Written by Benjamin Strong, Automated Mutual Assistance Vessel Rescue System, director of maritime relations.
Four sailors started the North American Rally to the Caribbean in the 46-foot sailboat Elle, but ended the race in Bermuda aboard a 387-foot container ship.
The sailors were racing from Newport, R.I., to Bermuda in November 2011 when their sailboat lost steering 160 miles north of Bermuda. Rescue authorities in Bermuda received the distress call as the boat was tossed about in gale force winds. U.S. Coast Guard rescue personnel at the Atlantic Area Rescue Coordination Center launched a C-130 rescue airplane from Air Station Elizabeth City and reached out using the Automated Mutual Assistance Vessel Rescue System to divert the Marshall Island-flagged container ship Oleander to the stricken sailboat.
The Oleander was already sailing to Bermuda when the captain received the request to assist. He quickly agreed to divert and alerted his crew to prepare for what would be a dangerous rescue operation.
“The Elle had lost her steering and we were helplessly adrift in the gale,” wrote Elle survivor Brian Finn in an email to the AMVER center in New York. “In 30-to-40-knot winds and 30-foot seas Capt. Jurszo expertly maneuvered the Oleander next to the Elle, gently touching her side,” Finn added.
That would be the end of anything gentle.
“Further complicating matters was the fact our mast was swinging wildly near his outside steering station, almost hitting him in the head!” Finn recalled.
The rescue was about to take a turn for the worse. “Things got even more challenging when I plunged in the ocean,” recalled Finn. “The crew reacted perfectly, throwing me a line that I tied onto my safety harness. They successfully got all of us on board.”
Blair Simmons, vice president for vessel operations of Container Ship Management, the Oleander’s management company, met the ship when it arrived in Bermuda.
“I met with the crew of the Elle onboard the Oleander following their arrival in Bermuda and they were extremely grateful not only for the assistance provided by the Oleander but in particular for the processional service provided by the U.S. Coast Guard and Bermuda Maritime Operations,” he said. “We and the vessels owners are equally proud of the service provided by the Oleander crew on this occasion and it clearly reinforces the importance of participation in the AMVER service.”
“The Coast Guard truly treasures our AMVER partnership with professional mariners. It is a unique partnership that is rich in tradition and embodies the shared international commitment to saving lives at sea,” said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp. “There is no greater compliment than being known as a great shipmate, and all of our AMVER members such as the M/V Oleander crew who stand the watch are truly great shipmates.”
The Oleander enrolled in the AMVER system in 1990 and has earned 12 awards for participation. In addition to their participation awards, the crew of the Oleander earned the Association for Rescue At Sea AMVER plaque. Each year since 1996, AFRAS has presented an AMVER participating vessel a plaque for voluntarily assisting in a rescue at sea. This year’s award was presented in conjunction with the AFRAS award ceremony held in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 4, 2012.
AMVER, sponsored by the United States Coast Guard, is a unique, computer-based, and voluntary global ship reporting system used worldwide by search and rescue authorities to arrange for assistance to persons in distress at sea. With AMVER, rescue coordinators can identify participating ships in the area of distress and divert the best suited ship to respond. In an emergency, any rescue coordination center can request this data to determine the relative position of AMVER ships near the distress location. There are more than 5,000 ships available to perform search and rescue services every day.