As a member of the committee that hosts the Safety at Sea program at the U.S. Naval Academy, I am continually reminded of the need to develop and practice rescue techniques. Unlike a sailing vessel, with its booms, winches, lines and sails to threaten onboard crew, the safe environment on a trawler makes the very thought of a man-overboard situation highly unlikely. However, as we teach and demonstrate each year during the two-day event, it is much more likely that a trawler’s crew might come upon someone already in the water. So the need to determine a proper rescue strategy is just as vital for a trawler owner as for owners of any other kind of craft. And as much as we might think we’ve done a proper job of thinking it all through, when a rescue opportunity develops, just as in combat and other stressful situations, things rarely go as planned. So it is vital to stay loose and be ready to adapt to a changing situation. I hope the following true story makes you think of what you might do in the same situation and motivates you to develop a strategy that works on your boat. -BillP.
In the middle of the Chesapeake Bay on a cold, dark October night, a slight breeze rippled the mirror-smooth surface. There were no real waves. It was 10 o’clock and I had been headed down the bay for over four hours on my boat, Traveller, on the way to Washburn’s Boat Yard in Solomons, Maryland, to have a hydraulic motor fixed.
My departure from Galesville, which is 45 miles up the bay from Solomons, was delayed by an unexpected family visit. During the visit, thoughts of singlehanding Traveller, a 48-foot aluminum trawler, were bugging me. It got dark early this time of year, and my night vision was poor. I relied heavily on the radar/GPS that showed exactly where the boat was and where other boats were. Still, the only boats out this late in the year would be large tugs and barges and an occasional car carrier.
During other trips on the bay, these ships had slipped past with only minimal lights announcing their presence. Tugs pushing barges weighing hundreds of tons had two lights on their topmast, with red and green lights indicating the left and right sides of the boat, respectively. Also, the lead barge showed a white light. That was it. They typically moved at 12 mph, were up to 150 feet across, could weigh as much as 2,000 cars and sometimes took 1 to 2 miles to stop. A simple dump truck is better lit at night than a massive tug and barge. They were at least 10 times wider and up to a fifth of a mile longer than Traveller. At night you saw only the small lights that were visible on one side and never their enormous bulk. Their stealthy presence made me nervous.
On an earlier night run back to Solomons after having a new color radar installed in Annapolis, what looked like a tidal wave appeared on the screen about half a mile off Cove Point light. My first thought was, what could be almost a mile wide? To check it out I went to the bow with my binoculars, searching for what more than likely was an echo in the new radar. The green light of a tug pushing a pitch-black barge, which occasionally silhouetted itself against the shore, was fast approaching a little to my right.
What confused me was a red light a little behind and to the left of the green light. I peered and peered through my binoculars, trying to separate any slow-moving white mast lights from the shore lights. A red light to the left of a green light did not make sense. If a barge were heading straight for me, the red light would be to the right of the green. Then another red light appeared to the left of the first red light. Something big was coming. I hurried back to the pilothouse and decided to pass the barely visible barge right side to right side.
Theoretically, you’re supposed to pass left side to left side, like cars on the road, when it makes sense. The tidal wave still glowed on my radar as the barge closed to a quarter-mile. Then two more tugs pushing barges appeared, each as if she were trying to pass the other, heading up the bay in a chevron formation. The radar was right. These things were huge. Traveller slipped in between the first two tugs and barges with a green light 50 yards on the right and a red light 50 yards on the left. The monsters had come close to shore and were hugging the point on their way up the bay.
On that chilly October evening some time later, I recalled the encounter with the massive tugs as I approached the same waterways. The night was beautiful, with only the stars to illuminate my way. The moon was scheduled to come up around 12:30 a.m., and the air was a cold 39 degrees. The shore was miles away on either side as Traveller cut through contrails of mist created by the cold air mixing with the slightly warmer water. The instruments were the only lights I could see.
Several disasters in my personal life in the last month had left me feeling isolated, and standing in the darkness, staring out into the pitch black only deepened my loneliness.
With the boat running at jogging speed, I tried to discern any distant light to see if it was moving and plot its movement against the radar image. The radar reminded me that Traveller was the only boat out there, if you only looked forward.
A big blob approached with speed from behind.The large tug and barge closed at about 10 knots on the right, overtaking Traveller, which was chugging along at 7.4 knots, about 8 miles an hour. Any 5-year-old kid could outrun Traveller on a short sprint. Looking through my binoculars, I verified the two-light array-a black barge shimmered in and out of view. Chesapeake Bay tug captains know their line of business. So long as you don’t move unpredictably, they pass you as they line up behind you. Instead of passing, we wound up pacing each other for over an hour, both heading due south. I started to slow and slid well to the left, by over a mile, to make room to pass.
A nuclear power plant on shore made it difficult to see the tug’s mast lights. The radar showed the tug about a mile to the right, still pacing me. In about 5 miles, my course called for me to cut right toward Solomons. The tug seemed to slow down when Traveller did. I boosted Traveller up to 10 knots to get around the beast, gaining a mile and a half. Then, on Channel 16, I hailed the tug to inform her about my course change.
An answer came back. “This is the tug Hunter Eagle, switch to [what sounded like 15 or 13].” I rebroadcast my message on both these channels, with no acknowledgement from Hunter Eagle. At this point Traveller was moving toward Solomons at top speed, angling to the right. The radar no longer showed Hunter Eagle. How could something that big just disappear? I needed another person to verify the monster wasn’t near. I cut Traveller to the right past Cove Point, where the chevron of tugs had been, and headed into Solomons. Hallelujah! The rest of the trip was only 45 minutes and a relative cakewalk. It was now after 10 p.m. I felt incredibly hungry and slipped down into the galley to throw on some noodles while Traveller ran on autopilot. This took less than a minute.
On my way back up to stand watch, the radio clacked on Channel 16: “Coast Guard, this is the tug Hunter Eagle. We have a man overboard.”
A man overboard? How could that be true? People don’t fall off tugs. Yet the captain of Hunter Eagle went on to tell the Coast Guard when the crew member had last been seen, his description, the tug’s position and course down the bay, and that the tug had stopped and released her tow and was going to backtrack up the bay on the same route she had come down. The Coast Guard called in a helicopter, two emergency high-speed rescue boats from Oxford and the Solomons Fire Department rescue vessel.
The bay water was cold. The air was almost freezing. When the emergency communication reached a lull, I called Hunter Eagle on Channel 16 and informed her captain that this was the motor vessel Traveller, that we had headed down the bay together and that I had turned around and was following north a mile to the east of our GPS route down the bay. The captain of Hunter Eagle responded by saying, “Thanks, captain. We appreciate the help.” It seemed odd to be called “captain.”
The tug now was at least 5 miles up the bay, which at Traveller speed meant 40 minutes just to get on site. Hungry again, I ran to the galley as Traveller tracked on autopilot. I grabbed a tin of smoked herring, mixed it in with the noodles and quickly made it back to the pilothouse to listen to the radio and keep watch. The Coast Guard stated that it had dropped a blue flare from its helicopter to mark the first reported man-overboard position. It also advised its high-speed boats to periodically stop their motors and listen in the pitch dark. The moon had not yet risen.
I was standing at the bow of Traveller with two jackets on, slurping noodles from a pan, smelling like fish, holding a big flashlight out over the water and wondering if I could make it back to the wheel before running over someone. The nice thing about the bow was that it was relatively quiet there, but I could not hear the radio and the emergency communications. My plan was to head to the blue flare at a little less than full speed and then slow down when on position.
It took 45 minutes to get to the flare. The helicopter and search vessels had worked up the bay about 2 miles. Hunter Eagle had numerous lights on and looked like a beacon in the dark. The tug captain knew his course and more than likely tracked right back on the original heading. I lined Traveller up about a half-mile east off the blue flare and Hunter Eagle, slowed to a little over 3 knots (fast walking speed), and proceeded toward the tug. The cold air started to make me shiver. The man overboard must have been in the water now for over an hour. How did he feel? Was his courage holding up? Had he lost his mind with fear, alone in the cold water and the dark, thinking he was going to die? Could he see the helicopter, the emergency boats and the tug looking for him? At this point the bay was over 10 miles wide, with a good tide running that may have swept him far from where he had fallen in. That is, if he hadn’t been run over by the barge or sucked into the propeller wash, or died from exposure. The last thing I wanted to come across was a floating body.
The wind started to pick up as I worked the flashlight back and forth out in front of Traveller. The Coast Guard helicopter was fantastic, covering large swaths of the bay with a strong searchlight, working a grid search at high speed. The rescue boats each were about a half-mile to a mile on either side of me, working their patterns. Hunter Eagle lay less than a mile ahead and about half a mile to the right. What was my puny light going to do? Maybe it would act like a signal. I hoped to God to find him. Traveller plodded on.
What was that? A voice? Something? In the distance there was a faint screaming. “Help! Over here! Help!” Excited, I raced to the radio and blurted out, “Coast Guard, this is Traveller! I hear voices!” The response was quick. “Traveller, this is Coast Guard. What is your position?” Position? “Coast Guard, I’m just off the Hunter Eagle at 30.1 and 24.1.”
After putting Traveller in neutral I raced back on deck with the flashlight. Now the voice was only 15 to 20 feet to the left out in front of Traveller, which was slowing to a stop. I heard him but could not see him. Even with the flashlight beam pointed in the right direction, no one was visible. Finally, a black object bobbed in and out of view. It was a man in a black hooded sweatshirt with a red life jacket that had its reflecting tape sunk under the water. He’d put his hood up in a desperate attempt to stay warm. Shivers racked his body. With the light on him he was still barely visible. The Coast Guard helicopter appeared overhead with its strong searchlight. I backed Traveller down. The crewman was now about 15 feet away, just off the center of the boat on the left side. “Swim!” I yelled. He gasped, “I can’t-my arms are numb. I’m cold.”
With plenty of time to plan for this, I was ill prepared. I was not equipped to rescue someone. We were in what some people call the “magic minute,” where things either go right or go seriously wrong. A simple rope on a life preserver could have solved the problem. I threw off my shoes and jackets, ready for a swim.
“Swim!” I yelled again, more sternly, reluctant to abandon ship, even with the Coast Guard overhead and racing toward me. This time he swam. He was the only one wearing a life jacket. The helicopter wash was moving Traveller away from him, yet he closed the distance.
Amidships of Traveller there are notches welded into the side of the boat that are meant to act as a ladder up the side. A short rope dangles down so you can pull yourself out of the water. It is a difficult job. Numerous guests, after swimming, struggle to simply emerge from the water. Climbing down the side of the boat, I grabbed his hand and told him to hang onto the rope. The block and tackle pre-rigged for this very situation lay in the cabinet unused. I climbed back up and leaned way over the side to help lift him by the arms and life jacket as he raised himself out of the water, holding onto the rope and stepping in the notches. Somehow, despite the blast from the helicopter, he made it onto the cold aluminum deck.
For a moment we rested. “You’re safe! You saved yourself!” I yelled, laughing with relief. “What’s your name?” I asked. No words came out of his mouth, just guttural noises and a weird stare. Shock from the cold was setting in. “Get up! Get up!” We climbed inside. After pulling off his life jacket and wet hooded sweatshirt, I ran down into the cabin to yank a blanket off the bunk. He crouched in a fetal position on the pilothouse bench, trying to warm up.
Then the Coast Guard arrived in force. Two boats attached to either side of Traveller. Coast Guardsmen swarmed the pilothouse. They gave precise details over the radio about the situation and our position and discussed the next steps to take. Within two minutes they whisked the crewman away to the rescue boat, to be picked up by the helicopter and flown to a shock trauma center in Prince George’s County. I felt like they had stolen my newfound friend.
The rest was paperwork. A Coast Guardsman chatted with me about the aluminum boat they came over in and its classified speed rating. They took Traveller’s hull number, my phone number and address, and thanked me, and we set off on our way. My loneliness disappeared as I headed down the bay. After half an hour, the cut by Cove Point light came up again. Before starting the turn, I glanced to the right and, to my chagrin, saw the black silhouette of a barge just beginning to pass me about 100 yards away. This barge might have been Hunter Eagle after picking up her tow, or another barge that was delayed moving down the bay until the rescue was over. Whatever was going on, she was steering well clear of me. I spun Traveller in a left-handed circle, giving her plenty of time to pass. The dock at Washburn’s Boat Yard was going to be heaven.
Finally, the moon broke over the horizon, bright as a street lamp, illuminating the mist rising up from the water. The trails of vapor looked like spirits dancing to a lively zydeco beat. They were doing a happy dance, and so was the captain of Traveller as he pulled into Solomons.
My cell phone rang. It was the watch commander for the Coast Guard, calling to thank me for my assistance, mentioning something about a Good Samaritan vessel.
Maybe my luck had changed.