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Some rescues involve walking a fine line

There is within our big tribe a much smaller band of wind-burned wanderers who live for blue water, who push at the margins in search of adventure, solitude, records, wide-open spaces, a pot of gold, something more. You name it.

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More than a century ago, Joshua Slocum declared: “To a young man contemplating a voyage I would say go.” Slocum, of course, went. He left Boston in the spring of 1895 and became the first person to sail around the world alone, returning more than three years later aboard his sure-footed 36-footer, Spray.
As the patron saint of single-handed circumnavigators, Slocum, no doubt, would have understood the recent attempt by Dennis Howard to sail around the globe alone. The 62-year-old legally blind sailor had some “lofty goals” for the trip, but said that he mostly wanted to be a “small light in a corner of the world,” according to his website. “We hope to motivate and inspire those who come on the journey, particularly those who, like me, find themselves sporting a condition that some might term a disability.”
Howard spent more than a year preparing himself and his 20-foot Pacific Seacraft Flicka, named Avalo, for the voyage. These boats are small but capable pocket cruisers whose owners through the years have sailed them to far-flung reaches of the globe. A father of three, Howard is a longtime sailor who had often single-handed from Canada to the Baja Peninsula’s Sea of Cortez.
He had planned on being gone a couple of years. The adventure, however, ended shortly after it began. The sailor left San Diego on Nov. 1 and was “rescued” by the Coast Guard about 30 miles off Baja several days later after being knocked about in a storm. I put quotation marks around the word rescued because the sailor and the Coast Guard are at odds over whether he needed to be saved. In the end, Howard left Avalo and boarded a small rescue boat on instructions from the Coast Guard, who determined that the sailor’s life was in danger, a finding he disputes.
The Coast Guard says it was notified that the sailor was in trouble by one of his friends, who said Howard called him during the storm and left a phone message stating, “Emergency, emergency,” and nothing more, according to the Coast Guard. Later, the sailor’s friend contacted the Coast Guard again to relay a position from the single-hander, the Coast Guard says. With the coordinates, the agency launched a C-130 aircraft and dispatched the 378-foot high-endurance cutter Mellon.
“When rescuers … reached the scene they found that the man had sustained a head injury, his vessel was damaged and rough weather conditions were reaching the operating limits of the cutter’s rescue boat,” Coast Guard spokesman Dan Dewell says. “It is always the foremost duty of the Coast Guard to ensure the safety of those in peril on the sea. The commanding officer of the cutter determined that a life-threatening emergency existed and immediate evacuation of the Avalo vessel was necessary.”
Howard told reporters it was never his intention to issue a mayday or to activate his EPIRB. He maintained that Avalo was seaworthy and that he could make it safely to shore using just his jib and without assistance. Howard was quoted as saying the Coast Guard’s “zeal to do good offset sound decision-making.”
At that point, the Coast Guard was in a no-win position. If it left the sailor and he was subsequently lost or needed rescue later, the Monday-morning quarterbacks would have had a field day. With the benefit of hindsight, they would have asked: How could a rescue organization that prides itself on safety simply wave goodbye to a legally blind solo sailor who had been hit in the head with the boom and whose 20-foot boat had a damaged rig (broken gooseneck), no working auxiliary engine and more weather moving in?
In the end, it came down to the judgment of the on-scene commander vs. that of the sailor. “We understand that it is difficult for a sailor to leave his vessel,” Dewell says, “and this is not a decision that is made lightly, but we’re glad this gentleman is safely ashore.”
The boat was uninsured, and press reports quote Howard as saying the 20-footer contained most of his possessions. The sailor also is considering legal action against the Coast Guard, according to various news reports.
Not sure Slocum, who was lost at sea, would have understood that.

"I carried on sail to make the harbor before dark, and she fairly flew along, all covered with snow, which fell thick and fast, till she looked like
a white winter bird.”
— Joshua Slocum

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.