On May 16th in the Bay of Florida, 80 miles out of Key West and the finish line of the 2013 Bone Island Regatta, Captain Roy Rogers saw something unusual – a boat on the horizon drifting with its sails down. A few other vessels could be seen in the distance, but this one stood aimlessly alone, a strange sight in the middle of a racecourse. Up in the cockpit, with the sound of the wind and the boat’s stereo playing, it was difficult to know what to make of it, but below in the cabin was a different story: two short, garbled mayday calls came through on the VHF radio, and then silence.
It was day two of the annual race, which starts from Tampa Bay and follows the southwest edge of Florida’s gulf coast to the Keys. Captain Roy, a career sailor who spent decades as a charter and delivery captain in the Caribbean before becoming an ASA sailing instructor, was in the race for the first time, skippering a 50-foot Jenneau with three of his former students, whom he had trained in ASA 101, 103, and 104 at Sailing Florida in St. Petersburg. They were not expecting to win, only to have fun, gain experience, and post a strong finishing time. It was so far, so good with 80 miles to go, but that’s when everything changed.
Captain Roy, having heard the mayday hails and seen the boat on the horizon, put two and two together and made a decision. “The race was over us,” he says, as they fired up the auxiliary power, disqualifying themselves, and set off to investigate.
They tried several times to establish contact over the radio, with no luck. But sure enough, as they approached they saw that the vessel was low in the water, and with the binoculars, something even more alarming: 5 men in a hopelessly overburdened 10-foot dinghy that was, itself, sinking.
Captain Roy gathered his ASA-trained sailors and instructed them that they were going to get hold of the dinghy’s painter. They then snapped into action, closing the distance and bringing the dinghy alongside. “I’m not letting anybody up,” he advised his crew, “until I’ve had a conversation with them.”
Even, or perhaps especially, in an emergency situation, prudence is necessary. In these waters it is not unheard of to encounter refugees from the Caribbean, and even criminals up to what Captain Roy calls “shenanigans.” He explains that they would have rescued them no matter who they were, as long as they weren’t dangerous, but the procedure for taking on board U.S. citizens and foreign nationals is dramatically different. It also occurred to him that there were “five of them, and four of us.”
“This was not the reception they were expecting,” he says, “but I felt obliged to do due diligence.” After a brief conversation, it was established that the men were Americans, not carrying any weapons, and also racing in the Bone Island Regatta. Within a few minutes of making contact, all 5 were safely on board.
Then it was time to watch the other boat sink. She was a 42-foot Tartan called Liela B, and her crew were an experienced, seasoned lot who had won their class in previous years. Once the foredeck was awash it took less than two minutes for the entire boat to go down.
Around that time a Coast Guard C130 aircraft swooped by low and fast, having responded to Liela B’s EPIRB distress beacon. The pilot made radio contact with Captain Roy, who confirmed that they had taken all crew onboard, there were no injuries, and that they would proceed to Key West. With that, the C130, diverted from another mission and low on fuel, was gone.
In Key West word of the sinking and rescue had already filtered from the race offices into the docks and bars. As far as anyone knew it was the first time a vessel had been lost in the race, and the first time anyone had conducted an emergency rescue. Captain Roy motored in and that evening they were met with equal parts admiration and curiosity from their fellow sailors. “Every bar that me and my crew went to, we could not buy a drink.”
What caused the boat to go down has been the subject of much speculation. The night before had seen strong winds, and Liela B had blown out her spinnaker and genoa. They had given up on the race and were motoring in to Key West when they became aware that something was wrapped around the propeller. Crab traps are numerous in the gulf, but this turned out to be something heavier that they could never identify. Someone went overboard and cleared the prop, and the engine started fine. However, when they put it into gear they heard a loud thunk in the hull. Presently they realized that water was rushing into the bilge from a leak whose source they never found, but in retrospect was most likely the prop shaft. Now, with the boat in 90 feet of water, 80 miles from shore, the mystery will probably never be solved.
At the awards banquet on Saturday night, Captain Roy and his crew were given a special commendation, even though they didn’t qualify as finishers. The award was for Seamanship and Good Sportsmanship, as well as free entry into next year’s race, which they plan to use. While they say they wouldn’t trade the experience and adventure of this year for anything, they are hoping to finish next time. (Unsurprisingly, Captain Roy is no stranger to awards. He was named an ASA Outstanding Instructor in 2012.)
Another skipper, who had listened to the entire thing on his radio, expressed wonder that Captain Roy had “sounded so professional, like [he] knew exactly what to ask for.” This captain admitted that he had heard the mayday call, but didn’t know how to respond.
Luckily for the crew of Liela B, Captain Roy and his students did know how to respond, and while other boats passed by, it was the ASA sailors who answered the call.
Captain Roy’s tips on how to be prepared for an emergency at sea:
1. Make sure your VHF radio is on at all times.
2. Know your radio protocol, how to make a call and how to respond to one. It could save your life, or someone else’s.
3. The best education is to have the VHF on and listen to the Coast Guard. They know what they’re doing, so copying them is a good idea!
4. Four pieces of information to ask for whenever you’re in contact with a ship in distress:
- Name of vessel
- How many people on board/any injuries
- Nature of emergency