Thursday, May 28, 2009


For the final crossing this hitch the Captain has decided to keep our route further south to avoid a potential low pressure system forecasted for the West Atlantic. Leaving Southampton and the English Channel we headed for the nine and a half mile passage in between the two most north westerly islands in the Azores Archipelago in hopes of hooking a tuna or two.

The two Islands, Corvo and Flores are remote Portuguese territories. The British Admiralty Sailing Directions describes Corvo as "A single extinct volcanic mountain the crater of which, Caldeirao, occupies all the NW portion of the island. The coastline is rugged and inaccessible falling vertically to the sea from a height of several hundred meters."
Flores, the larger of the two with three villas instead of just one is also "Mountainous with a summit over 900 meters in height...much cultivated and wooded. Inland the landscape is formed of deep valleys, small plateaus, lakes and many waterfalls."

Making landfall somewhere new, even on an island you'll never set foot on, always provides an amount of satisfaction. It gives me the feeling of actually traveling rather than just spending interminable days on a blue treadmill pointed towards some distant waypoint over the horizon. After pulling out the large scale chart I located the land on the radar,
in this case two islands a few miles long, confirming that the GPS haven't been lying about our position.

Then I peered into the sky finding the tufts of cumulus ascending with the warmer island air over the ocean as survivors are told to do from lifeboats in search of land. The clouds encasing the islands eventually gave way to two dark shapes on the horizon specked with little white farm houses and patches of farm land. The dull shapes became clearer
with each approaching mile and soon I was scouring the hill sides with binoculars studying every detail of these remote Portuguese outposts.

Both islands were far more lush than I had expected. The wet oceanic air blowing over them day in and day out condenses on their high peaks giving birth to multiple waterfalls which come down from the rocky heights irrigating the fields. The buildings were numerous showing that a fair amount of people made these two fringes of society their home
year round undoubtedly relying on fish and their own produce for the local economy.

There was no evidence of hotels or other tourism but there are small airstrips on both of the islands. The peaks were mostly clouded in but I caught glimpses of the craters a few times. In between the islands, where we slowed the engine to troll and keep the cell phone signal for as long as we could, a few boats were seen on the one off lying bank fishing certainly having more luck than us.

A zodiac sped up to us as it headed over to the smaller island, a family drive out to Corvo Azores style. The mom and dad were pointing out the huge green and white box of a car ship drifting past to their young child who waved to us.

On the radio a single station was broadcasting from Flores. At first a mix of religious, patriotic and popular music it turned into a Catholic Mass but I couldn't tell if it was live from the island or canned. It was Sunday after all.

The views of the massive cliffs draped in greenery, sliced with waterfalls immerging from the clouds was awesome after a few days of viewing only sea and sky. The pastures were numerous wherever the land wasn't too severely sloping and little white walled homes with red roofs dotted the hillsides. I had to fight the urge to launch myself in the
Fast Rescue Boat and just disappear amongst the valleys hiding out from societies woes for the rest of my days.

As we exited the small passage we found we were not the only ship with a penchant for fish and sight seeing. Passing abeam of us was an East bound merchant vessel, also a car carrier and surprisingly also American Flagged. Perhaps because our ships are in competition for the same cargoes or maybe because we're manned by differing officers unions neither officer on watch felt compelled to call the other to get the details on one another's vessel's, something I always find disappointing. There are only so many of us American Merchantman floating around these days I always enjoy chatting up the airwaves with likeminded mates.

A few hours later after my barbecue induced siesta I returned to the bridge for my early morning watch. The Captain and third mate were attempting to hail a sailboat who was not responding on the VHF radio. The Captain fired up the spot light and lit their mainsail which got the skipper to turn up the volume on his radio. We had just received an
Enhanced Group Calling notification of an overdue sailboat bound from Saint Martin to the Azores and asked the skipper if he had any information regarding the tardy solo French cruiser.

We had to strain our ears to make out his heavily Swedish accented English but managed to understand that they had departed Saint Martin in company with the missing vessel and had heard over the radio that she had been dismasted after they separated. We were soon passing this information on to the Rescue Coordination Center in Norfolk Virginia who was coordinating the search.

Due to our participation in the Automated Mutual-assistance Vessel Rescue system or AMVER the Coast Guard knew exactly where we were and where our route to Baltimore would take us. Seeing that we would be passing within a hundred miles of the missing sailboat's last known position they diverted us to the location in hopes we might come across the 13 meter white hulled sloop.

AMVER, an entity of the US Coast Guard, has been in existence for decades and is responsible for coordinating the rescue of hundreds of lives at sea every year. By tracking thousands of voluntarily participating vessels all over the world they are able to liaison with rescue organizations in diverting ships to distress situations. This means that it is often a merchant vessel who is first to arrive on scene and participate in searches and rescues.

I gave the captain an estimated time of arrival at the position, about a full day's steaming and he relayed that to the RCC. The information we had, besides the description of the boat was that there was only one person on board and that they had Radar, a Search and Rescue Radar Transponder or SART and a VHF radio with Digital Selective Calling
capability or DSC. This sounded fine and dandy for a vessel sailing up the coast of Brittany but seemed foolish for a solo sailor making an oceanic passage.

Every merchant vessel sailing in the open ocean is required to have an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. These units while a little pricey are the only technology that will automatically send your vessel's name and location to one of the COPAS/SARSAT satellites constantly monitoring the 406mhz frequency. We have two of these
onboard, one mounted for quick release, the other stowed in our life boat. Without one on the sailboat the lone sailor stood little chance of notifying anyone about his situation if he was in distress.

Sadly what could have been a Search and Rescue event soon turned into a recovery event. Another vessel closer to the search area had discovered the sail boat but with no one onboard. From plotting the last known position and the current position of the sailboat it appeared that she had been drifting for the better part of the last week meaning that it
is very unlikely the owner will be recovered.

When the RCC gave us the news and released us from the Search and Rescue I wanted to ask about the details of the recovery but decided not to waste the lieutenant's time on the sat-phone. It's hard to say if an EPIRB could have saved this sailor's life or not, especially if he went overboard, but surely going offshore without one was a poor decision to start with. I'll be interested to see what Google can tell me about this event when we get back to the states.

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