Mayday Mayhem

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It was late spring of 2011 when my wife, Susie, and I were wandering peacefully through the Gulf Islands of British Columbia aboard our boat, Seeker. The morning was unusually beautiful, which meant the sun was actually shining, the winds were almost calm, the sea rippled, and everything seemed right and peaceful with the world. Suddenly, we found ourselves responding to our first ever Mayday. Always in the past these alerts had turned out to be false alarms, or on the very rare occasions when they actually were emergencies, the mariners were much too far away for us to be able to help.

This Mayday, however, was the real thing, and according to the coordinates coming over our marine radio it was happening right in front of us! With growing apprehension we listened as the captain, with panic oozing from every word, explained to Victoria Coast Guard that his motor had quit, smoke was rising from the engine compartment, and he was taking on water. Grabbing the binoculars I scanned the area ahead and sure enough I could see smoke rising from the boat less than half a mile away! I called Victoria Coast Guard, gave them our location and told them we would arrive at the stricken vessel in less than five minutes

Here (I thought to myself) was my big chance! Even if I wasn’t riding a white horse and even though the beautiful damsel would turn out to be an old guy wearing Bermuda shorts, I was still at full throttle and on a mission to save somebody. Unfortunately, as with most of my fantasies, this one was about to fail altogether in meeting my expectations.

We arrived on scene, as promised, to find the 22-foot fishing boat, Minnow (her name will remain anonymous) looking deceptively normal. It was a newer boat with an enclosed cabin and an inboard-outboard engine located below deck. There was no longer any smoke and no indication that the boat was sinking. In fact, the only thing that looked particularly odd was that the boat’s captain, who we’ll call Skipper, was in a state of great agitation and rapidly pacing from one end of Minnow to the other.

Now, it’s been my general experience that extreme anxiety seldom produces good decisions and this poor guy would shortly prove to be no exception. In the last few minutes, Skipper had experienced complete engine failure, billowing smoke, and now, as he stood inside his stricken boat, he could see water rising in the engine compartment. To his credit, he had correctly donned his life jacket and called in a Mayday, but then, just like the cascade of system failures that were then occurring throughout Minnow, all of Skipper’s higher-level brain functions began to fail. Indeed, by the time we arrived the only portion of Skipper’s mind that was still working properly was his brain stem. Everything else inside his cranium was a jumble of misfiring neurons that were about to produce a series of completely random and totally inappropriate ideas.

So, as the water continued to rise inside Skipper’s boat, rather than searching for the source of the leak, his mind must have gone to a “happy place.” There, just like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I imagined Skipper chanting to himself, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” Accordingly, as we pulled alongside, the only thing this guy knew in the whole world was that he wanted to be somewhere else and he hollered frantically for us to throw him a towline.

Looking back, I should have immediately challenged Skipper on his action plan. Unfortunately, it was at exactly this point in our story that my own cognitive abilities suffered an almost catastrophic failure. I was already engaged in the surprisingly difficult task of maneuvering our boat against wind and current to come alongside Minnow, while still talking to Victoria Coast Guard on the radio, when suddenly I heard the unmistakable ear-piercing, and terror-inducing squeal of an alarm.

Like most boats, Seeker has alarms on most critical systems that warn the captain and crew of a long list of very bad things. Things such as fuel leaks, electrical fires, water leaks, and the like—basically anything that’s likely to make you dead in the next few minutes. The problem is that, besides being really loud, they all sound alike. Consequently, when one goes off, all you know for sure is that somewhere something very bad is happening.

Now, with the alarm continuing to shriek, I could feel my adrenal gland (which was already being seriously overworked) beginning to go into spasms, and I started running through our boat looking desperately for the source of the end of my world, when to my everlasting relief, I finally realized that the alarm, screaming at the top of its little paranoid mechanical lungs, was, in fact, coming from Minnow.

Apparently, one of its sensors had just realized that it was underwater and had begun blaring for all it was worth. Lamentably, given the sensors untenable situation, it was worth something less than a minute because that’s when Minnow’s entire electrical system failed and everything went silent.

In the meantime, while I was frantically running around our boat, and Susie was frantically arranging towlines, Minnow’s captain was just frantic. Still standing inside his boat, water was by now beginning to rise above the floorboards, and Skipper’s feet were starting to get wet. This should have been a powerful reminder that, right now, he should be looking for the source of the leak and trying to stop it[1]. Of course, this step would have required the ability to link cause and effect and by now the poor guy couldn’t have mustered enough cerebral horsepower to figure out a light switch. Instead, Skipper had his next big idea, which was (and I’m not making this up) that right now would be a really good time to call his wife by cell phone and let her know he was alright.

It was a short conversation and I only learned about it afterwards, but it must have gone something like this…

“Hi honey. It’s me.
“What? No, the fishing hasn’t been very good. Actually, the reason I called was to let you know that I’m OK.
“Well, I thought you might be worried. Huh? No, listen, the boat’s got a leak in it.
“What do I mean? I mean there’s water IN the boat. Actually, my feet seem to be getting wet.
“Ah, I don’t know. Ah, I can’t remember.
“Um, listen honey I have to run. Yeah, I can’t see my feet anymore so I’m going to hop on this other boat right now, but not-to-worry, I’ll call you later. Bye!”

By now something less than four minutes had elapsed since our arrival, and with his wife now properly reassured, Skipper abandoned ship and made it safely to the swim platform of Seeker, where Susie was just then tying off the towline. I arrived seconds later, and with all of us now standing on Seeker’s stern, Susie tried to reassure Skipper, who at this point had become completely non-functional. He just stood there staring forlornly at his boat, waiting, apparently, for his next big idea.

Meanwhile, my own higher-level brain functions were desperately trying to reassert themselves. It was a messy business as several different mental subsystems, all struggling to rise above a thick layer of panic, now simultaneously demanded attention. Suddenly, and for the first time since our arrival, I realized that Minnow was listing heavily to stern, and unless something changed very quickly Skipper was just minutes from becoming a former boat owner.

Even more startling, one of my frontal lobes was insisting that someone (presumably me) had better explain just exactly how I was planning to tow a boat that was about to be completely underwater. It then added with biting sarcasm that Minnow, now securely tied to the stern of Seeker, was starting to look like a really, really big anchor. It seemed a valid point, and just as I started to consider cutting the towline, a portion of some other lobe started screaming that somebody (again, presumably me) should be trying to stop the leak.

For a moment, time seemed to stop, as I worked desperately to summon enough functioning neurons to solve the conundrum that lay in before me. In what felt like hours of deliberation, but was actually about 20 seconds, I finally resolved the crisis down to three basic choices: leap onto Minnow with some rags and attempt to find and plug the leak, or begin bailing the sinking boat with a bucket, or cut the towline. They were all ugly options but trying to find the leak was coming up first, and I had just grabbed some rags and was bracing myself for a leap onto Minnow, when three fully trained and completely functioning cerebral cortexes arrived on the scene.

Wisely, Victoria Coast Guard had dispatched a high-speed boat to our location when the first “Mayday” had been called in. Within seconds of their arrival they each leapt (literally) into action. One man securely tied the Coast Guard boat to the Minnow, while the second man produced the mother-of-all-pumps, fired it up, and began pumping water from inside Minnow out and over her stern with such volume and force that the jet stream of water out the back actually began to move all three boats in the opposite direction.

While the two seamen were thus engaged, the Coast Guard captain, a young woman who seemed to radiate confidence, climbed across Minnow’s bow, to where the three of us were still standing on Seeker’s stern. With an air of quiet self-assurance (and having obviously dealt with people as mentally challenged as we all were at that moment) she began calmly asking a series of questions. I don’t actually remember any of the questions, but after a few moments it occurred to me that her actual purpose was to distract the three of us from doing any more “helping.” So, after going through formal introductions, I think she was fully prepared to move on to who won the World Series and what our favorite color was.

Incredibly, less than three minutes after their arrival, the Coast Guard had the situation under control. Minnow was beginning to rise, the towline to Seeker was removed, and Skipper was transferred safely to the Coast Guard boat. With sincere and grateful thanks to the crew of Seeker, the Coast Guard Captain assured us that they’d take it from here and invited us to leave the scene.

All in all it had been a humbling experience. In something less than 12 minutes, I had traveled the entire evolutionary range of intelligence: from homo sapiens to invertebrates and back again. Well, mostly back again, because as we motored away I kept looking back at the Coast Guard Crew. At that moment I had the disquieting feeling that perhaps I had only made it back as far as the Neanderthal period, and those Coast Guard people, with their high foreheads and enormous brains represented that superior group of humanoids known as Cro-Magnons. They were so smart!

I suppose it could have been worse. Actually, if the three of us had just been given a little more time I’m confident it would have been worse. In the end, what had begun with such promise, had instead, turned into a series of well-intentioned mistakes and an unhappy example of the perils of groupthink, and whenever I remember our rescue attempt and all the dumbness that surrounded it I find myself unconsciously checking the slope of my forehead and looking down to see if my knuckles are dragging on the ground.

[1]We would later learn that an exhaust hose from the engine had blown out, which allowed seawater to gush into the engine compartment. This immediately produced a cloud of steam (which Skipper mistakenly identified as smoke). In just a few moments, the rising water killed the engine and overwhelmed the bilge pump. A rag stuffed into the exhaust outlet would have saved his boat from tens of thousands of dollars in damages.