Adventures of s/v WILD HAIR


Our land life took on form, solidity, routine. We had mastery of a limited set of skills. We had habitual expectations of others and ourselves. Going sailing, we let go of our attachments to our roles, views, and rituals. We persist because we are growing in this shapeless and dynamic world.

Friday, June 25, 2010


Dum Spiro Spero
While I breathe, I hope.


I did not send a Mayday distress call into the teeth of a stormy night because our boat had slipped its anchor and was smashing into the rocky shore of an uninhabited Bahama island. It was. But I issued the cry for help because I saw my husband carried out to sea in our inflatable dinghy armed with nothing but a broken outboard motor, a plastic paddle, a PFD, and a feeble head lamp. Luckily, “out to sea” was an illusion. Beyond my line of sight and in the falling tide, my husband Dave grounded the dinghy onto a previously submerged rocky shoal, walked across the island, through the water, and back to our beached boat. This is the story of my distress call and its afterlife.


Alone on the boat that night my first thought was to trigger the 406 MHz EPRIB—an emergency satellite beacon we have registered with NOAA. By sending out a hex code specific to each unit, EPIRB distress calls immediately tell the Coast Guard where a troubled boat is located, who is likely on board, and what type of vessel rescuers should look for. EPIRBs provoke an enthusiastic response: aircraft are launched and large Coast Guard Cutter ships are diverted. I did not launch the beacon however because I did not want to bring emergency services to me. I wanted to rescue Dave. So instead I cranked up the electronics, identified WILD HAIR’s position and—at 22:05 on that brutal February night—spoke simultaneously into our VHF and Single Side Band or SSB microphones.

“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday” I called. “This is sailing vessel WILD HAIR, WILD HAIR, WILD HAIR. Our current position is North 25 degrees 36 minutes, West 77 degrees 43 minutes. Repeat: N 25.36 W 77.43. Repeat: N 25.36 W 77.43. We are west of White Cay in the Berry Islands of the Bahamas. Our vessel is on the rocks. One person is onboard the vessel and one person has blown out to sea in an inflatable dinghy. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.”

Silence. After 3 attempts I stayed on VHF channel 16 but changed SSB frequency, eventually trying 2.1820, 4.1250, 6.2150, and 8.2910.

Still hearing no response, I got out our month-old satellite phone. Smartly, I had pre-programmed all of the Coast Guard emergency phone numbers for the east coast into the handset. Not so smartly, I forgot under stress how to access the numbers and make a call. Without operational knowledge, the phone was as useful to me as a paperweight. So, I repeated the sequence of calls into the SSB and VHF radios.

At some point, I heard Dave’s voice shout his return. My attention bounced from distress calls to relief to the next emergency at hand: boat rescue. Our strategic thinking was interrupted by the crackle of the VHF. The crew of a local cruise ship—the Bahamas Celebration—had heard my VHF call and summoned their captain. His calm and experienced voice was like salve on a wound; I had been heard. It was comforting to know we were not alone. With too big of a ship to enter our snug harbor, the captain offered to contact the Bahamas Air and Sea Rescue Association or BASRA on our behalf. But, with Dave safely on board and only our boat at risk, we took his personal cell phone number, thanked him for his kindness, and said their services wouldn’t be necessary, yet.

With a signal spot light we hailed a sailor sharing our harbor about a half mile away. His dinghy had a working outboard. That and a rising tide allowed us to kedge the boat from peril at dawn. After the frontal passage and an extra day’s rest, Dave and I discussed between us the lessons we learned from the nasty experience. Then, we started putting the nightmare behind us. We had a glorious sail 20 miles south to the populated island of Frazer Hog Cay. It was here that I started to learn the rest of the story.


When we arrived, everyone seemed genuinely happy to see WILD HAIR and her crew. As we snagged a mooring ball, people came out to greet us and check on our well-being. Our Mayday had prompted a buzz of speculation and theories had persisted unchecked for days. Evidently, boaters and Bahamian locals had heard my call for help but—given the storm—none felt they were in a position to lend assistance.

Astonishingly, we learned my SSB distress call had skipped the east coast entirely. Instead, it was picked up by Joshua Bouknight, a Petty Officer at the United States Coast Guard communication station in Kodiak, Alaska. Alaska was the only Coast Guard station to copy my voice and he heard the call on 4.1250. Garbled through space, Officer Bouknight recorded only a partial position statement, figured out our approximate location, and contacted the Coast Guard District Offices in Florida. The Florida District office then briefed the Royal Bahamas Defense Force, and a local volunteer rescue boat was deployed that night in 35 knot winds and 13 foot seas. Remarkably, the rescue effort initiated from Alaska came within 20 miles of our call. But, without a full fix on our position their efforts were futile.

Still stunned by this news, I opened our satellite email account to discover the Coast Guard’s actions hadn’t ceased. My in-box was flooded with worried emails from family and friends. It seems we had become a Coast Guard Search and Rescue or SAR Case. Procedurally, once I had initiated the Search and Rescue system it would not abate until there was resolution. SAR cases close when the Coast Guard finds who they are looking for and either renders assistance or confirms that no assistance is needed.

In total, the Coast Guard spent three days tracking us down and Officer Bouknight personally dedicated almost an entire day of non-stop searching. Like a detective, Bouknight searched the national database and found twelve vessels registered as WILD HAIR. He used software to clean up my radio transmission and listened to it several dozen times. Hearing “One person blown out to sea and one person on board WILD HAIR,” Bouknight knew there were two persons on board. Ruling out larger commercial fishing vessels, he did an online search and found the Adventures of WILD HAIR blog. Our writings confirmed that our sailing area matched the partial position statement he had picked up. Further, the blog listed the length and type of our vessel, a Hylas 45.5 foot sloop. Bouknight cross-referenced the boat details with the vessel registration database and identified us as the boat owners. Our contact information was also listed.

Armed with our names and addresses, Officer Bouknight attempted to call Dave, but our home phone had been disconnected. Utilizing an internet spider, Bouknight opened pages related to my husband and learned of his former employment. From there, he called Dave’s secretary in Wisconsin and she provided our cell phone number and confirmed that we were sailing. Unfortunately, our US-based cell phone did not work in the Bahamas so this proved to be a dead end.

Knowing that our children were close friends with my husband’s partner’s kids, the secretary put Bouknight in contact with Dave’s colleague. Again, Dave’s partner confirmed we were sailing and—after a quick connection with his daughter—offered Bouknight our 21-year-old daughter’s phone number. Bravely, our daughter gave the officer our satellite email address and the phone number of my mother in Arizona. I always email my mother our current latitude and longitude. So, through my mother Bouknight was able to confirm our last known whereabouts and our travel intentions. This information correlated perfectly with our distress call.

This detective work was the reason why my inbox was flooded with worried emails. Everyone had spent hours and days fearing the worst. Quick as I could I got on the satellite phone and started the process of easing minds.


I experience a bundle of emotions when I think back on these events. Of course, I am hugely relieved that Dave is safe and with me still. I am chagrinned that the clocking wind and simultaneously shifting tide conspired to lift our anchor and put WILD HAIR on the rocks, but I am proud that we—with a little help and a good measure of know-how—got our boat out of her predicament. I regret having prompted a rescue vessel to launch on a futile mission in horrible weather and am made nauseous by the thought that we put someone else needlessly at risk. I feel horrible about the sleepless night I caused the people I hold most dear. Not least, I feel guilty about the precious Coast Guard resources spent over the course of three days on our behalf. But Officer Bouknight would have me feel no guilt.

In stunningly compassionate and deftly professional follow up emails, Officer Bouknight expressed nothing but relief that we were safe and sound. “It happens too often that our best is not enough,” he laments, “no matter what we do. Too much works against us … be it the ticking clock or the wrath of nature.”

After emphatically reassuring me that I took the appropriate actions and even complementing me on a carefully articulated, clear, and calm manner during the Mayday call, Bouknight insisted that no one should hesitate to send a distress call should the need arise. He claims, “All Coast Guardsmen feel only relief when they find a vessel in distress is safe.”

Eventually I learned that I could have resolved the SAR case more quickly by simply phoning the closest Coast Guard unit. The agency is structured on a series of ever broadening tiers so messages find their way swiftly to the right person. But Bouknight characterizes phoning in to close a SAR case as “considerate, but not overwhelmingly necessary.”

I have a heightened respect for the individuals and organization that makes up the United States Coast Guard. Humbly refusing to accept accolades, Bouknight claims “I was trained to search for every boat like I had my own family aboard.” He goes on to say, “Everything was made possible by a chain of individuals who operated with consistency and professionalism.”

As a reflection of his deep, personal commitment to saving lives, Bouknight ends all of his email correspondences with “Dum Spiro Spero,” while I breathe, I hope.

No comments: