Rescue at Sea: What Happens When the Freighter Arrives
Should you ever request a “ship-assisted rescue,” prior planning and clear communications will be the keys to a successful operation.
Here’s the scenario: You’re several hundred miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean en route to the Caribbean when conditions turn nasty. Your three crew and you endure two days of 40-knot winds and 20-foot seas. On the third day, important gear starts breaking, and two of your already exhausted crew are incapacitated. Sensing that you’re in serious trouble, you activate your EPIRB and request a rescue from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Your fate is no longer in your own hands.
Once communications have been established, you learn that you’re out of range for a helicopter rescue, which you’ve seen numerous times in videos, and even witnessed firsthand during a Safety at Sea Seminar. Instead, the Coast Guard informs you that it’s putting out a call to vessels in your vicinity registered with Amver, the Automated Mutual Assistance Vessel Rescue System, a voluntary global ship-reporting system used by search-and-rescue authorities to arrange for assistance for mariners in distress. You’re about to be rescued by an enormous freighter or tanker.
Do you know what you’re in for? Probably not. In hindsight, many sailors who weren’t in imminent mortal danger second-guess their decision to call in the high-seas cavalry. That’s because, during several recent ship-assisted rescues that resulted in near-fatalities, it became clear that cruisers and racers alike weren’t adequately prepared for the experience. Furthermore, there’s currently very little to remedy this situation in today’s standard safety training.
Knowledge, risk, exertion and responsibility represent the four most fundamental and critical differences between a helicopter-assisted rescue and a ship-assisted rescue. With a helo-assisted rescue, there is a single method of transfer: the basket hoist. You get in the basket, you go home. In terms of risk, we’re comfortable knowing that this transfer method has been tested and perfected over many years and is relatively safe once you’re in that basket. Even an incapacitated sailor can make this transfer once he or she is in the basket, which can even be returned to the sailor by the helo pilot and rescue swimmer if it happens to drift away.
Clearly, we know a lot about helo-assisted rescue, which is valuable in the midst of a chaotic situation. There’s also a significant bonus to this scenario: The best rescue assistance on the planet is right there with you. Because it’s the primary responsibility of the Coast Guard personnel to get you and your crew safely ashore, you don’t need to think and plan during the transfer process nearly as much as you need to listen and follow directions. As skipper, your level of responsibility is reduced.
Not so with a ship-assisted rescue.
Where the fundamental responsibility of a Coast Guard helicopter crew is rescue, the primary exercise of a ship’s captain and crew is to transport cargo as quickly and economically as possible. The core missions are vastly different, which means that everything is different.
Therefore, as skipper, your level of responsibility in a ship-assisted rescue is astronomically higher than with a helo-assisted rescue. It’s up to you and your crew to make it to the deck of that ship with limited assistance. In essence, you, the skipper, become the “rescue swimmer” in a ship-assisted rescue.