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VIDEO: Nighttime sinking; rescue done right

A Coast Guard aircraft commander explains how to maximize your chances of nighttime rescue

Lt. Cmdr. Carter

When the five crewmembers aboard the 58-foot commercial 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.

All of the crewmembers were wearing survival suits as they abandoned the sinking boat for an 18-foot skiff; they had activated a properly registered EPIRB; and they were in possession of a much lower-tech safety device that helped guarantee their rescue: a hand-held light.

"It was either a regular light they had on their vessel — a position light — or a flashlight," said Lt. Cmdr. Eric Carter, who served as aircraft commander on the mission.

The small light allowed the helicopter crew to spot the vessel from about seven or eight miles away, said Carter.


Click to watch the video as Lt. Cmdr. Eric Carter describes the rescue. > Mobile users: click here to watch the video on YouTube.

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, said Carter.

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 said.

"We could see the waves below us for the most part," he said.

Once they approached the scene, however, skies cleared a little, which allowed ambient light from the moon or the stars and 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," said Carter.

Because the Coast Guard crew trains in both day and nighttime conditions, the risks associated with a nighttime hoist in a maritime environment aren't much greater than they would be during the day, he said.

The five crewmembers of Seafarer 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, leading the Coast Guard to conduct a hoist from the deck of the MLB to the Jayhawk.

In the end, proper preparation played a key role in the rescue, said Carter.

"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," said Carter.

— Lisa Cook