After the Mayday
The post-mortem of a sea story with a happy ending addresses the revelations and repercussions of issuing a call for help. "Seamanship" from our June 2012 issue.
Though our boat had slipped its anchor and was smashing into the rocky shore of an uninhabited Bahamian island on a stormy February night, that’s not the reason I issued a Mayday distress call. No, I called for help because I saw my husband, David, carried out to sea in our inflatable dinghy armed with nothing but a broken outboard motor, a plastic paddle, a P.F.D., and a feeble headlamp. Luckily, “out to sea” was an illusion. Beyond my line of sight, and in the falling tide, my husband grounded the dinghy on a previously submerged rocky shoal, then walked across the island, through the water, and back to our beached boat. This is the story of my distress call and its aftermath.
Alone on the boat that night, my first thought was to trigger our 406-megahertz EPIRB, an emergency satellite beacon that we have dutifully registered with NOAA. By sending out a hex code specific to our individual unit, the EPIRB would immediately tell the U.S. Coast Guard where our troubled boat was located, who was likely on board, and the type of vessel for which rescuers should look. EPIRBs provoke an enthusiastic response: Aircraft would’ve been launched and large U.S. Coast Guard cutters would’ve been diverted.
Illustration by Tim Barker
I didn’t activate the beacon, however, because I didn’t want to bring emergency services directly to me. I wanted them to rescue my husband in the dinghy. Instead, I cranked up the electronics, determined our boat’s position and—at 2205 on that brutal night—spoke simultaneously into our VHF and single-sideband microphones.
“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!” I called. “This is sailing vessel Wild Hair, Wild Hair, Wild Hair. Our current position is north 25 degrees 36 minutes, west 77 degrees 43 minutes. Repeat: We are at north 25 degrees 36 minutes, west 77 degrees 43 minutes. Repeat: north 25 degrees 36 minutes, west 77 degrees 43 minutes. We are west of White Cay in the Berry Islands of the Bahamas. Our vessel is on the rocks. One person is on board the vessel, and one other person has blown out to sea in an inflatable dinghy. Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!”
Silence. After three attempts, I stayed on VHF Channel 16 but changed SSB frequencies, eventually trying 2.1820, 4.1250, 6.2150, and 8.2910. Still hearing no response, I retrieved our month-old satellite phone. Smartly, I’d preprogrammed all of the U.S. Coast Guard emergency phone numbers for the U.S. East Coast into the handset. Unwisely, I forgot—under stress—how to recall the numbers and operate the unit. Without this knowledge, the phone was as useful to me as a paperweight. So again and again I repeated the sequence of calls into the SSB and VHF radios.
At some point, I heard my husband’s voice shout his return. My attention leaped from distress calls to relief to the next emergency at hand: rescuing our boat. Our strategic thinking was interrupted by the crackle of the VHF. The crew of a local cruise ship—the Bahamas Celebration—had heard my VHF call and summoned their captain. His calm and experienced voice was like salve on a wound. I’d been heard. It was comforting to know we weren’t alone. Though his ship was too large to enter our snug harbor, the captain offered to contact the Bahamas Air and Sea Rescue Association on our behalf. But with my husband safely on board and only our boat at risk, we accepted the captain’s personal cellphone number, thanked him for his kindness, and informed him that his services wouldn’t be necessary—yet.
With a signal spotlight, we hailed a sailor about half a mile away who was sharing our harbor. His dinghy had a working outboard. That and a rising tide allowed us to kedge Wild Hair from peril by dawn. After the frontal passage and an extra day’s rest, my husband and I discussed between us the lessons we’d learned from the nasty experience. Then we started putting the nightmare behind us. We had a glorious sail 20 miles south to the populated island of Frazer Hog Cay. It was there that I started to learn the rest of the story.