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Steering problems hamper offshore rally

Nov 12, 2013
Crew members of the Coast Guard Cutter Block Island tow the 54-foot sailboat Zulu to Chesapeake Bay on Nov. 8, 2013

Crew members of the Coast Guard Cutter Block Island tow the 54-foot sailboat Zulu to Chesapeake Bay on Nov. 8, 2013

U.S. Coast Guard photo by crew member of the USCGC Block Island

Many have probably heard about the Coast Guard's assistance of multiple boats during the weekend of Nov. 9 &10. Six sailboats participating in the Salty Dawg Rally from Virginia to the Caribbean required assistance. These vessels were caught by a cold front that produced rough conditions off North Carolina.

Though these six cases are by no means a statistically complete sample, it's intriguing that three of the six suffered rudder problems. This suggests that voyagers should make sure their steerage is in top shape before departing on a passage. A practiced plan for emergency steering also seems prudent.

These cases also highlight the Coast Guard's policy toward towing vessels. The USCG always attempts to pass on towing duties to private towing companies. However, when vessels and crew are in an emergency situation or are further offshore than a private towing company will agree to operate, then the Coast Guard will take a vessel in tow if it has a ship available. In cases where distressed vessels are outside the range of private towing services but where there is no emergency, then Coast Guard rules are for USCG vessels to refuse to tow, given that an emergency could arise and the towing vessel might be needed elsewhere.

Here is a summary of the vessels needing assistance with an interesting twist in the last case. 

The 41 footer Ahimsa experienced flooding and its four crewmembers abandoned the vessel and were picked up by a Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk. The Jayhawk reportedly extended its range by landing aboard the U.S. Navy cruiser Vella Gulf and refueling before pressing on to Ahimsa. The sailboat was left abandoned about 200 miles off Oregon Inlet.

Nyapa, a 38-footer tripped their EPIRB and when a Coast Guard HC-130 arrived the crew related via VHF that they had been dismasted. Nyapa ultimately decided to continue on via engine power.

Wings, another 38 footer, lost its rudder about 210 miles ENE of Oregon Inlet. Wings crewmembers first called a commercial towing company and the company forwarded the call to the Coast Guard. The Navy destroyer USS Cole was diverted to assist. Three crewmembers from Wings were rescued by Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter with the help of Cole.

Zulu, a 54-foot yawl experienced rudder damage and an inoperative fuel pump. The Coast Guard 110-foot cutter Block Island was sent to assist Zulu and took the vessel in tow approximately 100 miles east of Oregon inlet. Block Island towed Zulu to the mouth of the Chesapeake where a 45-foot response boat-medium towed Zulu to Cobb Marine in Norfolk.

Another vessel named Braveheart also reportedly needed assistance when it reported that a crewmember on board broke his arm. No USCG vessels were available and Braveheart was able to proceed unassisted to Morehead City in North Carolina.

Finally, the 42-foot sloop Jammin also lost its steering approximately 180 miles offshore. It called for help and was assisted by the 270-foot Coast Guard cutter Forward. The cutter took Jammin in tow and brought it into the Chesapeake.

Although the crew of sailors on board Jammin probably didn't know it, Forward was scheduled for an extended overhaul and was about to head for the shipyard when the call came to assist Jammin. The Forward crew, which had removed all the food, personal effects and even the bedding from Forward to prepare for the overhaul, spent hours towing Jammin with virtual no provisions and with some of the crew lacking some clothing items. Coast Guard Ensign Jacob Boss writes of the rescue:

"The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Forward charged out from the Chesapeake Bay the Friday before without as much as a change of clothing or even milk for their morning cereal.  It was an unplanned mission, and the crew took it in stride – sharing clothing items, donating toiletries to those in need and even adding blue food coloring to white cake to brighten their meager meal.

"Like most emergencies at sea, the call for assistance came suddenly, and the crew of the Forward answered the call with a nearly empty ship.

"Two days prior, the crew departed from their homeport of Portsmouth, Va., to conduct training operations in the Chesapeake Bay with another crew from a neighboring station.  Additionally, the crew had removed almost everything from the ship, including food, bedding and personal items in preparation for a trip to the Coast Guard yard the following week. The crew was prepared to sail to the shipyard for long-awaited maintenance and upgrades to the ship, which is older than many of the crewmembers who serve aboard. Once they completed their training that afternoon, the crew received word of a distressed sailboat crew approximately 180 miles off the North Carolina coast.

"The sailboat Wings was disabled with three people aboard after the sailboat incurred engine and rudder casualties in heavy weather. The crew of the Forward responded immediately by altering their course and headed out to sea to the last known position of Wings. Forward arrived on scene early the next morning to provide assistance. While on scene with Wings, the Forward crew learned of another distressed sailboat approximately 20 miles away.

The Jammin, a 42-foot sailboat with two people aboard, had also suffered a rudder casualty in the same weather. After receiving assurance the crew of Wings was safe, and after ensuring another Coast Guard asset was en route to assist, the Forward crew diverted to respond to the second distressed sailboat. Forward arrived on scene with Jammin, rendered assistance and began to tow the sailboat back to shore.

"A recent boot camp graduate, 20-year-old Tampa native Fireman Joshua Lyons got his first taste of Coast Guard operations after serving aboard the Forward for only three weeks.

"'Responding to this search and rescue case has been exciting and challenging,' Lyons said. 'It’s a good feeling knowing we’re helping people. This is what we signed up to do.'

"Cutters like Forward possess the unmatched combination of range, speed, and ability to operate in extreme weather, providing the mission flexibility necessary to conduct alien migrant interdiction operations, domestic fisheries protection, search and rescue, counter-narcotics and homeland security operations from South America to the Bering Sea. Assets like Forward conduct these operations at great distances from shore, keeping threats far from the U.S. mainland and strengthening the security of our partner nations."

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