Dear Abby: “Lost at Sea”

By: American Sailing Association, Equipment

(Note for RSS feed subscribers: The blog’s feedburner has a 24-hour delay, so you may be receiving this post on Friday; please see more current posts and our Twitter stream @__ASA__ for up-to-the-minute information on Abby Sunderland)

Much of the media has picked up 16-year-old solo circumnavigator Abby Sunderland’s story since she activated emergency distress signals in the middle of the Indian Ocean this morning. Since her satellite phone connection failed about an hour prior, no one has access to much information about Abby’s condition. The internet is full of reports of Abby being “lost at sea.”

We are all scared for Abby because, it’s true, she is in severe distress right now. But offshore sailors can deduce some things about Abby’s condition. The good news is, it is premature and inaccurate at this time to declare her “missing” or “lost.”

Here are the facts: Abby’s equipment includes a dry suit, survival suit, fully-equipped ditch kit, and offshore life raft. Additionally, she has a small personal locator beacon (PLB), a heartier main ship’s EPIRB, and a water-activated EPIRB mounted in the cockpit of WildEyes.

The two distress signals that went off were her PLB and the main ship’s EPIRB, not the water-activated cockpit one (reference: her parents’ update on Abby’s blog). Both of those beacons are manually activated, and they give rescuers Abby’s exact GPS fix. This emphasizes two things: first, that Abby purposely activated both of the two distress signals, and second, that her boat is almost still certainly afloat. If and when the boat goes down, we’ll receive the cockpit EPIRB’s signal. And EVEN THEN, she’s well prepared to wait in her offshore life raft for rescue.

The calling of a distress signal is up to the discretion of the skipper, and may be given for numerous reasons. One is that Abby herself has suffered some kind of personal injury that renders her unable to continue navigating her own vessel. The other is that the vessel has been dealt damage that puts Abby in a life-threatening position.

Either way, we are talking about distress. I am not in any way trying to undermine the severity of what’s happening to Abby. But according to the facts it is most likely that Abby is still hunkered down aboard WildEyes–the safest place for her to wait for rescue; out of the cold water, inside of a hard hull with multiple watertight compartments.

I know less about the intricacies of search and rescue efforts; however, just because Abby’s satellite phone is out of range or quit working does not mean she can’t contact anyone in the area. She has VHF and longer-range HF/SSB communication capacity (with backups), and according to her family, rescuers are diverting ship traffic towards her and sending a plane at first light to attempt contact via radio.

There is good reason to be optimistic. Please spread the word that Abby is not missing, and there is a highly organized search and rescue effort on their way–she just needs to hang on and hope.

Invite others to follow our Twitter stream @__ASA__ to read the updated facts as we learn them.