A Call for Help

Then I heard it again, ten minutes later, the same scratchy transmission, the same voice, a bit more clear. “If anyone can hear me, please answer on 22."

Del Viento, wrecked boat

"Pantheon" on the beach in San Evaristo.

NOTE: Rather than use the real name, I made up the boat name Pantheon for this story. Of course, everything is otherwise true.

I was all of the way forward, in the v-berth, focused on writing. I wasn’t sure what I heard on the radio, but I glanced up, listening for a response. Nothing.

We're in La Paz and 22 is the VHF hailing channel for a huge community of cruising sailors and liveaboards that span seven marinas and nearly one hundred anchor-outs. [Well, I'm in La Paz, Windy and the girls are six days into a three-week trip back to D.C.] The frequency is busy and I normally tune it out unless I hear Del Viento. It was almost noon and I'd just spent an anxious 45 minutes in the companionway, the engine running and my eye on the wind speed indicator while the brunt of a dense front passed overhead, moving northward. Rain pelted and the wind topped out at 36 knots. It wasn't severe, typical summertime weather activity for this area. But it did cause two boats to drag and a lot of radio commotion from folks saving those boats and protecting their own.

But the front had passed, the engine was off, the radio had been quiet, and I was writing. But the voice caught my attention, desperate and far away.

Then I heard it again, ten minutes later, the same scratchy transmission, the same voice, a bit more clear. “If anyone can hear me, please answer on 22." There was again no response and this time I caught a boat name. After 15 more seconds of silence, still not hearing any reply, I got up and went back to the nav station.

"Pantheon, Pantheon, Del Viento, let's go to 68."

The response was urgent: “Yes! 68! 68!”

On 68 I hailed a few times and waited, but heard nothing.

As soon as I turned back to 22, I heard him hailing me, the transmission clipping and breaking up, still that voice, desperate. I answered and the response I heard back made my face flush and my heart race, my limbs alert and jumpy. But I didn’t move. I keyed the mic.

"Umm, okay. Pantheon, your transmission is rough and I didn't catch it all, but I copied that your boat is wrecked, your crew is not injured, you're in San Evaristo, and you need help. Is that correct, over."

A transmission followed and I understood that Pantheon copied me, but nothing else.

I paused on 22 for a bit, I knew at least dozens of boats and businesses had copied my transmission. I figured someone would chime in and take over, or at least tell me what to do next. The radio was silent.

You’ve got to understand that this is La Paz. I could get on this same frequency any time of day, ask the most arcane question, and half a dozen people would respond with an answer. Here an emergency had presented itself and I half expected a net controller to jump in, tell me thank you, and then take it from there.

"Attention the fleet, attention the fleet. This is Del Viento. The vessel Pantheon in San Evaristo just issued a distress call over the radio. Did anyone else copy, over."

I waited through ten more seconds of silence and then realized I had to step up.

"Okay. I just got a call from the vessel Pantheon. Apparently his boat is wrecked ashore in San Evaristo. All persons aboard are safe, nobody is injured. His transmissions are weak. I tried talking to him on another channel and that didn't work. I'm going to have to ask that everyone stay clear of 22 while I communicate with Pantheon."

I took a deep breath.

"Pantheon, Pantheon, Del Viento."

For the next ten minutes, the signal varied from strong to weak and unintelligible. It was mostly the latter and I asked him to repeat things over and over. At one point, after I’d asked further about the condition of his boat, he said he was having a hard time hearing me because the sound of his keel breaking off from the hull was drowning me out. In the background I could hear tremendous cracking and scraping noises.

He was obviously in shock, it may have been only an hour before that everything in his world was normal. At this point in our dialog, I think he was still coming to terms with the likelihood that his boat and home were irrecoverable. He asked me to notify the La Paz port captain of his predicament. He had family ashore he wanted brought to La Paz. He wondered if the Navy could come to save his boat.

I relayed his needs and concerns to the La Paz fleet and everyone’s help was urgent and efficient. People talked to the port captain and the navy and got back to me with responses. San Evaristo is a small fishing community with limited resources. It is only 60 miles away, but the driving time estimate was four hours given the state of the long dirt road portion. Nonetheless, a cruiser got in his truck and headed straight there, to pick up Pantheon’s crew and get them back to La Paz.

It’s crazy because during this episode and this evening I’ve talked to several people who were on the radio for the entire event and nobody could hear anything but my side of the conversation. Del Viento is anchored in a thicket of boats, right outside Marina de La Paz. I can see dozens of boats anchored out in the open in the direction of San Evaristo--60 miles north! Our mast is relatively tall, but it must have been a weird propagation thing that we were the only boat that could copy Pantheon.

I assured Pantheon that help was coming. I told him a Navy boat was coming too, and that both the truck and boat should be there by sunset. Pantheon's batteries were getting weak and he was reticent to transmit. I told him I would relay info with the understanding that he was receiving.

An hour later, I told him the Navy had called back their boat, that their mission was search and rescue, loss of life stuff, and that his situation was out of their purview. By this time he'd come to the realization that his boat was lost and asked me what his responsibilities were. Could he just leave it there? I told him I didn't know. I told him he should talk to whichever of the fishermen in that community is in charge. I told him he should salvage what he could. I asked him if he wanted another truck there with more people who could help in that effort. He said there was water everywhere and he didn't know how much time was left. I worked with the La Paz cruising community to arrange for another truck and men and tools to leave the next morning, shortly after daylight. I told Pantheon the news.

He said he would stay with his boat overnight. Like us, everything he owns is aboard. Hopefully, unlike us, he has some kind of hull insurance. But I doubt it.

Most of the Baja peninsula is a deserted, inhospitable place—much like many parts of the world that cruising sailors venture. Things happen, things like this and things like injuries and illness and breakdowns. Especially in the blistering heat of summer, and when you travel beyond the few population centers, it’s a place where self-sufficiency is required. But when you are in a pickle, when you’ve tapped your own resources and you need the help of others, it’s available if you can communicate that need. But the lesson here is that even when you can reach the cruising community, nothing magic happens—and when I say magic, I’m talking about the magic of a 9-1-1 call in the United States, whereby events are set in motion and overwhelming resources are automatically brought to bare. No, instead, when you make that call for help on the VHF, you don’t get a trained and experienced person on the other end who can reassure you and do what is proscribed, you get me, another guy like you who has less experience with the trouble you’re having than you do. A guy who isn’t exactly sure what’s right, but who will do exactly what he would want others to do for him. And in a best case scenario, it results in a bunch of other self-sufficient folks coming to your aid as best they can.

I’ll provide an update to this post when the outcome is known. It’s early morning and I’m on my way to San Evaristo.

In our twenties, we traded our boat for a house and our freedom for careers. In our thirties, we slumbered through the American dream. In our forties, we woke and traded our house for a boat and our careers for freedom. And here we are. Follow along at http://www.logofdelviento.blogspot.com/