Getting aboard

If you are far from land and suddenly faced with the shattering possibility that your boat may not make it back to shore, it’s likely that you will be reaching for the radio and calling for help. After you make contact, the Coast Guard will likely divert a merchant ship to attempt a pick-up.

Though it may be comforting to see a massive dark hull loom over the horizon headed for your position, in fact the most dangerous part of the rescue operation will be the act of getting aboard one of these large merchant ships, which can be 1,000 feet long and weigh 70,000 tons or more. Knowing what’s involved in safely getting on to the deck of a ship can make the difference between success and disaster.

A merchant ship diverting from its intended course to help fellow mariners in distress is in the highest tradition of seafaring. But how is it that big ships come to the rescue of small yachts? The dozens of seemingly capable yachts abandoned at sea every year in waters close to the U.S. caused the Coast Guard to develop several effective ways to offer rescue services, even when their aircraft or vessels can’t reach you.

Once you make contact with the Coast Guard, whether by SSB or satellite communication, officials will activate a system called Automated Mutual-assistance Vessel Rescue (AMVER). This voluntary service is a cooperative effort with the merchant marines of more than 140 nations around the world, according to the latest reports. Each participating vessel continuously updates its position with the Coast Guard’s AMVER headquarters in New York City, so that at any given time the Coast Guard knows the position of thousands of ships underway around the world. (AMVER is the only world-wide assistance organization.)

AMVER officials will then coordinate vessels that are within the area of a yacht in distress and establish with those vessels’ crewmembers which vessel can best effect a rescue. That ship then diverts to the stricken vessel.

According to numerous accounts by sailors who have experienced this difficult procedure, it is always treacherous, even if seas are relatively calmunlikely if the vessel is in a sinking condition.

“It was absolutely terrifying to be staring up at this huge ship that was heaving and rolling and threatening to crush us at every second,” said Roy Brockman, skipper of an ill-fated Admiral’s Cup boat that foundered en route from Bermuda to Maine in 1997. The captain of the 576-foot freighter Green Wave diverted to assist Brockman and his two crew and coached the men over the radio about the procedure of getting aboard.

“He told us that we were about to do something that was extremely dangerous, probably the most dangerous thing that we would ever have to do in mid-ocean. He said that if we missed the boat and ended up in the yacht’s life raft, he wouldn’t be able to pick us up,” added Brockman, who explained that he was abandoning the 40-foot yacht Taxi because it was taking on water in numerous locations below the waterline. Weather conditions leading up to and during the rescue included 18-foot seas and 25-knot winds, according to Brockman.

Cautions against complacency

Crewmembers aboard merchant ships who have assisted in the rescue of yachtsmen in distress caution sailors against a sense of complacency upon seeing that a ship is at hand to offer rescue. “It’s easy to forget that the actual transfer from this tiny yacht to a huge ship in a wild ocean is very dangerous,” said Capt. Mike Hussey, a merchant captain who was involved in a recent rescue in the Pacific of a disabled fishing vessel.

Merchant officers who have participated in this type of rescue agree that a crucial element to a safe rescue is communication between the two vessels’ skippers. “We need to coordinate with each other about what each of us is going to do. The big ship is probably going to attempt to make a lee for the yacht, but the yacht skipper needs to know when to stay out of the way and when to attempt to maneuver alongside,” Hussey said. “Another thing to remember is that up on the bridge it will be impossible for us to keep the yacht in sight at all times because of wave action and because our view will be cut off as soon as it gets close to the hull.”

Once contact to the ship’s side is made, two types of ladders will likely be available for the yacht crew to ascend the 40 or 50 feet to the ship’s decka rope Jacob’s ladder or a proper gangway. If conditions are rough, the rope ladder would be used since it would be too easy to destroy the yacht with the large steel gangway.

Jumping for it

As if maneuvering alongside the ship’s hull were not hard enough (provided the yacht still has engine power), the final escape by the yacht’s skipper will be the most dangerous since he will not have someone at the controls to attempt to hold the yacht against the ship. “There were 18-foot rollers coming down the side of the ship, and I was going to have to jump from the cockpit to the ladder. I was most nervous about that split second when I jumped because I didn’t know what the two vessels were going to do,” said Brockman. “As it turned out, the yacht must have been high on a swell because when I jumped, I landed on the back of [one of my crewmembers] who had been climbing up the ladder for about eight or 10 seconds.”

The dangers of boarding a ship mid-ocean were tragically illustrated by an incident in May 1997 that killed one crewmember of a sailing vessel. The sloop Ankh collided with the side of the merchant ship Able Forest, which was diverted by the Coast Guard and was maneuvering alongside to offer rescue. Two crewmembers, who were both wearing lifejackets, were thrown into the sea when the two vessels hit, according to reports from the other crew. One man was able to reboard the sloop, but the other drowned. His body was later recovered still in the lifejacket.

Whatever the situation, all agree that an abandon-ship procedure of this sort appears deceptively simple until it is almost too late. The two vessels’ different motion becomes apparent only when they are within 50 to 100 feet of each other, which means that a detailed boarding plan should be established well in advance. Furthermore, proper precautionsfenders rigged, lines ready, lifejackets donned, and personal effects ready to grab will diminish some of the risks involved.

By Ocean Navigator