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The sailing ethic shines in a shipwreck drama

2023 June 1

A sailboat sank in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on March 13. The four people on board were rescued by other sailors after nine hours in a liferaft and dinghy.

We of the sailing community are thankful—thankful that our fellow sailors survived the shipwreck, and thankful that, for once, sailors involved in what became a media sensation acquitted themselves as mariners who were well prepared, confident in their seamanship skills and calm in the face of disaster.

Too often, when recreational sailors get in situations that attract the attention of the news media, they come across as bumbling victims, helpless and at the mercy of the sea.

It happened five years ago, but I doubt that sailing’s reputation has yet recovered from the embarrassing spectacle put on by the sailors who summoned the U.S. Navy to rescue them after drifting aimlessly on the Pacific for five months. They needed to be rescued, the two women who were aboard the 45-foot boat named Sea Nymph told media outlets, because their engine failed. 

Said engine was on a sailboat with its mast standing and sails attached to the headstay and boom. The question of why they didn’t employ the commonly used method of propelling a sailboat—with sails—was not asked or answered in fawning television interviews. 

Sailors had further reason to cringe when the women attempted to monetize their misadventures by setting up a GoFundMe page.

There was nothing cringeworthy about the story of those shipwrecked sailors rescued by other sailors, which made headlines, got copious TV coverage and went viral. On the contrary, you could call it cheerworthy.

Raindancer, a center-cockpit Kelly Peterson 44, was sailing from the Galapagos to the Marquesas when it was struck by a whale and sunk in 15 minutes. 

This is what happened in those 15 minutes:

Owner Rick Rodriguez and his crew of three were in the cabin having dinner when the aft section of the hull was struck violently by a whale. Through a porthole, Rodriguez saw the bloodied leviathan dive away. Then he and his crew saw water rushing in, and in 30 seconds, rising above the cabinsole. 

The crew gathered emergency gear, electronics, food and water while Rodriguez activated an EPIRB, made a VHF mayday call and deployed the life raft. Two crewmembers launched the 10.5-foot Apex dinghy that was on deck and inflated.

The skipper put on a swim mask and fins and jumped overboard with a tarp, and saw instantly that there was no way to use the tarp to lessen the flow of water into the cracked hull.

The crew loaded the dinghy with water, food, a fishing pole and a rain-catching device. Because the seawater level in the cabin was too high to fill more drinking water jugs from the boat’s tanks, they left the fast-sinking Raindancer with only about a week’s supply of water.

With two in the liferaft and two in the dinghy, Raindancer’s crew watched the boat disappear beneath the surface of the Pacific.

This is what happened in the next nine hours:

Rodriguez sent a text message with his smartphone, using Iridium satellite service, to a friend whose boat was about 100 miles away. “Tommy this is no joke,” he texted to Tommy Joyce. “We hit a whale and the ship went down. We are in a liferaft.”

Joyce put the message on Facebook via the Starlink satellite system and it was received by a number of boats in the mid-Pacific sailing in the World ARC around-the-world rally and a catamaran that was near the fleet but not in the rally. Communication among the boats on Starlink determined that the catamaran, Geoff Stone’s Rolling Stones, was closest to the coordinates Rodriguez had transmitted from the liferaft.

Stone set a course for the position and he and the three men of his crew sailed nearly 60 miles through the night. At about 5 a.m., the running lights of Rolling Stones were spotted by the Raindancer crew. A flare and VHF communication guided the rescuers the rest of the way.

With the Raindancer sailors all in the dinghy, the catamaran approached and, as Stone told a reporter for a newspaper in his home state of Wisconsin, “because we have a lot of capable people on our boat and they (the rescued sailors) are very capable as well, everyone was able to just like jump onto the back of the boat.” 

Some marvelous technology was involved in the rescue, but it would be a mistake to give the wonders of satellite enabled smartphones more credit than the eight sailors who shared the experience. They made survival at sea look easy, not because it was, but because they were sailors enabled by the timeless skills of seamanship to overcome peril with steady competence and not a hint of panic.

A sure sign of that is a sailor who understates, rather than exaggerates, struggles at sea. Rodriguez, who is 31 and has worked as a professional yacht captain, told the Washington Post, “There was never really much fear that we were in danger. Everything was in control as much as it could be for a boat sinking.”

Another player in this adventure deserves a mention. That would be Elon Musk, who had a role thanks to the Starlink product sold by his company, SpaceX. Starlink is a competitor to the Iridium Go Wi-Fi hotspot that Raindancer used. Musk’s firm claims it is superior because it is fed by a constellation of some 2,500 low-orbit satellites launched by SpaceX. 

Sailors appear to be fans. There were so many Starlink receivers in the ARC fleet that daily Facebook gabfests were carried on as boats crossed the Pacific and an instant communication network was available to help the shipwrecked sailors.

That’s pretty surprising considering that the Starlink marine package is priced at $10,000 for the hardware and an insane $5,000 a month for service, a price probably inflated as a status signifier for the superyacht class.

Sailors being a resourceful lot, however, a number of them in and around the ARC fleet made the system affordable by mounting a Starlink antenna and connecting it to the company’s RV version, which is designed for use on land and costs a mere $599 for the receiver and $135 a month for unlimited data service.

Starlink says the RV model can’t be used safely on boats underway. That didn’t seem to be a problem for users in the Pacific rally, but in any case Musk should make this right.

C’mon, Mr. Bold Entrepreneur, bold sailors made your product look good. Give them a break with an ordinary-sailor discount on a model fit for ocean voyaging on boats like those in the Raindancer drama.