Sailboat crew rescued after hitting whale in Pacific Ocean
When Rick Rodriguez’s sailboat collided with a whale in the middle of the Pacific Ocean earlier this month, it sank in about 15 minutes. But not before he and his three fellow sailors escaped with essential supplies and state-of-the-art communications equipment.
One was a handheld satellite device that allowed Mr Rodriguez to call his brother, who was thousands of miles away on land, from a life raft. This call would trigger a successful rescue effort by other sailors in the area who had satellite internet access on their boats.
“Technology saved our lives,” Rodriguez later wrote in a story he typed on his iPhone from the sailboat that saved him and his crew.
People involved in the roughly nine-hour rescue say it illustrates how new satellite technologies, particularly Starlink internet systems, operated by rocket company SpaceX since 2019, have dramatically improved emergency communication options for sailors stranded at sea – and the people trying to find them.
“All sailors want to help,” said Tommy Joyce, a friend of Mr Rodriguez who helped organize the rescue effort from his own sailboat. “But it makes it so much easier to coordinate and help boaters in distress.”
Starlink’s service allows ships to access satellite signals that reach oceans and seas around the world, according to the company. The paid connection allows sailors to reach other vessels on their own, instead of relying solely on sending distress signals to government rescue agencies that use older satellite communication technologies.
But the quick rescue would not have been possible without the battery-powered satellite device Mr Rodriguez used to call his brother. According to the US Coast Guard, such devices have only been used by recreational sailors for about ten years. The manufacturer of this one, Iridium, said in a statement that the device is “incredibly popular with the sailing community”.
“The recent adoption of more capable satellite systems now means that sailors can broadcast their distress on a closed or public chat group, sometimes online, and get an instant response,” said Paul Tetlow, chief executive of the World Cruising Club. , a sailing organization whose members participated in the rescue.
A sinking feeling
Whales do not normally strike boats. In a famous exception, one rammed the whaler Essex while cruising the Pacific Ocean in 1820, an accident that was one of the inspirations for Herman Melville’s 1851 novel “Moby Dick” .
In Mr Rodriguez’s case, a whale interrupted a three-week voyage of his 44-foot sailboat, Raindancer, from the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador to French Polynesia. At the time of impact, on March 13, the boat was traveling at around 11 km/h and its crew were busy eating homemade pizzas.
Mr Rodriguez would later write that coming into contact with the whale – much like dipping a slice into a ranch dressing – felt like hitting a concrete wall.
Even when the boat sank, “I felt like it was just a scene from a movie,” Alana Litz, a friend of Mr. Rodriguez and one of Raindancer’s sailors, told NBC’s “Today” show last week. the rescue had been reported earlier by the Washington Post.
Raindancer’s hull has been reinforced to withstand impact with something as large and heavy as a cargo container. But the collision created multiple cracks near the stern, Rodriguez later wrote, and water rose to the floor in about 30 seconds.
Minutes later, he and his friends had all escaped the boat with food, water and other essential supplies. When he looked back, he saw the last 10 feet of the mast rapidly sinking. As a line that tied the raft to the boat began to stretch, he cut it with a knife.
This left the Raindancer crew floating in the open sea, about 2,400 miles west of Lima, Peru, and 1,800 miles southeast of Tahiti.
“The sun began to set and soon it was pitch black,” Rodriguez, who was unavailable for an interview, wrote in an account of the trip he shared with other sailors. “And we were floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a dinghy and a life raft. Hopefully we will be rescued soon.
“Not a drill”
Before Raindancer sank, Mr Rodriguez activated a satellite radio beacon which instantly sent a distress alert to coast guard authorities in Peru, the country with search and rescue authority over this part of the Pacific, and in the United States, where his boat was registered.
In 2009, a US Coast Guard helicopter rescued a sailboat crew whose vessel had collided with a whale and sank about 70 miles off the coast of Mexico. But Raindancer’s remoteness made a rescue like this impossible. So within an hour of the sinking, US Coast Guard officials used decades-old satellite communications technology to contact commercial vessels near the crash site.
One vessel replied that it was about 10 hours away and ready to divert. But, in the end, that was unnecessary as Mr Rodriguez’s satellite phone call to his brother Roger had already sparked a separate and successful rescue effort.
Mr Rodriguez’s brother contacted Mr Joyce, whose own boat, Southern Cross, had left the Galápagos around the same time and was about 200 miles behind Raindancer when it sank. Because Southern Cross had a Starlink internet connection, it became a hub for a rescue effort which Mr Joyce, 40, coordinated with other boats using WhatsApp, Facebook and several speed-tracking smartphone apps wind, tides and boat positions.
“Not a drill,” Mr Joyce, who works in the biotech industry, wrote, often from his boat, on WhatsApp to other sailors who were in the area. “We are in the Pacific heading in that direction but there are closer ships.”
After a flurry of communication, several boats began to navigate as quickly as possible to Raindancer’s last known coordinates.
SpaceX did not respond to a request for information on system coverage in the Pacific. But Douglas Samp, who oversees Coast Guard search and rescue operations in the Pacific, said in a phone interview that ships only started using Starlink internet service on the high seas this year.
Mr Joyce said satellite internet had been essential in finding boats near the stranded crew.
“They were all using Starlink,” he said, speaking in a video interview from his boat as he sailed to Tahiti. “Can you imagine if we didn’t have access?”
Of course, there was a sailboat captain with no Starlink signal during the rescue: Mr. Rodriguez. After night fell on the Pacific, he and his fellow sailors resorted to the old method of sitting in a life raft and hoping for the best.
In the darkness, the wind picked up and flying fish jumped into their canoe, according to Mr Rodriguez’s account. Every hour or so they made a distress call on a portable radio, hoping that a ship would pass within range.
None did. But after a few more hours of anxious waiting, they see the lights of a catamaran and hear the voice of its American captain crackling on their radio. That’s when they cried out in relief.
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