Perhaps, I’ve told you this story. Somehow, it bears repeating. About 25 years ago, now. On Memorial Day weekend, as I recall. My friend, Kevin, and I had taken our families and boats out to Santa Cruz Island—one of the Channel Islands offshore Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, in what’s known as central California. The weather was pretty crummy, and we had cut the holiday weekend outing short. Wives and kids had headed for home. Kevin and I were still in the “underway mode.”
We went back aboard Raindance, my 30 foot sailboat in her slip in the Oxnard boat harbor. For some reason, instead of shucking sail covers, slipping dock lines, and heading for sea; we got interested in listening to the VHF calls coming from boats that hadn’t come in “early,” as we had. It was kicking up pretty good outside the jetty entrance. At one point, that afternoon, there were at least a half-dozen distress calls being sorted out and dealt with simultaneously by an obviously taxed LA Coast Guard SAR Ops center. Two boats were reporting taking on water, one or two with fires, a swimmer foundering in the surf, and a medical emergency were all crackling in and out of the static. Most of these calls were coming from boats roughly following the track we had taken the afternoon prior. When, conditions were just unpleasant. Not yet, dangerous.
Of course, we were second guessing the Coastie handling those calls. Conveniently ignoring the fact that he had a much wider listening area to monitor and keep track of, with his high site antenna, than we could muster from a short whip barely 40 feet above sea level at Raindance’s truck.
By then, our “plan” to sail up the coast to Ventura Harbor and meet the families for ice cream had pretty much evaporated. The real-time stuff coming in volleys of clipped procedural language and anguished cries of people calling for assistance became compelling. Still, the local area chart was spread out on the chart table; in preparation for getting underway. I had casually marked lat/long posits as they came across. As was my habit in those days, I marked tracks and calculated probable SOA (speed of advance) when the information allowed.
Then, a truly heartbreaking call broke through. A lady was pleading for help. Almost incoherent. She was attempting to report a man overboard. It took precious minutes for first an on-scene civilian boat, then the Ventura Harbor Patrol to sort out the fact that she was aboard a boat headed directly for the surf. Through some just plain heroics on the part of the patrol officer, she was rescued before running ashore. Then, as the MOB SAR went into action, her story came out in pieces. The skipper, and only other person on her boat, had gone overboard nearly an hour prior. They were on autopilot, heading from Santa Cruz Island, to Ventura. She didn’t know how to disconnect the autopilot, nor how to manage the boat. It had taken nearly an hour for her to figure out how to turn on the radio and call for help.
I had their course and probable speed. I knew when Kevin and I would have gotten underway. The wind had been pretty constant, and assuming a double-reefed smash out to windward; I laid out our probable track. It crossed with the MOB boat at almost exactly the spot her skipper went overboard.
In my time at sea, I’ve rescued lots of people. Some from drowning, some from shipwreck. Some from inconvenience, and embarrassment. Not that day. I wasn’t “there.” Apparently, nobody else was, either.