S/V Elle (Rescued by M/V Oleander, November 2011)
Photo credit: Chris Melrose, NOAA
I wrote the following article for Cruising World magazine. An edited version appeared in their November 2013 issue. Here’s the Full Monty:
Near-fatalities of sailors during recent ship-assisted rescues point to a sobering fact for both cruisers and racers alike: We’re likely not prepared for this stuff. Yet, even more sobering is this fact: There is currently very little to remedy this situation in today’s standard safety training.
Here’s the scenario: You’re a couple of hundred miles out in the Atlantic on a run to the British Virgin Islands when conditions turn nasty. You and your 3-person crew endure 2 days of 40-knot winds and 20-foot seas. On day 3 of the same, very important things start to break on your boat and two of your already exhausted crew become incapacitated. Things are quickly getting out of hand. You feel you’re in serious trouble. So, you activate your EPIRB and request rescue from the U.S Coast Guard – and suddenly things get very real.
The first thing you discover is that you’re out of range for a helicopter rescue. This familiar method you’ve seen numerous times in videos, and that you have possibly studied and practiced first-hand through a safety training seminar is off the table. Instead, you are informed that the CG is putting out a call to AMVER participant vessels in your vicinity. You and your crew are about to be rescued by an enormous ship.
The question: Do you know what you’re in for? The answer: If you’re not in imminent danger of dying and a ship-assisted rescue still sounds like a good alternative…probably not.
What’s the difference?
Four of the most fundamental, and critical, differences between a helo-assisted rescue and a ship-assisted rescue are found in the areas of knowledge, risk, exertion, and responsibility. And, as you’ll discover, these differences are profound.
Let’s first look at these four with a helo-assisted rescue. One of the most critical elements in this type of rescue is that there is predominately a single method of transfer: the basket hoist. As to the area of knowledge therefore, we all generally understand how it works: You get in the basket…you go home. As to the area of risk, we’re comfortable knowing that this transfer method has been tested and perfected over many years, and is relatively safe once you’re in that basket. As to the area of exertion, we know that even an incapacitated sailor can make this transfer as long as he makes it into that basket – which can even be brought back to him by the helo pilot and rescue swimmer if he happens to drift away from it.
The bottom line is we know a lot about helo-assisted rescue. And all this common knowledge is a very valuable thing in the midst of a chaotic situation. Yet, there’s a significant added bonus in this scenario: the best rescue assistance on the planet right there with you. This brings us to the area of responsibility. Because it is the primary responsibility of the CG personnel to get you and your crew into that basket and up to the safety of that aircraft, you have the benefit of excellent one-on-one direction in this chaotic situation via these highly-trained, highly-efficient rescue professionals…in the water and in the aircraft. You don’t need to think and plan during the transfer process nearly as much as you need to listen and follow directions. As skipper in this situation, your level of responsibility during the rescue is reduced.
Not so with a ship-assisted rescue. Take this same “hands-off” approach and you are likely putting yourself and your crew in grave danger.
“It is quite a sick feeling to be almost 1000 miles out to sea and realize nobody is going to jump in to get you / there is no helicopter with a basket and a USCG trained savior, and the only vessel around is as frightening up close as she could run me over like any piece of flotsam.”
-Doug Sabbag (Rescued by the M/V Kim Jacob, July 2011)
Where the fundamental responsibility of CG personnel is rescue, the fundamental responsibility of a ship’s Captain and crew is to safely move that ship and its cargo from point A to point B as quickly and economically as possible. The core missions are vastly different. And, therefore, we need to understand that everything is different.
There’s no question as to the heroic lengths the CG and other rescue organizations will go to save a life. Yet, it is well known that even the CG will not unduly risk the lives of its personnel in an effort to rescue a victim. How then does such a limit apply when the Captain and crew of a commercial ship, whose rescue training, equipment, and capabilities are comparatively minimal, suddenly become your volunteer rescuers? Doesn’t the definition of “undue risk” change drastically, along with the primary focus of responsibility? The simple and sobering answer is “yes”.
Therefore, as skipper, your own level of responsibility for success in a ship-assisted rescue is astronomically higher than with a helo-assisted rescue. It is up to you and your crew to make it to the deck of that ship with very limited assistance. ”Nobody is going to jump in to get you.” This is because, understandably, the Captain’s primary goal is to save souls already in peril – not introduce more souls into that peril. So, in essence, you, the skipper, become the “rescue swimmer” in a ship-assisted rescue.
Additionally, the levels of complexity, risk and exertion you and your crew are about to face are astronomically higher. And you need to be ready for that.
“This type of rescue is by far the most challenging thing a ship’s Captain will ever face.”
-Captain John A. Konrad V, Master Unlimited
It’s a more common problem than you think.
My interest in this issue began when I came across a rare, first-hand recounting of a harrowing ship-assisted rescue on one of the many sailing forums I frequent: Sailnet. The thread, S/V Triumph lost in the Atlantic, is the account of the problem-fraught rescue of Doug Sabbag and his wife Evelyn by the 900’ tanker, M/V Kim Jacob. Mr. Sabbag very nearly drowned while struggling for 3 hours in rough seas following a miscommunication between him and his rescuers which led him to jump from his boat in an attempt to swim to the ship. This thread stands as one of the most discussed and viewed threads in Sailnet history. And it is full of very difficult, very valuable lessons-learned on many levels.
One of the most important of these lessons is that we sailors know very little about the myriad risks and complexities associated with ship-assisted rescues. Is this because such rescues are really not that much of a danger? Is it because they’re so infrequent that the issue doesn’t really warrant specific attention?
I was curious about these answers so I began to do some research. I quickly found accounts of five ship-assisted rescues that occurred in 2011 alone, two of them in a single rally, the North American Rally To The Caribbean (NARC). One of these was the S/V Elle (pictured above) during which one of the crew was very nearly crushed between the vessels after falling into the sea during his transfer. It’s clear, therefore, that the frequency of ship-assisted rescues points to the need for better understanding and training. Yet so too does the inherent danger, best summed up by this ship’s Captain:
“Like getting into a life raft, you should not make the decision to abandon your boat and board a ship in other than perfect conditions unless you feel you are at risk of dying, because the danger of the transfer is greater than the danger of staying on a viable and still afloat vessel.”
-Captain Evans Hoyt, Norwegian Cruise Lines
Think about this for a moment. Captain Hoyt is very clear. Due to the extreme dangers and challenges common with these transfers, this type of rescue is only a last-ditch option when death is imminent. Need proof? Take a look at a sampling of such rescue videos from YouTube:
Sailor dives from slamming boat to a cargo net as rigging is destroyed. Swings hard into hull and climbs.
S/V Baccus (Rescued by M/V Maersk Surabaya, May 2011)
Sailors jump from capsized boat to lines and life rings in the water, then climb ladder to deck. One is nearly crushed between the vessels.
S/V Anna (Rescued by M/V Forum Pacific, August 2010)
Sailors transfer to a rescue boat deployed by a cruise ship. One sailor nearly falls between the bucking vessels during the difficult transfer, and crew on the rescue boat are nearly struck by swinging retrieval blocks during the rescue boat recovery.
S/V Sanctuary (Rescued by C/S Norwegian Gem, October 2011)
Sailors transfer from boat to ship via a motorized dingy. A wave swamps the dingy while alongside and the sailors go into water. They are retrieved using lines, life rings and a ladder – with one sailor unable to cling to life ring in the waves.
S/V Sumatra II (Rescued by M/V Scarlett Lucy, May 2009)
There’s no question that the lack of general knowledge and preparedness regarding ship-assisted rescue is a problem for offshore sailors. But it’s arguably more of a problem for the good souls aboard these AMVER participant vessels who voluntarily come to their rescue. It is a problem that needs a solution.
So, what is that solution?
There are two fundamental sides to this training and preparedness equation: the ship’s Captain and crew, and the sailboat’s Skipper and crew. In the discussion of Mr. Sabbag’s rescue by the M/V Kim Jacob, some sailors held that equipment and procedural standardization for all AMVER participants is the place to start. One idea was that every participating ship could be equipped with standard motorized rescue craft (Fast Rescue Boat, etc.). This Fast Rescue Boat could be launched and retrieved from the ship – much like in the C/S Norwegian Gem video above. Certainly, this would make ship-assisted rescue much more akin to the helo-assisted rescue with a single method of transfer and outside assistance on-hand at the sailboat to help facilitate that transfer. But what about the political, financial, and logistical challenges of insisting on such specialized standards, protocols, and equipment across the entire multinational maritime industry – especially when these maritime participants are volunteers? Who formulates and pushes those standards? Who funds them? Who enforces them? It’s obviously a monumental task.
Yet, what stood out most to me in this line of discussion was the absence of the other side of the equation…us sailors. Ship’s Captains and crews already undergo a great deal of mandatory rescue training and equipment inspection. What about us? Are we really doing our part to alleviate the risk in this age-old, honor-bound commitment of rescue at sea that we rely on?
Quite simply the answer to that question is “no”.
On the one hand, this is due to the lack of perceived value and necessity of safety education and training in general among the sailing community. At least in the United States, unless you’re a sailor that races offshore and are thereby subject to mandatory ISAF Offshore Regulations, the statistics show that you probably have very little in the way of education and training in these areas. And without question, this puts you, your crew, and those trying to save you at much greater risk.
Yet, let’s assume you take your safety responsibilities very seriously. Further, let’s assume that you’re about to do that rally run to the British Virgin Islands and want to educate and train yourself and your crew for the ship-assisted rescue scenario. Is such training available?
Again, the unfortunate answer to that question has been “no”.
The curriculum for most training programs such as the Safety at Sea seminars via U.S. Sailing is derived from the ISAF Offshore Regulations mentioned above. So, I reached out to Ron Trossbach, US Editor, ISAF OSR, to find out what kind of information is available on this subject. He very graciously sent me copies of both the “ISAF Offshore Special Regulations Governing Offshore Racing for Monohulls & Multihulls” and the “Safety Recommendations for Cruising Sailboats” manuals.
When we look at the details of these regulations in “Appendix G: Training”, under “Session 9: ‘SAR organisation and methods’”, we see a fair amount of focus on the CG/hel0-assisted method we are already pretty familiar with, but we only see the following regarding what we need to know about the far more dangerous and complex ship-assisted rescue: “9.1.10 how to cope with rescue attempts from passing ships”. In a typical Safety at Sea training session, with 30 minutes dedicated to covering the 11 items in “SAR organisation and methods”, ship-assisted rescue is underrepresented both in theory and practice.
Since the sailing skipper and his crew are, in fact, a critical part the rescue team in this scenario, no solution is complete without our commitment as sailors to better prepare ourselves. Yet, the information has just not been available. Fortunately, that’s changing.
What you need to know.
I next reached out to two individuals in a position to provide both insight and action on this issue. First was Mr. Benjamin Strong, Director AMVER Maritime Relations, USCG. And second was Ms. Sheila McCurdy, US Sailing Safety at Sea Moderator.
Mr. Strong started off with the very good news that the USCG is already on the ball. It is currently in discussions with other international search and rescue organizations to develop more standardized means of recovery in ship-assisted rescues. These efforts toward a solution by our rescuers, combined with the extensive training already undertaken by ship captains and crews, clearly illustrate the commitment on the rescuer side of the equation.
That leaves us sailors. It’s time to up our game.
Ms. McCurdy acknowledged the lack of detail in typical Safety at Sea seminars regarding ship-assisted rescue and agreed to consider adjustments to and expansion of the “Session 9” SAR content. This, in turn, will provide a more solid platform for theoretical and practical training for racing and cruising sailors alike. So the question is, what do we sailors need to know to be better prepared for a ship-assisted rescue?
The very first thing you need to know is that in this rescue scenario, you, the sailing skipper, are the primary point of the “rescue triangle”. All rescue communications, risk assessment, strategy, preparation, and execution pivot off of you. Therefore, you need to know as much as possible about the other two points of that triangle; the CG SAR Controller and the Ship’s Captain, and how the rescue will play out between the three of you.
Back to Mr. Strong of the USCG. He put me in touch with two guys that form the other two points of this triangle: Mr. Geoffrey Pagels, USCG SAR Controller, and Captain John A. Konrad V, Master Unlimited and owner of gcaptain.com. Between them, they provided a timeline of the process including the critical communications, decision points, and methods that occur in a ship-assisted rescue. This is where you need to start:
Timing and judgment are critical.
As with any call for rescue at sea, you must take into account the condition of yourself, your crew, your boat, and your surroundings. Those conditions should be dire enough to outweigh the very real difficulties and risks that will come with transferring everyone to that ship with limited assistance. However, you also need to understand that the ship coming to get you may be a day or two away. Make your call ensuring that you leave enough time for your rescuers to arrive!
The Coast Guard is there to help with that judgment.
Once the CG receives your distress call and position, ideally via EPIRB*, the SAR Controller will attempt to establish direct communications with you. The best option for this communication is a satellite phone (eg. – Iridium or Inmarsat). However, he will also try all other options available to him such as HF relay, etc. Once in contact with you, the Controller will help you evaluate your situation, and will help you make the right calls. You’ll be in good hands. So make use of these rescue professionals – by having the right equipment on board.
(*Is your EPIRB registration information current and correct? Have you filed a float plan with a friend or relative, along with a photo of the boat for identification purposes?)
Be committed to the decision.
The Controller will know immediately whether you will require an AMVER rescue (i.e. – out of helo range). A bundle of very cool technologies will tell him in less than 90 seconds what ships are in your vicinity. He’ll begin the process of identifying the AMVER participant ship that will come to your rescue. Once he “hits the GO button” and contacts that ship…it’s time to commit and prepare yourself, your crew, and your boat for what’s to come.
Communications challenge #1.
The Controller will set up a communications schedule with you, while simultaneously communicating with the ship’s Captain. Though the Controller will relay critical information from the Captain to you such as ETA, you’ll only be on one side of that conversation until the ship gets into radio range. And remember, it could be a day or two.
The planning and preparation window.
This is the most critical time for you and your crew. With the ship steaming toward you, and with the Controller acting as both your rescue advisor and communications intermediary, you must begin to assess the details of the rescue such as the configuration of the ship (height from water to deck, etc.), the transfer method it will most likely use (e.g. – jacob’s ladder, line and hoist, cargo net, etc.), and how this fits with the condition and abilities of you and your crew. Though it might all change if conditions warrant when the ship arrives, you need to have an initial plan of action coordinated among the three points of the rescue triangle. Other things you need to consider at this time: Does your boat still have propulsion, which is extremely helpful when coming alongside the ship? If your engine is disabled or you’re sinking, does it make more sense to stage the transfer from a life raft or inflatable which has its own dangers in rough seas? Have you and your crew ever climbed a jacob’s ladder 30’, 60’? If a line and hoist will be used, how will you secure each crew member (e.g. – harness, crotch-strap, etc.)? What should you take and leave behind? For example, did you know that the CG asks that you take your EPIRB with you to avoid false alarms from the drifting boat after your evacuation? Do you have your money, your passport, a credit card (you will most likely end up in a very distant destination)? Have you packed these belongings such that you’re not burdened down and have both hands free for a very arduous transfer?
Again, take advantage of your communications with the CG in this time window to work through your checklist to ensure that you and your crew are fully ready for what’s to come. If at any time you feel that the transfer method being discussed is too risky, say so. Come up with another option. At this point, you’re in charge.
The ship comes into range.
It’s important to remember that the ship will not have access to your EPIRB data. In other words, the Captain won’t be able to “see” you via GPS coordinates. Having working AIS and/or Radar SART is extremely beneficial in this situation. Either way, make sure to have ready all the information you’ve already provided to the Controller (e.g. – position, souls aboard, nature of emergency, current conditions, issues with the boat, etc.) and provide that to the Captain.
Redundancy is a good thing.
Communications challenge #2.
As the ship comes to into radio range, the Controller will go into standby mode and relinquish the primary communications to you and the Captain. This will be your first opportunity to evaluate any potential accent or language issues between you and the Captain that might cause problems during the rescue. Though the Controller can assist with translation if necessary, it is far better for you to have direct communication with the Captain to ensure that no mistakes are made. Misunderstandings and assumptions can be fatal – so you have to be very, very deliberate and clear in your language (e.g. – no “maybes”). Now that the ship is in sight and the Captain can better assess the situation, review the agreed transfer plan in as much detail as possible with him. Go over the steps required in the process and make sure you and your crew are comfortable with the plan. Because when the rescue begins, the Captain is in charge. Your responsibility shifts solely to overseeing the others, then yourself, safely negotiating the transfer off the boat and onto the ship.
Communications challenge #3.
Though you will most likely speak only with the Captain during the transfer, you need to understand that he will be in communication with key personnel aboard his ship, each of whom have a specific role in the rescue: the Chief Mate on deck coordinating the transfer, the Chief Engineer helping to control the ship, electricians, etc. So be patient as the Captain works through this complicated chain of communication. But, most importantly, be deliberate and clear with each request, statement and command. Remember, it was a misunderstood command that very nearly killed Mr. Sabbag. You only get one shot at this.
The Transfer: Step one.
Now comes the moment of truth. It’s the most challenging thing you, your crew, and the ship’s Captain and crew will ever face. The Captain will most likely position his ship broadside to the seas to create a lee and will drift down toward your boat. This will be a very slow process. If you still have means of propulsion on your boat it will greatly help in the process, but be sure to coordinate all movements with the Captain. You and your crew should have on PFDs, be tethered to the boat, have fenders out, and have a boat hook(s) handy to grab lines or fend-off of the ship. You, the skipper, should stay focused on the communications and directions to your crew while your crew focuses on the tasks at hand. Don’t get distracted. The ship’s crew should have the agreed means of transfer in place and will likely use a line-throwing apparatus to send a small messenger line over to your boat. Use the boat hook if necessary to retrieve this line, which will be used to pull over a heavier line to secure your boat to the ship. You should secure this heavier line to the mast, and to a cleat. The ship’s crew will haul the sailboat in toward the ship. And if the seas are up, as you saw in many of the videos above, it will become increasingly hazardous as the two vessels converge (mast slamming, potential rigging failure, etc.) You and your crew should be focused on that jacob’s ladder (or other means of transfer). You should all be ready to immediately start the transfer when the word is given. BUT, make sure to coordinate each move with the Captain. Stay calm and methodical and don’t assume anything.
The Transfer: Step two.
This is, without doubt, the most dangerous part of the process. The most important thing to remember here is to not get rushed. If things get too dicey, just wait. The ship’s crew will be patient and will exhaust any and every possibility to ensure a safe transfer for each person. For this exercise, let’s assume the transfer will occur with a jacob’s ladder*. Ensure that the mast or any other dangerous obstructions on your boat are as far away from the jacob’s ladder as possible. The ship’s crew will work to keep your boat in place – but it’s up to you to make sure that the climbing path is clear when the time comes. If possible, everyone should stay tethered to the boat until it’s their turn to climb. When the climber unclips his tether (leaving the tether attached to the boat – not dragging it with him), one or two others should be there to steady him until he’s on the ladder. He should take a moment to carefully time the rise and fall of the boat, and the distance to the ladder, so that at the crest of a wave he reaches out and takes strong hold of the ladder’s side-lines while placing a foot on a rung (remember that the rungs of the jacob’s ladder are typically slippery – always grab the side-lines with your hands to ascend). As the boat falls away, he should waste no time and immediately climb to safety. In some instances the ship’s crew may be able to hoist the ladder, saving him the difficulty of climbing (work that out ahead of time). This process is repeated until everyone is safely aboard the ship. But, remember, it becomes increasingly difficult as fewer are on the sailboat to help each climber. So plan accordingly.
(*Remember, the jacob’s ladder is just one of several possible transfer methods that can include a line hoist, a cargo net, a life ring from the water, etc. Think through each one using the videos above as reference.)
Aboard the ship.
Once you’re safely aboard the ship, confirm doing so with the Controller, then deactivate your EPIRB. Next, take a moment to do a medical evaluation of your crew and yourself. The ship’s crew will most likely not have much in the way of medical assistance, but can contact a physician for you if necessary. Next, understand that you are a guest aboard this working vessel that has just lost a good deal of time and money rescuing you. The Captain needs to get back underway to his destination as quickly as possible, and that destination may be on the opposite side of the planet from where you were headed. You need to be okay with that and start doing what you can to plan lodging and transportation for you and your crew when you reach port.
Most importantly, you need to thank those who have just upheld the age-old honor-bound tradition of the sea and saved the lives of you and your crew.
The above information should get you started in your thinking and preparation for a possible ship-assisted rescue. However, there are many, many details in each of the above steps that have not been covered in this article. And that’s where training comes in. My objective is to continue to work with those mentioned above to create content for theoretical and practical training sessions for Safety at Sea seminars – and other like programs around the world. This kind of training for us sailors, coupled with the ongoing efforts of the international SAR and maritime communities to standardize transfer techniques, should result in much smoother rescues and far better outcomes.
It’s time for us sailors to step-up and do our part. Because if you enjoy plying blue water – especially with your family – not knowing this stuff can kill you.
In addition to those mentioned above, Steve also wishes to thank Beth and Evans Starzinger for their assistance with this article.