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We Are Going To Make It Home

Old 08-10-2020, 07:25 AM
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Default We Are Going To Make It Home

I hope you'll take time to read this. There are a lot of lessons wrapped up in this story about a SAR case we ran last week.


John Anderson, his wife, Ronalyn, and their two children tried to remain calm and positive from their precarious perch atop the hull of their overturned boat 15 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico.


"We are going to make it home" Ronalyn assured Royland, 12, and Trisha, 8, who were worried about sharks and talked about it.


Calm and confident, Capt. John Anderson assuaged all of their fears. So calm and certain was John that little Trisha asked if she could "water slide" off of the boat and into the depths of the mercifully calm sea.


As an offshore supply boat captain, John often saw other recreational fishers near the deep water oil and gas rigs. He dreamed of one day buying a boat and plying the gulf recreationally rather than doing so on his work boats. He finally realized his dream. He bought an older Wellcraft V-20 boat with twin outboards. He liked the safety the dual engines provided. The old Wellcraft V-20 hulls are well reputed in boating circles. With a proud bow and plenty of flare, they were bigger than their 20-foot length, provided a good ride and were very seaworthy. John spent three weeks, working nearly every day, to bring the boat and her engines into top shape. He outfitted her well.


He put together a good ditch bag with a hand-held radio, assortment of flares and more. He assembled a damage-control kit. He outfitted the boat with two bilge pumps, bought new life jackets, most of them orange in color and made sure he had all of the equipment required by law.


The boat was finally ready to go, and the family was eager for their maiden voyage.


John studied the weather forecast carefully and saw the weather pattern was stable, calling for calm seas and an unusually low chance of thunderstorms. The first trip was to be an overnighter to the offshore oil platform "Medusa."


Medusa sits in 2,200 feet of water south of the mouth of the Mississippi River. John left a very detailed float plan, including latitudes and longitudes, with a friend. The family's excitement over their first trip was palpable. The two-hour drive from their home in Morgan City to the launch in Grand Isle seemed cruelly long.


John slowly and methodically launched the boat. He went back over all of the equipment. As a final check he switched on his VHF radio. From his experience on offshore supply vessels, he knew of a VHF radio channel that likely had mariners listening in. He dialed the radio over to that channel and conducted a radio check. When he did, his radio displayed a "mic error" warning. John checked all of the connections and tried another check. Again he got the warning message. The nearest replacement radio was an hour away in Galliano. He had been eagerly anticipating this trip for months. A quick glance at his family, and he knew what he had to do. He drove the hour to Galliano, bought a new VHF radio, brought it back and installed it.


Off they headed into the Gulf as the sun sank lower in the afternoon sky. It felt good to watch the sunset from Medusa. Medusa's bright lights would soon fire the food chain. John's dream was becoming reality. The fishing was slow. They caught several sharks, and the kids thought that was cool, but they wanted to take home something for the table. John decided to try his luck at South Pass rig 93A, it was one of the GPS locations he had put in his float plan. Rigs that don't get a nickname like "Medusa" are named after their oil and gas lease block number.


The Anderson's watched the sunrise from South Pass Rig 93A. Unfortunately the fishing was slow there too.


John decided to head back to Grand Isle, stopping at a few rigs along the way. Mariners quickly gain familiarity with their boats and John began feeling a heaviness in his boat.


He noticed the RPMs dropping. He realized the boat was taking on water and assessed the situation. John had studied his boat well. It has but a single through hull fitting, that being the bilge drain plug. He couldn't tell how the water was coming into the boat, he switched on the bilge pumps and made best speed toward the nearest production rig, hoping that he could get help there.


As a professional mariner, John is proud. Most mariners are. The thought of calling the Coast Guard hurt his pride, but John set aside his pride and made the uncomfortable radio call for help. Should he resolve the problem on his own, or otherwise make it to safety he could always radio back.


The Sector New Orleans Communications Center (Comms) is located within the Sector Command Center. It is cordoned off from the command center with soundproof walls and windows. A single watchstander is on duty at any given time, consistently monitoring a room buzzing with noise from 30 plus speakers, phones and an assortment of electronics along with a radio chatter that is almost constant.


"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, Uhh 20-foot, 4 people aboard two children, two adults, Mayday, Mayday, Mayday." Petty Officer (rank i.e. 3rd class, 2nd class, etc.) Sonalice Ellis, (position, i.e. watchstander, etc.) snapped to attention. The word mayday has a way of cutting through the clutter to the well-trained ear of a Coast Guard communications specialist. Sonalice quickly identified which speaker the call came in on, and immediately asked for the distressed vessel's position. "Yeah, my position is, uhh hold on here I will figure it out."


John had not yet purchased a fixed mount GPS. He had a handheld GPS he had somewhat familiarized himself with, but had not yet learned how to get the latitude and longitude to display. His position was being displayed based on his cursor position. He rattled off a position, then placed the cursor closer to where he thought he was and then gave that position. Then he gave his geographical position relative to "The Lump." The Lump is also known as the Midnight Lump. They are both nicknames for the Sackett Bank. It is an undersea mountain of sorts that rises up 140 feet above the surrounding ocean floor. After he gave his estimated position in relation to The Lump, his chilling last words were "yeah, Mayday, Mayday Mayday, uhh we are taking on water and going down soon." Sonalice hurriedly summoned the watch team from the Command Center to come into Comms to try to make sense of the various positions that were given. The team could not confidently arrive at a single position, so they established an area in which they thought the Anderson family might be.


Search and Rescue (SAR) Controller Timothy Duffy went back to his desk to fire up SAROPS, his computer search program, and began inputting information that would allow the computer to tell them where to search. The computer uses wind, wave and current data to develop a "drift." The rest of the team began scrambling rescue units. Sonalice sent out an Urgent Marine Information Broadcast (UMIB) asking other mariners in the area to assist if possible.


Soon after making the radio call, one of the boat's two engines died and the boat slowed appreciably. Despite his best efforts John had not been able to stop the ingress of water. He had earlier taken off his life jacket because it was in his way when he was trying to find the source of the leak. The rest of the family had theirs on. John's new boat was indeed going down. He put his life jacket back on.


The second engine died.


When it did, the bow of the boat settled and the boat immediately rolled. That often happens when boats take on water. The bottom of the boat has built in foam flotation beneath the deck. With the weight of the passengers and gear coupled with the wave action, the boat becomes top heavy and unstable. The Anderson's boat rolled so quickly that John didn't have a chance to grab his ditch bag.


John situated his family on the overturned hull and took inventory. The ditch kit had flares and a VHF radio. John made multiple dives beneath the surface into the cockpit of the boat to try to find his ditch bag. John soon found the bag, but his heart sank when he realized he forgot to zip it after he accessed it earlier in the trip. The contents of the bag had fallen out. He continued diving and eventually collected a few aerial flares. He had hoped to find some daytime smoke signals, but they were nowhere to be found. John gathered up a few ropes so that he could lash his family together if the boat completely sank or if the seas picked up and washed them off of the hull.


It was a waiting game now.


The captains of two other recreational boats heard the UMIB and began assisting in the search. The motor vessel "Sea Carrier" reported to Sector Corpus Christi that they were adjusting course to help. They had heard the Mayday call and spoken briefly directly to John on the radio. Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans had an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew up on a lower priority case and diverted them to help locate the Anderson family. Coast Guard Aviation Training Center Mobile scrambled an HC-144 Ocean Sentry twin-engine turboprop airplane and Coast Guard Station Venice launched a 45-foot Response Boat-Medium boat crew.


It was during the uncertain wait that the Andersons talked about sharks in between bouts of self-encouragement. The parents told the kids that the sharks would leave them alone. The mood was positive and hopeful.


"We are going to make it home" Ronalyn would occasionally assure everyone. John knew he had done the best he could do, but his mind was burdened with the thought that he could be responsible for the death of his precious family. He fired a few flares in hope that a nearby crew boat on the horizon or the Sea Carrier would see them.


The helicopter crew had arrived on scene and completed a search pattern without success. They had to return to base for a refuel while another MH-65 helicopter crew was being readied for launch. They reported a fairly thick heat haze hanging in the air. The rescue boat from Venice had a long transit down the Mississippi river and out into the Gulf. Aboard the HC-144 Aircraft Commander Christopher Smith and Copilot Brandon Decardenas readied their crew to drop a self-locating datum marker buoy (SLDMB.)


Any time a search case involves a person in the water or a possible person in the water the Coast Guard will drop an SLDMB. SLDMBs continuously send a position to a satellite. SLDMBs can provide the most accurate drift data for the SAR Controller.


Back in the Sector New Orleans Command Center SAR Controller Timothy Duffy and the team were reevaluating the search area. Timothy asked Sonalice to see if the Mayday radio call was strong enough to have recorded a Line of Bearing (LOB.) The radio towers can detect from which direction a strong radio signal originates. John's new radio had sent out a signal strong enough for the tower to collect and record an LOB. The LOB was not in agreement with the positions John had earlier provided. It was a little bit of a gamble, but the team made a decision to adjust the search area to focus along the LOB. Timothy input the new information into SAROPs and assigned new search patterns based upon the new drift.


The Station Venice boat arrived in the search area and soon located some debris consistent with a boat sinking. The HC-144 aircraft commander and co-pilot employ a visual search, while their crew uses either radar or Forward Looking Infrared Radar (FLIR) to search. FLIR works by picking up heat signatures. Avionics Electrical Technicians Robert Riera and Pierce Parker had the unenviable task of staring at the sensor screens hoping to catch so much as a "blip" of human life. The conditions seemed to favor using radar over FLIR for this particular search. After using radar unsuccessfully for several passes Robert and Pierce talked it over. Their experience and intuition took over. They and decided to switch to FLIR.


Over two hours had passed since their boat capsized. The Andersons remained strong and hopeful. The Gulf waters were warm. The outside air temperature was in the low 90's. John heard the faint hum of an airplane in the distance. Are they looking for us? Through the thick haze he could not see the plane. He wondered. Time dragged on.


Back aboard the HC-144 Robert and Pierce detected a slight heat signature on FLIR from a distance of nearly 10 miles. Christopher and Brandon adjusted the course of the plane to investigate. As they closed the distance they soon saw the Anderson's orange PFDs and made out the 4 people on the hull. John knew to keep some flares in the event any boats or aircraft closed in. He fired several. The 144 passed over.


John pondered, "Do they dip a wing like they do in the movies to let you know they saw you?" Had they been seen? The 144 crew let the helo and boat crew know the position of the survivors.


The helo crew arrived and deployed rescue swimmer Andrew Wagner to stabilize the situation. The Station Venice rescue boat soon came on scene. Andrew carefully swam each family member over to the rescue boat where the boat crew hoisted them aboard. Yes, the Anderson's were going to make it home.


The Coast Guard's vigilance, adaptability and teamwork made a lifesaving difference. The Command Center team worked closely together and decided to shift the search area. The boat crew's watchful eyes that located items as small as plastic bag helped assure the team they were looking in the right place. Robert and Pierce trusting their gut and going with FLIR was a vital piece of the response. It was truly a masterful "team Coast Guard" SAR case where every individual action and every team action delivered success.


John's experience as a professional mariner unquestionably played out in his favor in his preparation and response. The faulty radio being a no-go was critical. It was an understandably difficult decision to make to postpone the long awaited trip to go buy and install a new radio. They bought and wore orange life jackets. Had the boat sank completely they could have survived for days in the warm Gulf waters. The Orange PFDs make a great search target. The decision to stay with the boat and thinking to have rope to lash themselves together if the boat sank was smart. The detailed float plan could have paid off.


As is always the case in incidents like this, John said he'd do some things differently if he had to do it all over again. An EPIRB or PLB could have made a lifesaving difference and certainly would have sped the recovery. John said he'd more cautious with the ditch kit and make sure someone has it in hand when things start going badly. A GPS VHF radio will continuously display a latitude and longitude, and when programmed properly will allow the position to be broadcast with the flip of a switch. Cell phone coverage is spotty and unreliable in the Gulf, but John sees value in keeping cell phones in a waterproof case.


Copilot Brandon Decardenas talked about FLIR capability. The conditions weren't ideal for it, but it was worth a try. He thinks that because John stood up on the hull, FLIR was able to pick up his heat signature. He also noted that John waited until the plane got very close before he fired a flare. Brandon said that a flare fired forward of the aircraft will put off an impressive signature on FLIR from many miles away.


And one last thing John might do. He'll listen more closely to his neighbor and friend, "Pastor Shane." You see, two nights before the Andersons took their maiden voyage, Shane had a dream their boat sank.

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Last edited by USCG Safe Boating D8; 08-10-2020 at 07:37 AM.

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08-10-2020, 07:42 AM
El Comandante
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Personally I would never take young children that far offshore on a small boat especially on its maiden voyage wo a buddy boat.
Glad it ended well.
Old 08-10-2020, 07:42 AM
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Personally I would never take young children that far offshore on a small boat especially on its maiden voyage wo a buddy boat.
Glad it ended well.
Old 08-10-2020, 07:42 AM
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Well written and thank you for posting this. Over and over again THT members discuss the value of a PLB or EPIRB. It should be made a mandatory piece of equipment for vessels that venture offshore. Life jackets are required, flares are required, fire extinguishers are required, why not a $250 PLB???

So so glad that this situation ended like this, we have all followed along in recent years to similar situations that did not have a good outcome.

Skip buying that rod and reel combo and get yourself a PLB!
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Old 08-10-2020, 07:53 AM
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Love happy endings. Thanks for sharing.
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Old 08-10-2020, 07:57 AM
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All I can come up with is WOW. Story gave me chills. Excellent job by USCG and the captain of the vessel. Glad everyone is home safe. Will absolutely learn some things from this story.
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Old 08-10-2020, 08:09 AM
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Originally Posted by UPPERbaycrabNfish View Post
All I can come up with is WOW. Story gave me chills. Excellent job by USCG and the captain of the vessel. Glad everyone is home safe. Will absolutely learn some things from this story.
When you look at the picture of us bringing that precious child aboard and think about the captain's decision to go buy and install a new VHF, it's truly moving.
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Old 08-10-2020, 08:11 AM
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Thank you for posting this. Very well written. The capabilities, technologies and perseverance of the US Coast Guard is truly amazing. And sometimes it comes down to gut instinct, based on much experience, to make a change. Like going with FLIR.
This story really illustrates the value of having a PLB and having a VHF radio with an operating DSC. One punch of the red button and the Coast Guard would have had the exact location.
Old 08-10-2020, 08:16 AM
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Outstanding work USCG. What a great feeling when you make a save. Mission accomplished.
Rescue work was my life.
Old 08-10-2020, 08:18 AM
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Originally Posted by PatSea32 View Post
Thank you for posting this. Very well written. The capabilities, technologies and perseverance of the US Coast Guard is truly amazing. And sometimes it comes down to gut instinct, based on much experience, to make a change. Like going with FLIR.
This story really illustrates the value of having a PLB and having a VHF radio with an operating DSC. One punch of the red button and the Coast Guard would have had the exact location.
In researching this, I learned just how good our 144's FLIR is. I talked to the captain about VHF/DSC. Even as a professional captain, he didn't understand it well enough to appreciate its value.
Old 08-10-2020, 08:22 AM
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Awesome story! Great read! Glad the Captain was well prepared.

I know there was one mention of only one through hull....for the bilge pump. So, what was the cause of the water ingress?
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Old 08-10-2020, 08:25 AM
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Originally Posted by BlueShamu View Post
Awesome story! Great read! Glad the Captain was well prepared.

I know there was one mention of only one through hull....for the bilge pump. So, what was the cause of the water ingress?
The Captain never could be sure how the water was coming in.
Old 08-10-2020, 08:27 AM
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Stories like these need shared over and over. Especially with the happy endings, but also those without, because every single one of us needs to be reminded of the risks associated with boating. Especially those of us in the Gulf or at Sea anywhere (and some large lakes). We can never be too cautious.
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Old 08-10-2020, 08:31 AM
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Originally Posted by eman6501 View Post
Stories like these need shared over and over. Especially with the happy endings, but also those without, because every single one of us needs to be reminded of the risks associated with boating. Especially those of us in the Gulf or at Sea anywhere (and some large lakes). We can never be too cautious.
I am running the story here and on another large forum. I also posted on Facebook and shared to 10 or so other groups. I suspect it will get shared widely. Telling a story like this is far more effective than me preaching.
Old 08-10-2020, 08:37 AM
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For such a planned out first trip Iím surprised the captain didnít do a nearshore or inshore trial run. I guess my trust in new boats is skeptical as Iíve learned over the years my maiden voyage I stay about 15 mins from the boat ramp

Great write up and happy ending thanks for sharing.
Old 08-10-2020, 08:38 AM
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Originally Posted by eman6501 View Post
Stories like these need shared over and over. Especially with the happy endings, but also those without, because every single one of us needs to be reminded of the risks associated with boating. Especially those of us in the Gulf or at Sea anywhere (and some large lakes). We can never be too cautious.

Agreed on the sharing. Every story has a lesson that can be passed along. This guy learned a lesson that everyone can gain from.
Old 08-10-2020, 08:39 AM
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Originally Posted by kwipp View Post
For such a planned out first trip Iím surprised the captain didnít do a nearshore or inshore trial run. I guess my trust in new boats is skeptical as Iíve learned over the years my maiden voyage I stay about 15 mins from the boat ramp

Great write up and happy ending thanks for sharing.
I think a "shakedown" cruise is a great idea as well.
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Old 08-10-2020, 08:45 AM
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Tldr
Old 08-10-2020, 08:50 AM
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How does a 20í open (notched) transom boat have twin outboards? We had an 18í wellcraft, 1985 with a 120 hp Johnson and that was it.

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Old 08-10-2020, 08:50 AM
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Great success story with a happy ending. So glad everyone is okay. This is an excellent reminder that the sea does not care how prepared, or unprepared you are. Even though we only take our boat to inland waters usually near other boaters, it makes me feel like an idiot for ignoring our faulty VHF radio.

Excellent job USCG!
Old 08-10-2020, 08:53 AM
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Good story and great outcome!

Seems the captain should have tested the boat in the water prior to an overnight trip. Would have been smart to do a day cruise and leave the boat tied to a dock overnight to make sure it was water tight.
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