When the five crewmembers aboard the 58-foot fishing vessel Seafarer were forced to abandon ship shortly after midnight April 17, the men made several good decisions to increase their chances of being rescued. (See video.)
All of the crewmembers were wearing survival suits as they abandoned the sinking boat for an 18-foot skiff, and they activated Seafarer's properly registered EPIRB.
"These folks were set up to handle this emergency properly. They had survival suits on board, they had a registered EPIRB, and they got out an initial mayday call that stated all the facts of who they were, where they were and what was [happening] on board," says Lt. Cmdr. Eric Carter, who served as aircraft commander on the rescue mission.
The men were also in possession of a much lower-tech safety device that helped guarantee their rescue: a hand-held light. (Story continues below)
It was either a regular light they had on their vessel - a position light - or a flashlight," says Carter.
He says the small light allowed the helicopter crew to spot the vessel from about seven or eight miles away.
That night the rescuers - flying an MH-60 Jayhawk out of Sitka, Alaska - battled 45-knot headwinds and heavy rain on their way to the scene, about seven miles north of Thorne Bay, Alaska. Reduced visibility forced the crew to fly at about 300 feet altitude. Water temperature was in the low 40s, says Carter.
"We could see the waves below us for the most part," he says.
What about recreational boaters?
Carter offers this advice to recreational boaters to maximize their chances of a nighttime rescue. Take inventory and be aware of what kind of signaling devices you have on board before an emergency takes place. Don’t use all your flares at once — space them out. Maximize your flares’ effectiveness by using them when you see or hear that an aircraft or another vessel is within range. If you have a flashlight or strobe light, have someone on the boat hold it up. The advantage of a strobe light is that it can go off continuously. “That strobe light will draw attention for night-vision goggles or for boaters passing by,” he says.
Once they approached the scene, however, skies cleared some, and the ambient light from the moon or stars improved the crew's ability to see with night-vision goggles.
"It's amazing the things you can see on night-vision goggles and how it improves your situational awareness at night," says Carter.
The five Seafarer crewmembers were transferred from the skiff to a 47-foot Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat, which was also sent to the scene. One Seafarer crewmember had experienced back pain and vomiting, and was hoisted from the MLB to the Jayhawk.
The Coast Guard crew trains in both day and nighttime conditions, so the risks associated with a nighttime hoist aren't much greater than they woul be during the day, says Carter.
In the end, preparation, including the proper registration and deployment of the EPIRB, played a key role in the rescue, says Carter.
Related story: Signaling for Help on the Water