Pactor Babe's Got Her Ears On
But Jim is a perfect reflection of the global marine community: half crazy, ever willing to help, generous to a fault, and totally "weird as a beard," as our daughter, Roma, would say.
That day, I tuned into the Rag for a specific reason. A few days previously, I'd chatted with a happy-go-lucky Texan named Louis Honeycutt, who sails Elysium, a 44-foot Cross-designed trimaran that was built in 1968. He was headed for Port Resolution, on the island of Tanna, in Vanuatu, a cruising destination Carolyn and I dearly love. We immediately told him how much we'd enjoyed our stay there (see "Tall Tales from the South Pacific," October 2007) and wished him luck. Unfortunately, the following day Louis reported that his recently repaired prop shaft had slipped aft of its coupling and the boat had nearly sunk before he'd been able to staunch the water flow. He was engineless, much of his electronics were down, and he was now diverting to a harbor that would be easier to enter under sail. He didn't sound happy anymore.
Worse yet, the following day he didn't come up on the Rag, which was ominous.
On this morning, we hoped to hear that Louis and his three crewmembers aboard Elysium were in safe harbor and resting before attempting repairs. Instead, our friend Russ Cobb (KK4MT) on Hygelig surfaced on the frequency. Russ is an avid 'ham' who is active on all bands. He often acts as a liaison between different nets, such as the very formal Pacific Seafarers net (14300, on 20 meters) and the laidback Rag.
"PacSea is reporting the 406 EPIRB registered to Elysium went off last night, right in our area. I mean, we know Louis had trouble, he isn't responding, and now his EPIRB has been activated. I think we should take this one seriously, guys!"
Immediately, all chatter ceased on the Rag. This is, after all, primarily why such cruising nets exist: to help. Suddenly dozens of people in dozens of countries-separated by a half-million-square-miles of ocean-pooled their communication resources to help a fellow mariner in (at least potential) distress.
Jim Bandy, as net control, repeated Elysium's last reported position, and announced he'd act as Information Central. Vessels in Port Resolution confirmed that Elysium hadn't arrived. Various SSB volunteers were dispatched to other marine nets on different frequencies to spread the word as accurately as possible, and to relay any pertinent info back to the Rag. To facilitate this, it was agreed to meet back on the same frequency in four hours, and four hours after that if needed.
Various people were able to help in different ways because of their specific technology. For instance, Randy Schneider, an American sailing a Gozzard 44, Procyon, used his satellite phone to contact the U.S. Coast Guard in both Hawai'i and San Diego. Ditto Captain Steve aboard Aussie Oi, who communicated with the Australian coast guard in Sydney. A passing New Zealand yacht within VHF-radio range of New Caledonia (which is the search-and-rescue base in this area) immediately brought the French up to speed on the situation. Other boaters contacted Louis' stateside family and confirmed and expanded our known details. E-mails flew hither and yon. Carolyn queried Winlink (see "On the World's Airways, Amateurs Find a Niche," page 71) to see how many boats with active ham radios were currently in the potential search area. (This technology to precisely locate a seagoing ham is so new that it's rarely used, but it's highly valuable in SAR situations. Basically, we can always find out which of the boats around us equipped with ham radios are issuing position reports).
That morning, there had been two ongoing incidents that the net had been following with interest; both were temporarily put on hold. The first was a northbound catamaran named Holokai, with Spike and Angela aboard, that was bound for Savusavu, in Fiji. It had broken its boom and ripped its mainsail during a welcome-to-the-tropics gale. Rick Walker on the catamaran Endangered Species volunteered to act as mission control on this non-life-threatening incident, taking the vessel's skipper off frequency to continue to closely monitor his condition without interfering with the main event. Another vessel was heading east from New Zealand in the distant South Pacific Ocean; the skipper had taken an unplanned swim. My old Virgin Islands multihull friend Ted "Wood-Butcher" Cary, on the much-modified Jim Brown trimaran Seaquester, decided to play good shepherd on this one.
Frequency-band conditions changed throughout the day, of course, as is common with SSB and ham radios. This required frequency changes and lots of relays, where one yacht passes the "baton of information" onward to another, and thus vast miles of ocean are covered in seconds. Think of it as repeating smoke signals from mountaintop to mountaintop.