Rescue communications

The Peterson 44 Raindancer, seen here at anchor, was struck by a whale in the Pacific and rapidly sank.
The Peterson 44 Raindancer, seen here at anchor, was struck by a whale in the Pacific and rapidly sank.
The Peterson 44 Raindancer, seen here at anchor, was struck by a whale in the Pacific and rapidly sank.

On March 13, on a South Pacific crossing midway between Galapagos and the Marquesas, s/v Raindancer with four people on board sank after an encounter with a whale. It was lunchtime and they had been in the cockpit eating pizza. In 15 minutes the boat, a Peterson 44, had slipped beneath the surface and the crew were surveying a sunny sea from the slim shelter of a liferaft and inflatable dinghy tied together.

Before abandoning ship the crew gathered supplies and the captain, Rick Rodriguez, activated an EPIRB and sent out a mayday on VHF.

Once in the liferaft they activated a GlobalStar SPOT tracker, started regular mayday signals via handheld VHF, and turned on an IridiumGO! and cell phone (creating a satellite service wifi hot-spot) to message Rick’s brother on land, and a friend on s/v Southern Cross sailing 160 nm behind. After sending brief messages they turned the devices off. The liferaft carried several weeks’ worth of vital provisions but their emergency signaling devices had precious little battery power. Two hours later on start-up there were messages. One, from Tommy Joyce on Southern Cross, said, “We got you bud.”

What the Raindancer crew couldn’t know was that from the time the EPIRB went off, and Rick’s text messages were received, two streams of rescue communications were started and they flowed and intertwined throughout the nine hours it took for a rescue boat to find them.

Initial reports of the rescue were confused and shifting. In the new age of communications this shouldn’t be a surprise; much was said on social media, especially on the Facebook page of Boatwatch, an organization that maintains a worldwide network of resources to aid the search for missing or overdue mariners and relay urgent messages. According to Eddie Tuttle, Boatwatch was alerted by Don Preuss, a cruiser in Panama, that mayday messages were showing up on social media and their own Facebook page became a central message platform. The use of social media allows information to be widely disseminated but also leads to a cacophony of voices, not all directly involved but all eager to participate. Initially it was reported that Raindancer’s EPIRB did not function, but that proved to be false, and the signal set off an official SAR chain of command that began in Peru and was rerouted through Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) Alameda in California, where the US Coast Guard fielded phone calls and coordinated via Automated Mutual-assistance Vessel Rescue (AMVER) to divert a commercial ship to the liferaft.

Rick’s text messages set off another effort, one that ultimately led to the Raindancer crew’s successful rescue. 

An unusual aspect of this situation was the presence of a couple dozen boats in the 2023 World ARC, an international circumnavigation rally, coming up behind Raindancer. On receiving reports “by multiple means” of the sinking, Rally Control put out a Fleet Message to rally crews. The World ARC SSB Radio duty controller, Chris Parker on Mistral of Portsmouth, also relayed the distress message, and ten ARC boats close to Raindancer’s latest coordinates changed course along with two non-ARC boats, including s/v Rolling Stones, which turned out to be closest, only 35 nm away.

Tommy Joyce did not receive the original message from Rick because he doesn’t check Iridium much, but he did get the message from Rick’s brother which came through WhatsApp via Tommy’s Starlink. (FB) “At that moment, I set up multiple chats, posts and other comms.” Ninety percent of the tools Tommy used required fast internet access, which Starlink provided. He was able to communicate with both Rolling Stones and with the SAR assets. Ultimately Rolling Stones and a Panamanian-flagged tanker both arrived at the scene, but it was easier to board the sailboat and Raindancer’s crew was able to turn on a personal locator beacon (PLB) and shoot off a parachute flare to guide them in.

Both efforts depended on satellite communications, and were run more or less in parallel. A question raised on Boatwatch’s Facebook page was whether/how in future the land-based SAR scenario could be altered to include recreational boats, which are not now included. AMVER is a world-wide voluntary ship reporting system operated by the United States Coast Guard that gives the SAR authorities information on and communications access to vessels near a reported disaster. Only merchant vessels more than 1,000 gross tons on a voyage of 24 hours or longer are eligible to enroll in AMVER, but SAR coordinator at RCC in Alameda Kris Robertson posted on Boatwatch FB that it was helpful to have had phone numbers for all sailing vessels that were involved in the rescue or relaying information. “Most of the time communications is the hardest part of any rescue coordination…Question for the group, is there a place where you all keep underway phone numbers for sailing vessels?” 

Eddie and Glenn Tuttle and Boatwatch along with Tommy Joyce were instrumental again a few days later when a crew member on board a World ARC boat s/v Cepa had a serious stroke. Cepa was 6-7 days’ sail out of the Marquesas without enough fuel to motor flat out. The captain was able to email rescue coordinators in Germany, World Arc Rally Control, and a medical support for German-flagged vessels. JRCC Papeete was contacted, RCC Alameda released SafetyNet and SafetyCast group emergency messages to ships over Iridium and Inmarsat, and the captain also sent a distress call to the chat group of the ARC fleet. Tommy Joyce again acted as a mobile command center. The ARC boats were able to scan the area around Cepa’s position using AIS and assist in locating nearby boats that could help. S/v Pec diverted from the rally to provide medicine and ultimately their captain went into the rescue effort as doctor. Even with this help, there was still the issue of time. A motor yacht, Paladin, located through AIS, did not respond to initial attempts to communicate. In a stroke of fortune for all involved, the email list used to forward the distress call to the rally fleet included a weather routing company that recognized the yacht as a previous customer and was able to contact the yacht’s owner, who then contacted the captain, initiating a successful evacuation of the crew member complete with delivery of enough fuel to increase Paladin’s speed and allow them to divert to Nuku Hiva. 

“Two back-to-back amazing rescues,” said Eddie. 

It’s hard to imagine that all the activity in Raindancer’s rescue only lasted about 10 hours, yet photos of the four people sitting on s/v Rolling Stones showed up on Facebook the day after the sinking.  

For all the hoopla, especially given the unusual circumstance of the rally being in the vicinity, it’s important to remember that rescue options are usually scant, potential rescuers scattered far and wide, and those of us out on the ocean need to be take responsibility for our adventurous tendencies.

Peter Nielsen posted on the Boatwatch Facebook page that when he crewed on a cat in the Pacific in 2020 that was hit by a whale, the Coast Guard picked up the EPIRB signal, emailed the boat via IridiumGO! and initiated voice contact, leading to rescue nine hours later by a Chinese fishing boat. 

Eddie says besides online they also posted an emergency message for the Maritime Mobile Service Network ( which is read by HAM radio operators on Ham Radio frequency 14.300, a world wide network of Ham Radio Operators communicating with vessels at sea. I spent 10 years in the Pacific on a Peterson 44, and often this radio net was the only live link my husband and I had to land.

It takes an ocean.

Contributing editor Ann Hoffner and husband Tom Bailey cruised on their Peterson 44, Oddly Enough. She’s now based in Sorrento, Maine.