Lucky Duck to the Rescue
Two sailors are plucked from the sea, thanks to a northbound delivery crew's fortuitous breakdowns and solid seamanship. A special report from our September 2009 issue
A Mayday call is a down-the-rabbit-hole interruption for any ocean passage. Needless to say, second only to the gravity of having to issue the call yourself is being the sole recipient of a static-filled radio contact from a vessel and crew in deep trouble. How you train yourself to react-whether you're the one in trouble or rescuer-reflects how you've prepared your boat and yourself for going to sea.
Here's a tale of how Captain Jim Stanek and his Newport, Rhode Island-based delivery crew reacted when they got a distress call last spring while making their way from Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, to Tampa, Florida. On board as crew were Mark Williams and his 15-year-old son, George. As they pointed the bow of a well-used Nauticat 42 northward, little did they know that they were about to learn firsthand about what happens when a boat goes down on the high seas. The simple fact that everyone involved in this high-drama episode survived means that everyone involved passed the critical final exam with flying colors.
Lucky Duck departed Soper's Hole with Stanek and crew aboard after a number of equipment-related false starts. Delays aside, the skipper wouldn't leave port when crucial systems were on the blink. With all the last-minute details, Lucky Duck's departure could've taken place anytime within a span of 72 hours. But had the boat left even 90 minutes earlier or later, it likely wouldn't have been within VHF radio range to receive the fateful Mayday call. For the two strangers who were sailing a reciprocal course, from Florida to the Virgins, it was a lucky roll of the cosmic dice.
Just before dawn on the third day out, Stanek tried to snatch a few winks belowdecks after coming off the late-night watch, during which winds had slowly moderated into the low-teens after a night of sustained 25 knots. The VHF suddenly crackled with static and got everyone's undivided attention with one heart-stopping word: "Mayday"; it seemed to hang ominously in the morning air. Stanek, the owner of Trans-Atlantic Marine, is the consummate professional skipper, with more than 200,000 bluewater miles and 17 Atlantic crossings under his belt. When his attempts to relay the Mayday to anyone else within radio range failed to gain a response, he quickly assessed their limited options. Lucky Duck's crew was on its own to carry out a rescue.
Stanek immediately fell back on his years of preparing for the unexpected. He got the most vital information first, calmly walking the heavily accented voice on the radio through the necessary steps for providing their exact latitude and longitude. The data, repeated and confirmed a number of times, was written into Lucky Duck's log; radios on sinking boats are notoriously fickle. Stanek later observed that while you always prepare for these situations, the reality is far tougher to pull off than you expect.
The coordinates that Stanek received put the target about 30 miles off the coast of the Dominican Republic and over six miles away from Lucky Duck. The crew changed course, engaged the radar, and began motorsailing at top speed toward the spot. Once the rescue boat was squared away on the target, Stanek focused on getting as much information about the present situation aboard the sinking boat as possible. He first confirmed the visual description: The vessel, named Tovarish, a Valiant 32, had a light-blue hull and aluminum mast; the masthead running lights were still operating, and the sails were still up. The caller then confirmed that two people were aboard, water was coming in fast from an unknown source, and the electric bilge pump wasn't working.
The first order of concern was, of course, the health and safety of those aboard. Stanek asked if they were wearing lifejackets. Was anyone injured? Was either person physically limited? Were they on deck or below? Any signs of hypothermia? Any anxiety-produced reluctance to take positive action? He got a description of the clothes that each of the men was wearing.