Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Melissa Mckenzie
Stranded and exhausted, 21 sailors from the Betty C huddled together in a small skiff 230 miles south of Jarvis Island. Defeated eyes watched the ship’s smoldering remains, hope fleeing them like the red embers rising above their dying ship.
Hours earlier they awoke to the acrid smell and blanket of smoke that seeped into every compartment of their ship. They fought to extinguish the flames until the Captain gave the order: the crew abandoned ship.
Yet, hope remained. Survival was contingent on a small device held tightly: an emergency position-indicating radio beacon was transmitting a signal. Help would soon be on the way.
EPIRBs are a device designed to transmit a distress signal that is picked up through a satellite system called Cospas-Sarsat. The satellites relay the distress signals from the emergency beacons to a network of ground stations and ultimately to the U.S. Mission Control Center in Suitland, Maryland. The USMCC processes the distress signal and alerts the appropriate search and rescue authorities.
More than 1,000 miles away, an alarm sounded in the Coast Guard Joint Rescue Coordination Center in Honolulu. It resonated, disturbing the silence of an early morning November watch. An EPIRB was transmitting a distress signal from a remote location in the Pacific Ocean. It was two o’clock in the morning and lives were in jeopardy.
“This EPIRB saved their lives,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jason Hagen, a watchstander in JRCC the night of the rescue. Without it, no one would have known they needed help.
The EPIRB wasn’t registered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration database and the Coast Guard watch standers combed through the missing information to determine the EPIRB’s owner. Time was precious, anxiety was high and with each strike of the clock’s pendulum the chances of survival diminished. Persistence paid off and the search and rescue controllers identified the distressed vessel as the 140-foot fishing vessel Betty C with 21 people aboard.
Utilizing the Automatic Identification System, the SAR controllers identified the Cape Ferrat, 60 miles away, as the closest vessel and contacted the captain for assistance.
“I didn’t have a second thought,” said John Cabral, captain of Cape Ferrat. “I immediately turned the boat around and aimed at the Betty C full speed hoping that her crew were all safe.”
Cape Ferrat pushed its engines flank speed ahead for four hours. When the boat arrived, they discovered the charred remains of Betty C still aflame, billowing smoke and her 21 crewmembers safe.
In 2014, 205 people in the U.S. were saved because of EPIRBs. Eighty-three of them were rescued at sea in 28 separate incidents. Twenty-one of them were aboard Betty C.