The New Rules: Don’t Skimp on Your S.O.S.

When you're lost at sea, send the right signal.

Oct 26, 2009
Outside Magazine
U.S. Coast Guard

U.S. Coast Guard conducting a search for a missing boater    Photo: courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Captain Nelson Liu and five of the 11 crew members of the Princess Taiping were asleep on a stormy, moonless early morning in the Philippine Sea when running lights appeared onthe horizon. The 53-foot-long wooden junk, a replica of a Ming Dynasty warship handbuilt out of cedar, was 27 miles northeast of Suao, Taiwan, its final destination on a 14,000-mile voyage. The looming lights belonged to the Champion Express, a massive tanker aslosh with vegetable oil bound for China.

At first, it looked like the big ship would pass more than a mile to port. Surely the helmsman noted the return from the Princess Taiping's radar reflector, detectable eight miles away. But just when the Champion Express came abeam, it turned 90 degrees—right at the Princess Taiping. The wooden boat had a tiny outboard engine, but it was stowed, and its sails were reefed, due to heavy seas. It was all but dead in the water.

"The ship's coming at us at maybe 20 knots," says John Hunter, a recent graduate of the University of Hawaii who'd been awakened by the commotion. "I remember thinking, This could be it. The funny thing was, I was OK with it. It's a pretty sweet way to go."

The 628-foot tanker heaved the junk out of the water and cleaved it not so neatly in two, the midsection exploding into shards. As the Champion Express melted into the darkness, Hunter and his shipmates clung to the partially submerged stern, up to their necks in 80-degree seawater. Two were missing: Masao Kinjo, a Japanese sailboat racer, and Thomas Cook, a professor at Humboldt State University.

Larz Stewart, a 29-year-old surfer from Honolulu, hunted for their emergency communication equipment with his headlamp. He found Captain Liu's personal locator beacon (PLB) and triggered it. Nothing. But moments later, the ship's emergency position-indicator radio beacon (EPIRB), which sends out a distress signal with its coordinates to a network of satellites, mystically floated into his hands. Activated, it strobed reassuringly.

In the distance, another strobe appeared. It was on Cook's life vest. The impact had pitched the professor headfirst overboard into something blunt, opening his scalp to the bone, shattering a vertebra, and snapping his right forearm. He paddled with his good arm toward the others."I'm here!" he shouted. "I think I broke my spine!"

Some 5,000 miles east, at the Coast Guard's rescue command center in Honolulu, Chief Operations Specialist Peni Motu received the Princess Taiping's distress signal. Since the EPIRB system went live, in 1982, it's enabled nearly 27,000 rescues at sea, including 129 in the U.S. this year through mid-September. And yet 18 percent of boat owners fail to register their EPIRBs, a crucial step that allows rescuers to rule out false alarms. Motu verified the signal's authenticity and alerted a rescue command center in Taiwan. "Without the EPIRB, they wouldn't have had a chance," he says.

And they'd almost left without it. Captain Liu had brought only his old PLB, typically used to find someone swept overboard. But one crew member, Jack Durham, refused to sail without an EPIRB and had borrowed one from a friend. According to Amanda Suttles, of the nonprofit BoatU.S., which rents out EPIRBS, any sailor who ventures more than ten miles offshore should carry one. Even if you're only kayaking the coastline, Suttles suggests you carry (and register) a VHF marine radio equipped with Digital Selective Calling, a panic button that broadcastsa preprogrammed mayday.

About three and a half hours after the collision, the drifting sailors saw a white hull appear over the waves. They whooped and waved at the approaching ship, then cheered in astonishment when a helicopter flew by with the missing Masao Kinjo in its hoist. After swimming to the bow, only to find himself alone, the resolute mariner had rigged the broken foremast and started sailing the front half of the Princess Taiping toward Taiwan.