As the dawn became early morning, the moderate easterly winds increased to 20 to 30 knots with higher gusts. The four-foot sea became a six-foot sea, then an eight-foot sea. By mid-morning, swells grew to ten, then twelve, then fifteen feet. With each wave, the tiny 35' sailboat rose and fell and bobbed about like a cork.
Following a trip around the cape, the SV Sea Song and its crew of two were en route to the Galapagos Islands, a few hundred miles to the northeast. They were approaching the inter-tropical convergence zone where, for the next 24 hours, moderate to strong convectional activity along with high winds and seas had been forecast by NOAA, the daily weather prediction agency.
Suddenly, an angry wave crashed over the bow. The forestay snapped. The mainmast sprang backwards and then recoiled forward. The boom swung around, hit the top of the weighed anchor, pushing one of its claws into the side of the vessel. The boom then reversed its swing, fell forward and dug itself into the bow. Larger and larger waves continued to pound the tiny boat. Water poured through the hole in the side where the anchor was impaled. The mainsail was useless. Facing such a stiff easterly headwind, the most the diesel engine could make on its northeasterly course toward the Galapagos was about three knots. Sometimes they even went backwards.
At 1545 UT, the captain of the Sea Song sent an emergency message via HF radio to a group of ham radio operators on the 20-meter ham band. These guys meet each day and volunteer their time, equipment and efforts to serve and assist those in need of communications from foreign ports, and on the high seas. Through a network of rotating control and relay stations, this dedicated group offers virtually total coverage of the entire Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean, Caribbean and the eastern Pacific Ocean.
When they received the distress call from the Sea Song, the group immediately went to work. In very organized fashion and with links reaching halfway across the world, they collected and relayed information as to the ship’s condition, present position, course, speed and the number of souls onboard to the Coast Guard in Miami. Once it was determined that the vessel in distress could remain afloat, but could not continue its course toward the Galapagos, possible rescue vessels were contacted and asked to render aid. The sailing vessel Vliegend Zeil, the Norwegian freighter Kveld Sol and the British freighter Royal Dunbar all responded.
The closest boat was the Vliegend Zeil. However, because of her size and the rough seas, the captain feared he would be unable to safely come alongside the Sea Song to transfer her passengers onboard his ship. He also lacked sufficient water and provisions to accommodate them for very long. That message was relayed to the Coast Guard. They advised the Vliegend Zeil to continue toward the Sea Song, but not to attempt a transferjust stand alongside a safe distance away.
Alternatively, they suggested that the captain of the Sea Song deploy his dingy and row over to the Vliegend Zeil. However, the dingy onboard the Sea Song was trapped beneath piles of gear. When that news reached the Coast Guard, they warned that the passengers now onboard the damaged vessel would simply have to go into the water and be pulled from the sea as “man overboard.”
All afternoon, ham radio operators (including yours truly) and ships’ captains aboard other vessels joined the network of stations monitoring the situation. If the conditions for communications changed, all stood by to relay any informationthe sailing vessel Sea Song called the Stargazer, along with hams in Michigan, Mexico, Jamaica, Toronto, San Francisco, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami and Los Angeles.
On the top and bottom of each hour, the control stations took updates from the Sea Song, and via other hams, relayed whatever news they had to the Vliegend Zeil and to the Coast Guard. The amateur radio network, which normally operated eight or nine hours a day, prepared to stay on the air until the situation was resolvedone way or another.
Mid-afternoon, a Navy P-3 Orion aircraft was dispatched to drop a life raft and emergency supplies down to the Sea Song. However, because of the old 4-engine turbo prop’s range and speed, it would be at least six hours before they reached the crippled vessel. That was an hour or so after the Vliegend Zeil expected to arrive and long after darkness would surround the helpless boat.
As the sun dipped below the western horizon, the hams relayed a message from the Coast Guard to the Sea Song asking the captain if he had flares on board. If so, how many and what color. Through the static, we heard the captain answer, “Red.” Another message asked the captain about the ship’s lightingdid he have navigation lights and spreaders? The captain replied that his navigation lights were damaged and inoperative, but that his spreaders were working. He was told that when he heard the Navy Orion approaching, he was to send up his flares so that the crew could hit their target somewhere in the darkness below.
In the meantime, ham radio operators on the east coast were attempting to gather contact information so they could get a welfare message to the family of the Sea Song crewin Oslo, Norway. One of them agreed to make the call via landline. No one was home, but the committed ham operator promised to keep trying.
As darkness fell, the fifteen-foot seas of the morning were replaced with eight-to-ten foot swells. Via VHF radios, the captain of the Sea Song was in contact with the captain of the Vliegend Zeil. It was agreed that when the first rescue boat reached them and stood alongsidealbeit at a safe distancethe passengers of the Sea Song would remain onboard the crippled ship until one of the commercial vessels arrived.
Earlier in the day, the Coast Guard had sent a message advising the captain of the Sea Song that if a commercial vessel responded to his distress call, he would have to abandon his ship. The captain said he would, but asked if either of the freighters en route had the capability to tow or boom-lift the Sea Song and carry it home. They didn’t. So throughout the night, in addition to his chagrin over the situation, the captain faced the harsh reality that this would be his last night as captain of his boat.
At 1630 UT the next day, the Norwegian freighter Kveld Sol reached the Sea Song and took her passengers aboard. Their new destination: not the Galapagos as was planned, but rather through the Strait of Magellan to southern Chile where the crew of the Sea Song would have to arrange their own transportation back home to Norway.
The Sea Song was lost. But all in all, the story has a happy ending, thanks in large part to the members of the Amateur Radio Service. (“Hams” if you willthe same folks that have to fight homeowners’ associations all across the country to erect their antennas and keep operating).
As the crew of the Sea Song abandoned the crippled ship, for some reason, he left the engine on the boat still running, her course locked on a northeasterly heading. By now, I’m sure she’s dead in the water somewhere in the eastern Pacific southwest of the Galapagos. So, if you’re looking for a sailboat on the cheap...
Ron Burch retired from a career in advertising and marketing and has since authored a number of published essays and magazine articles, in addition to a full-length novel.