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Sailor makes four distress calls before leaving boat

Apr 30, 2018
A sailor in distress 700 miles off the coast of Mexico was rescued by the AMVER-participating ship Express Berlin.

A sailor in distress 700 miles off the coast of Mexico was rescued by the AMVER-participating ship Express Berlin.

Michael Schindler

In an apparent first for the Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue System (AMVER) a yachtsman off the coast of Mexico called in four ship visits before finally abandoning his boat.

In January, AMVER — a 60-year-old U.S. Coast Guard system that directs commercial ships to vessels in distress — processed four distress calls from a 76-year-old solo sailor with engine trouble on a journey from Cabo San Lucas to Los Angeles.

Coast Guard search and rescue personnel in Los Angeles received a notification in January from the Garmin/inReach Emergency Call Center that the sailor — on a 45-boat with no EPIRB — was disabled and adrift approximately 700 miles west of Cabo San Lucas. He requested a mechanic to help him repair the boat’s engine.

Benjamin Strong, the civilian director of AMVER Maritime Relations, said that when no Coast Guard assets were available nearby to respond, the service turned to his system. The closest vessel was the 587-foot bulk carrier Indigo Lake, which was 340 miles from the sailboat. The captain of the Hong Kong-flagged ship agreed to divert and began heading for the location.

When Indigo Lake arrived, it rigged a safety net and pilot ladder and provided a lee for the disabled sailboat. The sailor, who was never identified publicly, declined to abandon his craft and instead requested help repairing his engine. The captain of Indigo Lake decided he could not safely put crew aboard the sailboat, and he was released by the Coast Guard to continue his journey after spending 32 hours on site.

The sailor reported to the Coast Guard that he would be able to sail to Los Angeles even though his boat's sails were tattered. AMVER personnel were still concerned and located the 646-foot Norwegian-flagged general cargo ship Star Gran. It agreed to divert.

Star Gran was able to secure lines to the sailboat and lower its chief engineer to troubleshoot the engine. Star Gran also brought the sailor on board, where he was given breakfast and was able to sleep and talk to the Coast Guard via satellite phone. He decided to continue his attempt to reach Los Angeles, and Star Gran was released by the Coast Guard after 14 hours assigned to the case.

The following day the sailor again contacted the Coast Guard, saying that while trying to tighten a belt, he had turned off the boat’s engine and could not restart it. AMVER located the Greek-flagged containership Express Berlin and the captain agreed to divert to help.

Express Berlin put a team of engineering crewmembers on the sailboat to troubleshoot the engine and install new batteries. For the third time, the sailor refused to leave his vessel. Express Berlin was then released, only to be recalled several hours later when the sailor stated he now was ready to abandon ship. The sailor safely embarked the containership and was to remain on board until it reached its next port in Taiwan. Express Berlin spent 10 hours responding to the case.

Having to direct assistance to the same vessel four times “is unique in my experience” of running the system for 13 years, Strong said. Typically only one interaction is required.

Strong said that often a diverted ship will take the crew of the distressed vessel on board and abandon the craft because it’s impractical to tow a small vessel behind a large ship for long distances. But if the sailor is not in life-threatening distress, he said the usual response is “let’s get him fixed up and on his way. It’s not uncommon for a commercial ship to provide food, water, batteries or fuel if a vessel is capable of getting underway. We can’t force them off the boat.”

In this case, Strong said, after the first interaction “things started to spiral (and go) terribly wrong.”

More than 22,000 ships from hundreds of nations are enrolled in AMVER.

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