sometimes you just gotta' row

end of Infinity

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I had concerns about how the boat was being run…the expected and typical drills and instruction for procedures such as “man overboard”, “abandon ship”, “fire”…usual stuff. Nada. I’m just being overly anal, I thought. Then it happened.

Several of us, including the captain’s partner and their 2-month old baby, were scheduled to visit an island village near our anchorage. At the last minute, I decided to skip it. A personality thing. Several hours later we received a relayed VHF radio message. A passing yacht heard our crew trying to reach us with the mobile VHF: the message was unclear…something about getting into the water but nothing indicating a problem or emergency.

45 minutes after receiving the message we hauled anchor and motored toward the area where we expected the launch to have gone ashore.

Two swimmers were spotted and the next thought is holy shit, where are the others, where’s the boat…and, where’s the baby?!

We hurriedly moved to get the swimmers secured and aboard but the emergency flotation equipment used for rescue in a man-overboard event was lashed to the stanchions – ropes would have to be cut in order to throw anything useful into the water to provide flotation for the swimmers.

With the two aboard and with their direction, we located the launch…a half-mile away, overturned. The baby’s mother was sitting on the hull and struggling to maintain balance while keeping the infant’s head upright. The other two crew members were in the water, one at each end of the boat.

The baby was screaming and its naked body had been blanched by the salt water. The site of her in her mother’s tired arms was as pitiful a sight as I’ve experienced. Ever.

They’d left the island in a chop. We’re operating in the open pacific and there’s most always significant chop. The boat broached, first at the stern and then when people shifted forward in an effort to bring the stern higher in the water, it broached again at the bow. The boat is now upright but filling with water.

One of the guys, a senior crew member, attempted to reach us with the mobile VHF but he had never been trained in radio protocol…if he’d used the term “mayday” the vessel that heard and relayed their message would have picked them up.

After it was submersed the “submersible” mobile VHF would not transmit.

In addition to the mobile VHF, the emergency kit contained two handheld flares. Neither worked.

Then the boat capsized, spilling all hands into the Pacific chop.

The boat wasn’t equipped with flotation devices…not for the infant, her mother…nada. One of the guys attempted to empty the spare gas container to use for flotation and the ended up with 2nd degree chemical burns all over his torso from the fuel.

They managed to position the mother and child on top of the overturned hull and the rest remained in the water, encircling the boat.

Then, because the hysterical mother demanded it, two crew members started to swim the 3-4 nautical mile distance to the ship, potentially creating two additional rescue operations and therefore compromising the success of the first one. These were the two we picked up.

On a clear day it is very difficult to spot people in the water from a boat, even when you and everyone else aboard is looking for them. We were using binoculars and couldn’t even see the bright yellow hull of the overturned launch with a woman sitting on top of it. The swells were bigger than the people and the swells weren’t especially big. One of the people in the water noted that when he saw nobody had been assigned to the crow’s nest he was sure that we weren’t looking for them.

Three of the five who were on the launch were among the most experienced of the crew and none knew about a mayday message, the emergency kit was useless and they still don’t use a flotation device when the baby is in the boat.

Right. If the ship got into trouble nobody would anyone have a clue about what to do? Yes, and we are operating in the open Pacific ocean with only one VHF radio, no short wave or weather fax or any means of receiving weather information, etc. etc. The apparent lax approach for the 15 ft launch carries over to the 130 ft ship in relative magnitude. Maybe not so anal after all.

It wasn’t difficult to know what to do though it was difficult coming to the decision to do it.

I wrote a VHF – DSC radio procedure for them and showed the captain how to connect the GPS to the radio. In the event of an emergency, the ship’s position will be automatically transmitted.

Then I said goodbye.

I’ve reconnected with the dive lodge I stayed at when I first arrived here in July. No plans yet to head for home though having to bear the cost of food and accommodation ashore is wreaking havoc with my sailing budget – I’m fortunate to have several supportive friends here in Santo and we’ve been diving, fishing, and hanging in paradise while I look for another boat to somewhere.

Written by glh

September 17, 2011 at 11:47

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