A Dutch couple enjoying a few days of respite in an idyllic patch of reefs off the northeast coast of Honduras were attacked by pirates recently in a gruesome display of violence that nearly killed their 13-year-old son. Rescue of the boy was assisted in large part by a network of U.S. ham radio operators who responded to the sailors’ request for help over the airwaves. The hams subsequently patched calls to doctors and various rescue services.
Jacco and Jannie van Tuijl had just crossed the western Caribbean Sea from Panama’s San Blas Islands aboard their 44-foot sloop Hayat to the Half Moon Reefs, about 50 miles east of Cabo Gracias a Dios on the Honduras/Nicaragua border. They were at anchor there in the afternoon of March 28 when they were attacked. The sailors had been voyaging for the past five years and had only recently become ham operators themselves, a choice that obviously paid off. The family was reportedly intending to return to Holland later this year so that the son, Willem, could begin formal schooling.
A recording of the father’s report via his ham radio reveals a chilling taleone that serves as the latest reminder of the undeniable clash between sailors and local culture.
“My son Willem and I took off in our dinghy to do some fishing and to say hello to other sailing vessels at anchor near us. While we were talking we saw there was an open wooden boat approaching our sailing vessel and come alongside. This quite often happens and I thought nothing of it. Then I see them start crawling on my boat and figure that something is wrong, so we go back in the dinghy with my son, and when we are about 20 yards away from the boat they must have got nervous because one of them got out a machine gun. Then my wife [aboard the anchored vessel] started screaming, ‘Get away! Get away! They’re tying me up.’ So I tried to get away; maybe it was the wrong thing. I don’t know. They started shooting and my son got hit and the dinghy started to sink.”
While the father and son were treading water in a cloud of blood coming from Willem’s abdominal wound, the men reboarded their wooden launch and approached the twointending, apparently, to finish them off.
Jacco van Tuijl continued: “One of these guys had a machete and they wanted to chopthis is ridiculouswanted to chop into us. I started screaming, ‘You’re killing my son; he’s got a hole in his body.’ And they got scared and saw it was real. Then they took my dinghy. My wife said they later dumped it in the water as they were getting away.
“It’s about five o’clock in the afternoon when I get on board. My son has no feeling in his legs anymore so we pulled him up and see that he’s got a hole in his side and there’s lots of blood coming out. The next thing I hear is one of the other boats on the VHF: ‘Get on the net; get on the net. Turn your ham radio on.’ So I did, and since then I’ve been talking on the net on 14,300 [MHz]. We took the anchor up and the three of us started heading for the coast of Honduras where we arrived this morning. It was about a 50-mile run, and it took me all night to get here. And all the time I’m just hoping my son would survive.”
The van Tuijl family was met by a Honduran coast guard vessel approximately 10 miles off Puerto Limpira, Honduras. This was an estimated 10 hours after the shooting and nine hours after first contact with the Maritime Mobile Service Net, on 14,300 MHz, over which Jacco van Tuijl exchanged information with the U.S. Coast Guard and Dr. Jim Hirschman, a ham radio operator and experienced trauma doctor based in Florida. The boy suffered damage to both kidneys and had no use of his legs, said Hirschman, who was on the radio with the van Tuijl family for seven hours throughout the night. “In additional to being an emergency care doctor, I am also a sailor, so I was able to visualize the situation on board the van Tuijls’ boat that fateful night,” Hirshman said in an e-mail interview.
“Ultimately the effort was necessarily passed to ‘Nelson,’ the radio operator for the ‘Fuerces Naval de Honduras’ who came up on the frequency and determined, through the radio net, the exact location of the sailboat. It was Nelson who determined the point on the high seas where the rendezvous should take place with the Honduran Coast Guard Ship, the Cisne. We presume Nelson was at a radio station in the capital, Tegucigalpa. It was learned the next day that Willem was carried with his mother, by helicopter, to a hospital in La Ceiba, Honduras.”
Willem was then transferred to a children’s hospital at Baylor University in Dallas, Texas, while Jacco singlehandedly delivered the sloop to Roatan, another overnight’s passage. It was soon determined by U.S. doctors that Willem’s spinal cord was severed by the bullet; he is not expected to ever again have use of his legs.
One of the U.S. ham operators who initially contacted the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami, Clark Lowry, who is based in Mesa, Ariz., said that the use of ham radios in an emergency is a voyager’s best protection, since there are several so-called “nets” that are monitored around the world by ham operators. He also said that while this incident had as good an outcome as could be expecteda swift, international response to an emergency that occurred in remote watersthe exchange between Jacco and Jannie van Tuijl on the Maritime Mobile Service Net was hampered by seemingly helpful ham operators who frequently broke into the conversations and offered advice.
“Many of the individuals who would claim credit for their participation were actually creating QRM (interference) by continuing to break in and trying to help. At one point Dr. Jim was trying to move Jacco to another frequency to get away from the confusion, but it didn’t work out.
“This is not to take anything away from those who were honestly trying to help and those who stayed up all night listening in case they might be called on. For instance: there were at least 30 people who broke in to talk to Jacco and tell him to trigger his EPIRB and try to use his marine VHF. While these are very good recommendations, they had been well covered in the first few minutes of the first communication, and the redundant helpfulness only served to add noise and confusion,” Lowry explained.
“While the Maritime Mobile Service Net is exactly the right place to go for assistance it proved to be a terrible place to conduct the ensuing communications. Once contact has been made with the Net Control station, the Net Control should either get someone to cover his job while he moves to another frequency with the emergency or he should ask if there is another capable Net Control operator available who could go off frequency with the calling station. If the Net Control does not do this, then the caller should request a change of frequency. There are far too many stations monitoring 14,300 and far too much interference to properly handle an emergency.
“In spite of the confusion and noise on the frequency I don’t think any rescue efforts were delayed or compromised, and that without the efforts of the hams on the Maritime Mobile Service Net in coordinating communications with the Honduran Navy and other rescue efforts young Willem would surely have died.”
Donations can be made to the Willem Fund, c/o Southwest Bank, 1603 LBJ Freeway, Suite 100, Dallas, Texas 75234.