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.
When we arrived, everyone seemed genuinely happy to see Wild Hair and her crew. As we snagged a mooring ball, people came out in their dinghies to greet us and check on our wellbeing. Our Mayday had prompted a buzz of speculation, and theories had persisted unchecked for days. Evidently, both cruisers and Bahamian locals had heard my call for help, but given the storm, none felt in a position to lend assistance.
Astonishingly, we learned that my SSB distress call had skipped the U.S. East Coast entirely. But Petty Officer Adam Harris, manning a U.S. Coast Guard communication station in Kodiak, Alaska, picked it up. Kodiak was the only U.S. Coast Guard station to copy my voice, on frequency 4.1250. Officer Harris recorded only a partial, garbled position statement, figured out our approximate location, and within minutes mobilized the U.S. Coast Guard District Offices in Florida.
The Florida office briefed the Royal Bahamas Defense Force, and a local volunteer rescue boat was deployed that night in 35-knot winds and 13-foot seas. Remarkably, the rescue effort initiated all the way from Alaska came within 20 miles of us. But without a positive fix on our coordinates, their efforts proved to be futile.
Still stunned by this news, I opened our satellite email account to discover that the U.S. Coast Guard’s actions hadn’t ceased. As we’d been designated as a U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue case, my inbox was flooded with worried emails from family and friends. Procedurally, once I’d engaged the SAR system, it wouldn’t stop until there was resolution; the U.S. Coast Guard doesn’t close a case until it finds what it’s looking for and either renders assistance or confirms that it’s not needed.
In total, members of the U.S. Coast Guard spent three days tracking us down. After the initial action, Officer Harris turned the case over to Joshua Bouknight, a petty officer OS2 also stationed in Alaska. Like a detective, Bouknight searched the national database and found 12 vessels registered as Wild Hair. He used software to clean up my radio transmission and listened to the call several dozen times. Hearing “One person blown out to sea and one person on board,” Bouknight knew there were only two people involved.
Ruling out larger commercial fishing vessels, he did an online search and found our Adventures of Wild Hair blog. Our dispatches confirmed that our sailing area matched the partial position statement he’d picked up. Furthermore, the blog listed the length and type of our vessel, a Hylas 45.5-foot sloop. Bouknight cross-referenced the boat details with the vessel-registration database and identified us as the boat owners. Our contact information was also listed.
Armed with our names and addresses, Officer Bouknight attempted to call my husband, but our home phone had recently been disconnected. Utilizing an Internet spider, Bouknight opened pages related to my husband and learned of his former employment. From there, he called my husband’s secretary in Wisconsin, and she provided our cellphone number and confirmed that we were sailing. Unfortunately, our U.S.-based cellphone didn’t work in the Bahamas, so this also proved to be a dead end.
Knowing that our children were close friends with the kids of my husband’s business partner, the secretary put Bouknight in contact with my husband’s colleague. Again, the partner confirmed that we were sailing and—after a quick call to his daughter—offered Bouknight our 21-year-old daughter’s phone number. She gave the officer our satellite email address and the phone number of my mother in Arizona.
For safety’s sake, I email my mother our latitude and longitude whenever we arrive at a new location. Through my mother, then, Bouknight was able to confirm our last known whereabouts and our itinerary. This information correlated perfectly with our distress call.
This detective work was the reason why my inbox was flooded with worried emails. Everyone had spent hours and days fearing the worst. Quickly, I got on the satellite phone and—calmly remembering how to operate the unit—started the process of easing minds.