oil
exploded, sending fire and smoke high into the black night,
the whole conflagration being fanned by the wind, which was
now pushing force 7.
Dave spotted the first of four red rocket flares a half-mile
south and to leeward. Tara swept the sea with the
searchlight as we sailed until we found the source. Helm up,
jib backed, main sheeted home, we hove-to within hailing
distance. What we saw in the focused beam of the spotlight
was five husky men, sparsely dressed, crowded into a 16-foot
open lapstrake dory, which was bobbing haphazardly in the
heaving sea. They were waving and yelling while the dory,
propelled by a single paddle, slowly approached our lee.
Another explosion aboard the fishing boat lit up the sky,
lending an eerie brightness to the scene.
by one we dragged the men aboard Paradigm. Because of
the rough seas, the dory was cast adrift. Soon I had the
Coast Guard on the radio, updating them on the rescue. We
settled our guests aboard as comfortably as we could.
Gradually, as we passed around blankets and fresh coffee,
they told us what had happened.
108-foot commercial fishing vessel Garland, hailing
from Shelburne, Nova Scotia, was en route to the Pacific
Northwest by way of the Virgin Islands and the Panama Canal.
A little before 1950 hrs. that evening most of her delivery
crew were asleep, resting up for their night watches.
John Floccher was on the bridge when he first noticed smoke
coming from the instrument panel. He immediately
investigated and found wires burning behind bulkheads and
inside conduits. Fire extinguishers proved ineffective as
the electrical fire spread with alarming speed to other
parts of the ship.
soon became evident that the crew couldn't contain the fire,
and the order was given to abandon ship. The captain charged
back into the now-burning pilothouse and got off that one
call for help on the VHF radio. He though he heard a reply,
but it was too faint to make out. Flames leaped around him
and he just barely escaped.
the crew of the Garland was on deck inflating and
launching two life rafts. The strong wind, the darkness, the
confusion and anxiety all conspired now to thwart their
effort to flee. Both life rafts managed to break loose and
blow away before the crew could board them. There was a
muffled explosion belowdecks, and the fire seemed to double
its intensity. Captain Floccher made it to the deck just in
time to order their last hope, an old wooden rowboat,
launched. The five men crowded into the skiff, losing one of
the oars overboard, and quickly pulled away from their
they reached a safe distance, they stopped. Only then could
they take stock of their situation. Most of the men, aroused
from their bunks, were dressed only in shorts. Any emergency
provisions were lost with the life rafts. They were five men
in an open boat, hundreds of miles to windward of the
Bahamas, with no sail, no food, no fresh water, and no
shelter. The overloaded skiff was already taking on water in
the rough seas. On the plus side, they did have a flare gun
and five rocket flares, which Captain Floccher had grabbed
as he fled the pilothouse. And there was the possibility,
the hope that someone had heard his MAYDAY call. But another
vessel would have had to be within 30 miles to have heard
his VHF signal, maybe closer to have understood the message.
It didn't look good at all.
next few hours were a time of quiet reflection for the men.
There was nowhere for them to go. They watched their ship
burn; they bailed; they waited. They didn't talk much.
then they sighted Paradigm's masthead light. They
fired the flares and were found. Later, aboard Paradigm,
Captain Floccher made me a gift of his last possession - the
flare pistol with its one remaining cartridge. I still have
we finally bedded down, one of the crewmen noticed it was
midnight, "Christmas Eve Day," he announced.
"What greater gift could we ask? We're alive!" To
which each of us whispered a sincere, "Amen."
back at the drama of the rescue, I think luck played the
greatest role. Thanks to an annoying delay earlier in our
passage, we were at the right place at the right time,
within the very short range of Garland's VHF radio.
Our radio just happened to be switched on, monitoring
channel 16, for the fist time in a week or two. And someone
just happened to be sitting next to it within earshot when
Captain Floccher made his one, brief call for assistance.
That's a lot of coincidences, all necessary.
I always monitor channel 16 offshore. Out there it's pretty
quiet; it draws very little current, and it's a small
service that I think we mariners owe to each other.
the excitement, I made a navigational error by not figuring
on Garland's leeward drift during the 2+ hours it
took us to reach her. She was set westward not only by the
strong wind and sea, but also by a 1-knot westerly current
shown on the pilot chart. My omission resulted in a near
miss when we arrived at her reported position only to find
the boat several miles to leeward.
captain conducted himself courageously in the crises. The
most valuable thing he did was to broadcast his MAYDAY
despite the personal risk of being burned - and he kept on
repeating his position. This one act probably saved the
lives of his crew and himself. He also had the presence of
mind to grab the flare gun when he left the pilot house,
without which we might not have found them adrift in the
dory that night.
the negative side is the state in which we found the men.
They had lost two perfectly good life rafts. Apparently the
crew was not familiar enough with the launching procedure.
When they finally escaped into the dory, they had no food or
water, no survival gear, no clothing or shelter. Had they
not been rescued they would probably have perished from
thirst and exposure. Or their dory could easily have
swamped. No one was wearing a life jacket.
any vessel heading out to sea, the skipper should see to it
that every crewmember knows exactly how to inflate and
launch the raft. He or she should explain the evacuation
routine to be followed and assign duties. There should be a
complete survival kit packed and ready to go instantly.
Also, there should be a back-up to the life raft, such as an
unsinkable dinghy or a partially inflated rubber tender
(with air pump) on deck. The captain should order life
jackets put on at the first sign of an emergency.
can strike suddenly offshore. Mariners must be prepared to
survive any eventuality - without assistance. Preparation
ahead of time and, above all, a calm and deliberate attitude
in crisis may well make the difference between life and
death at sea.
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