My partner, Hale, and I were tacking back and forth just beyond the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream aboard our Kelly Peterson 44, Cayuga, waiting for daylight so we could enter the Bahama Bank, when we heard a boat calling on the VHF, “Mayday, Mayday. We are taking on water and are in danger of sinking.” We waited and listened, hoping the U.S. Coast Guard might reply. But there was no response so we answered the call and asked for the boat’s name and position. When they gave us their GPS coordinates, we saw they were only seven miles away.
We first tried to relay their Mayday call, hoping a powerboat would answer and could get to them quickly. We also thought the Coast Guard might hear us. But no one responded. We asked the boat whether they needed assistance and when they said “yes,” we knew it was up to us to start heading their way.
We had just enjoyed three perfect days of sailing along the Georgia and Florida coasts before heading across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. But with a cold front rolling in behind us, our weather window for getting into port was already tight. We had planned to be safely anchored before the wind kicked up, but now we were turning back west, into the Gulf Stream and a building southwesterly headwind, to reach the vessel in distress. We maintained intermittent radio contact with the boat on channel 16 and tried to get more details. Though the radio crackled with static, we could hear panic in their voices.
We learned the boat was a 38-foot ketch I’ll call Affliction with two men on board who were bailing with buckets and expected to have to abandon ship. In time the Coast Guard heard our side of the conversation and we acted as a relay for them. We decided Hale alone should operate the radio so no one would get confused hearing different voices from our boat. I monitored conversations from the helm via the remote mike in the cockpit while Hale remained below out of the wind. The Coast Guard offered to come and perform a rescue, but Affliction’s crew didn’t want to give up control of their ship to the Coast Guard. They preferred that we sail in company with them and bring them aboard if necessary.
But now we were having a few troubles of our own. Because this was our first long trip on our new boat we had not yet calibrated our autopilot. We figured hand steering the boat on this trip would familiarize us with its motion and that we would later calibrate the pilot on a calm day in the Bahamas.
Normally, hand steering would pose no problem because we could switch off at three-hour intervals. But after the distress call came in, I ended up on the helm for seven hours! My arms were on fire from the stress. And when we had to reef down because of the building wind, I was concentrating so hard on getting to Affliction that the jib ripped before I knew what was happening.
At this point, we thought again about whether we should continue sailing west into building seas. Our window for getting ourselves into a safe anchorage by nightfall was rapidly closing. And we had our own concerns. Because Affliction’s crew seemed so concerned about maintaining custody of their vessel, we wondered if perhaps the situation was not as serious as they indicated. We were definitely damaging our own boat trying to save them, but then we thought about how much we’d want help if we were frightened and our boat was sinking, so we carried on.
Hale continued to try calling other boats on channel 16. We saw several sport fishermen speeding by in the distance, but none answered our call. Finally, Hale did contact a Bahamian pump boat that offered to come pump out Affliction and tow her to shore. At first Affliction’s crew agreed to this. But after the pump boat got halfway to them they sent it back. We could not understand this decision, but I suspect they were concerned about getting involved in a dispute over salvage rights.
After beating to windward in heavy seas for three hours, we finally reached Affliction. We turned and followed them for four more hours as we sailed south together. The wind continued building and finally we were forced to drop all sail and motor the last few miles to a marina on Grand Bahama. It was now very late in the afternoon, the wind was blowing over 30 knots, and we were tired and battered. But we also knew the other boat was now safe.
That should have been the end of the story. We had upheld the law of the sea by helping another vessel in distress. But then we met the two sailors we had assisted in the marina. One of them never even said hello to me; the other did thank us, but was not enthusiastic in any way. I did learn they had set out without testing any of the gear aboard and that the boat’s bilge pump had been installed incorrectly so that it was siphoning water into the boat rather than pumping it out. There was no backup or manual pump aboard, and the only radio was a handheld VHF, which explains why the Coast Guard couldn’t hear them.
What bothered me wasn’t that Affliction’s crew were ungrateful, but rather that they seemed to be completely oblivious to the consequences of their Mayday call. They had left Florida, for a two-week cruise to the Abacos, but weren’t experienced enough to know their carelessness and lack of preparation had not only put them in danger, but had involved the Coast Guard, the Bahamian pump boat operator, and, of course, us.