Rescue on the High Seas

Bill Haynie

A young Mount Pleasant (SC)-based sailing yacht captain recently coordinated a rescue at sea while sailing from Antiqua to Bermuda. Captain Bill Haynie, 27, was several days out of Antiqua, helping deliver a 67-foot Discovery sailboat named More Magic to Newport, Rhode Island, in May on a "routine" delivery after racing in Antigua. Several days into the transit, in deteriorating weather, Haynie and the boat's permanent captain, Sean Heffernan of Ireland, were in the cockpit at 9:30 a.m. when the VHF radio started crackling.

“We heard some squelch coming through on the VHF, in a pattern consistent with a radio call, but were unable to make out any speech,” Haynie says. “We had not been in any contact with any other boats since departing and could not see anyone on the horizon. We turned the radio up a bit and stood by it to see if anything came in more clearly. Another squall passed over us, and in the middle of it, Heff (Sean Heffernan) heard another transmission which he thought was a mayday call. It was still full of static, but he was sure enough that he thought it worth investigating.”

For the next 20 minutes, the crew of More Magic was on the radio trying to establish contact with whomever was transmitting the call, all the while scanning the horizon with binoculars. Soon, they noticed a small sloop on the horizon.

"The sloop had only a piece of its mainsail up, and appeared to be sailing toward us from the north, which is odd, because nobody (in the Caribbean) sails south this time of year," said Haynie. More Magic got closer to the sloop, made radio contact, and confirmed that it indeed was putting out a distress call. The captain of the sloop, named "WaveCrest," had suffered a fall headfirst through the companionway, suffered a severe head injury, and as a result was experiencing violent seizures and was totally incoherent. Making matters worse, the boat was out of control as its inexperienced crew dealt with the situation.

Captains Haynie and Heffernan both have tens of thousands of miles of ocean-sailing experience, which was fortuitous for the distressed sloop. After communicating with the distressed vessel, the two captains decided to put Haynie and crew member Christy Clemenson aboard the sloop. Haynie would take control of the sailboat while Clemenson would use her medical training to assess the injuries to the captain of WaveCrest. Clemenson found the captain to have pupils permanently dilated, a rapid pulse, and his extremities were shaking and tingling. It was obvious that he needed to be transported for immediate medical treatment, and given that his condition had deteriorated in the three days since his fall, Haynie and Clemenson felt that three more days at sea might prove fatal.

"We relayed the information back to Heff on More Magic and immediately began devising a plan," Haynie said. Heff contacted Bermuda Radio Dispatch via More Magic's satellite phone, and was put on the line with a local doctor, who confirmed Clemenson's assessment and opinion that the victim should be taken to shore immediately. Bermuda Radio also informed them that they were out of range of Bermuda services (550 nautical miles north), and the closest point of land was Tortola (270 miles south), which fell under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard station, San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Coast Guard told them there was a Chinese container ship named "ShanHi" 45 miles to the northeast.

"It made sense to Heff and me to proceed with all speed toward the ship," Haynie recounts. "It could make about 15 knots, WaveCrest could make 5-6, leaving a rendezvous time of 2.5 hours – well before sunset."

It was at this point that captains Haynie and Heffernan found themselves in a debate with the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard did not think the victim could be transported up to a much taller container ship and therefore wanted them to sail south toward the “fly zone,” to reach helicopter range. They decided to heed the Coast Guard’s instructions, so they turned around and sailed south toward Tortola with the container ship overtaking them from behind, with the intention of standing by in case of further distress, help facilitate an air rescue, or to collect the victim in the case that an air rescue was not possible.

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