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Quitting is never easy when lives are on the line

When do you stop searching for someone lost at sea? How much time is enough time?

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In some cases, the determination is more straightforward than in others. A boat sinks quickly in horrendous conditions. The water is cold, the crew inexperienced, there is no life raft or survival suits, the last known position is vague.

But the calculus of search and survival times is not always that clear, as demonstrated by the recent incident involving four missing British sailors whose 40-foot sailboat, Cheeki Rafiki, capsized in rough seas more than 620 miles east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in May. In this case, the sailors were experienced and tough-minded, there was a life raft on board, the searchers had two good positions from PLB signals, and the water temperature was reported to be about 60 F.

And yet the Coast Guard suspended the search after about two days, a decision that did not sit well with many observers, especially those in the United Kingdom. The Coast Guard said it had calculated the sailors had a survival time of about 20 hours, based on sea conditions and “best-case emergency equipment” on the boat. The agency ended the search after 53 hours.

Cheeki Rafiki has been identified as a Beneteau First 40.7, which was returning to the United Kingdom after competing in Antigua Sailing Week.

An online petition urging the Coast Guard to resume looking quickly garnered more than 239,000 signatures. British entrepreneur Richard Branson, who was rescued in 1985 when the powerboat he was racing across the Atlantic sank, tweeted “urge for longer search for missing Cheeki Rafiki yacht.”

And a number of the world’s top sailors, including Dame Ellen MacArthur, Mike Golding and Olympic gold medal winner Sir Ben Ainslie, also urged the Coast Guard to continue looking. Famed British yachtsman Sir Robin Knox Johnston, the first man to sail alone and non-stop around the world, said that knowing the U.S. Coast Guard as he did, one needed to listen to them. However, he told an interviewer: ‘’Isn’t it just worth just one more check, just to make sure?’’

At the request of the British government and amid growing public pressure, the Coast Guard two days later resumed the search about 1,000 miles east of Massachusetts. Five aircraft from the United States, Canada and Great Britain, along with a number of military, commercial and private vessels, scoured more than 17,500 square miles of ocean. No sign of the men had been found as we went to press May 23. The Coast Guard said it would end its search by midnight on that day if nothing was found.

About a day after the distress signals were received, the 1,000-foot container ship Maersk Kure located and photographed a capsized sailboat believed to be Cheeki Rafiki. It appeared the sailboat had lost its keel. The commercial vessel was not able to put over a small boat to further investigate.

The decision to suspend a search for lost mariners is never easy, especially when loved ones are imploring you to keep looking. “That’s very tough,” says retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Richard Dein, who specialized in search and rescue in his 24 years with the agency. “What you’re saying is, ‘We don’t think they’re alive.’ ”

When it comes to halting a search, Dein says, “You have to err in favor of the survivors.”

As a young lieutenant commander in Guam in the mid-1970s, Dein says he learned an important lesson from an incident in which three fishermen in a small boat had gone missing. The Coast Guard searched for five days before Dein stopped the operation.

“Ten days later, a Navy destroyer picked them up in the middle of the Philippine Sea,” recalls Dein, who helped write several chapters in the Coast Guard’s national SAR manual, along with a paper on when to stop a search. He interviewed the survivors, who told him that several search aircraft had flown over them.

After that, he modified his approach. “I would search until I felt there was no reasonable expectation of survival,” says Dein. “And then I’d search one more day.”

In the case of Cheeki Rafiki, Dein, too, believes the Coast Guard should not have halted the operation after two days, given the experience of the sailors and the fact there was a life raft on board. “This is the time to raise questions but not to cast stones,” says Dein. “We still don’t know enough.”

“Thirty minutes later I was introduced to my first ship’s worm. I made no attempt to hide my distaste, and the worms in their unperturbed thousands looked at me in the eye with equal loathing, aware that their position in the double planking was stronger than mine.”

— Charles Landery

July 2014 issue