This is the story of the Rescue of Two Bahamian Fishermen by John and Shelly Roberts on SV LONG REACH
Long Reach is a Lagoon 420 and our first boat and our first season cruising. We left our homeport of Little River, SC on Christmas Day 2019 for Fort Lauderdale. We met up with two wonderful buddy boats, Shiloh and Alley Cat, in Lake Sylvia. They became our family and forever friends over the course of the next 5 ½ months. We had been in the Bahamas since January and had made our way to the Raggeds and spent four months there during COVID-19. We left the Raggeds with another set of two buddy boats, Panache and Shanen, to head back to the US.
We parted ways with Panache and Shanen, again finding forever friends. Wednesday morning at 0453 on June 3, 2020 we raised our anchor for the final time in the Bahamian waters heading for our home marina in Little River, SC. We planned to depart from Bullocks Harbour, off the Island of Great Harbour Cay, with a buddy boat named Helacious (monohaul) and her owners Brian and Helen Russell. We met them the day before in our anchorage and discovered that their course would take them past Little River Inlet. Our wind and depth instruments, brand new at the beginning of the season, had only sporadically worked over the last month and currently were not working at all. Helacious had a working wind indicator and they could get weather updates twice a day. We knew this would help us along our 4-day passage. As we were leaving before the sun came up, anchored cruise ships were lit up in the darkness. There were 6 that we saw near us and another five that were off in the distance that we could see on our AIS list.
The first 10 hours of the crossing, we would be ran down wind, with wind speeds around 15-18 knots and following seas. We chose to set full sails with a wing on wing configuration with preventers to keep them as controlled as possible. Helacious was doing about 7.5 knots and we were only able to muster up about 6.5 knots. As not to get too separated, John would turn on one of our engines once they got 2nm away to close the gap down to 1nm. Around 1800 (85nm out) on Wednesday evening Helacious’ mizzen pole and lines became tangled from the rocking of the ocean and they had very little control of their sails and could not even lower them. They radioed us and said they were going to have to head into the Grand Bahama Island, which at this point was about 17nm off our starboard. John told them of the anchorage where our other buddy boats from the Raggeds, Panache and Shannon, would be and that they would be able to assist them. We asked Helacious if they wanted us to go with them. They said that they were stable and for us to carry on if we were comfortable doing the passage alone. We decided we had a good window to get back to Little River so we decided to head home. There was a storm front expected to push into Little River on Sunday and we really wanted to make it into the marina before that arrived.
Wednesday night was a very pleasant sail with the Genoa up and still alternating engines to keep our speed above the 6 knots we needed to make into Little River on Saturday. Thursday morning winds were light so we raised the main sail to see if we could keep our speed above 6 knots without the engines. It was a beautiful sail averaging 7.5 knots. The wind died down at 1400 and turned directly behind us with confused seas so we turned into the wind and dropped the main sail. The preventer line that we were using on the mainsail had frayed at the block on the aft port cleat because the boom kept wanting to sway and bounce.
Approximately 20 minutes later a US Coast Guard MC-144A airplane flew low off our starboard side and began a slow circle around us. They then hailed us on the VHF channel 16 and asked where we were coming from and what was going to be our port of entry into the US. They told us there was a vessel in distress approximately 5nm southeast of our location, it was a small fishing skiff with two Bahamian fishermen that had been adrift at sea for 3 days. The Coast Guard asked if we would render assistance.
We have to admit that we did pause for a few seconds and run our risk analysis. On one hand we are trying to make Little River before Saturday’s front. We had already run the engines more than we wanted and as usual we were concerned about having enough diesel to get home. It was really no decision to make; we would want fellow sailors or the Coast Guard to help us if we were in need. We knew we also had the option of turning west and going to shore at Hilton Head, Charleston, or Georgetown if we knew that our safety was going to be a concern. We told the CoastGuard that we would indeed assist the two Bahamian fishermen.
We then made a 110-degree turn to starboard and throttled both engines to 2500 rpm to head back against the Gulf Stream. The Coast Guard aircraft radioed us the coordinates and said that they would fly directly over the fishing boat so that we could keep adjusting our course to the drifting fishermen. I had moved to the front deck with the binoculars to get a visual on the fishing skiff, this took a little bit because the waves had increased and the skiff was small. We would have to alter our course northeast to adjust for the current flow as I located them and John adjusted accordingly to make the interception. I readied a line to throw to the fishermen and John maneuvered Long Reach to bring their skiff to our starboard side about mid ship 8 feet away and I threw them the line. They caught it on the first throw. John then turned north and I cleated the line and they tied the other end to their skiff and started to pull themselves into our stern. We had about 30 ft of line to work with and one of the fishermen made quick work of tying this off. The two fishermen, Frankie and Perry, came aboard Long Reach. John throttled up the engines to get separation from their skiff. It took approximately 1.5 hours to get them on board from the time we got the call from the Coast Guard.
Frankie and Perry were exhausted, thirsty, and hungry but mostly relieved that we had come to their rescue. So, how did Perry and Frankie find themselves adrift at sea 140nm from West End Grand Bahama Island? Well they were fishing about 10 miles north of the island and decided to change locations. They started their outboard, picked up their anchor and started to move away when the motor stopped. Try as they may, they could not get the motor started and by then they had drifted into deeper waters and their anchor could not reach the bottom. This story ended up being a laugh quite often during our time together. Perry would say to us, “JUST DROP THE ANCHOR FIRST”.
Once onboard the Coast Guard plane radioed us and said that they were going to do a slow and low fly by on our starboard side and then head back into shore, which they did and we all waved at them as they made their pass. About 15 minutes later a Coast Guard helicopter, that was now in the vicinity, radioed us to see if the fishermen needed any medical assistance. Thankfully none was needed.
The Miami USCG had originally informed us that they were going to arrange a pick up of Frankie and Perry in about two hours. However the MC-144A radioed us again around 1630 and informed us that the plans for a pick up had to be changed just a bit. Now a warship named William Florence would intercept us in about 9 hours around 0130. John admittedly was worried about a night transfer but then again the USCG are professionals and all he would have to do is sit there and hold Long Reach steady.
John was at the helm and plotted our new course based upon where we ended up taking a more direct line into Little River and not hugging the western wall of the stream like we had planned. I start taking care of our new guests and provide them both with water and some snacks until I can get dinner made. John looked down and saw that I had given them his cold beer and a few shots of rum. He just smiles and says they deserve it and finds Frankie and Perry smiling from ear to ear and laughing and thanking us so very much for helping them. John kept us on course while talking to our guests. I make a big pasta dinner for everyone. As we were finishing dinner, a big squall hit and the seas really picked up. At this point, Frankie and Perry realize what could have happened to them during this storm in their small skiff. With full bellies and warm hearts, their appreciation grows and we are so glad we made the decision to help.
Not long after dinner, but before dark, the line we had tied to their skiff snapped about 4 foot from its bow. John had to turn around and go back about 100 yards and get close enough to the skiff so that Perry could jump on it. This was quite a feat in that the waves were about 8 feet and John had to maneuver so that the skiff did not run up on Long Reach with the waves but close enough for Perry to jump from the sugar scoop with a line into their skiff. Well somehow or another we pulled this off and we were able to get the skiff tied off and Perry back on board. Once this was done the guys headed off to bed for some much deserved sleep. John was going to stay on shift while I slept until the warship named William Florence intercepted us.
However, at about 0100 the skiff line snaps yet again. John runs down to the starboard aft cabin where Perry is sleeping and wakes him to help recover the skiff. John had been running only one engine to save diesel, but at this point, he turned on the port engine. This woke me up and I realized that we were heading into the waves and we shouldn’t be. I ran up to the helm to see what is going on and come to find the skiff is gone again.
It was dark and the waves are moderate, about 5-6 feet with small white caps and we are trying to locate the skiff and recover it, which of course has a low profile. Perry spotted it about 50 yards off our starboard quarter stern. John amazingly positioned Long Reach in front of the skiff and backed up towards it (remember we are very new to sailing and this is our first boat – have I mentioned how proud I am of John) to allow Perry, once again, to time the waves to jump into the skiff with a line to tie.
At this point I stayed up for my shift at 0130 and John still had not heard anything from the Coast Guard or the William Florence. At 0530 John came back on shift and at 0600 he started hailing the Coast Guard on the VHF radio but he got no response. We had no idea why they had not come to get Frankie and Perry. We would later learn from our good friends on S/V Panache and S/V Shanen that the Miami Coast Guard had been trying to reach us numerous times on the VHF through the night and were asking any of the boats that were off the coast of Florida to let them know if they spotted us. Of course they initially had no idea what was going on but feared that something must have gone wrong with us and that we were in some type of distress. We still are not sure why they were not able to reach us.
At about 0600 the skiff broke free yet again. John again admittedly paused and thought, “do I just let it go because it is for sure torquing the stern cleat and slowing us down or do we turn around again and go get it?”. The only thing we kept thinking, was, this is their source of income. John beat on the starboard aft cabin to wake Perry. He got Frankie up, but this time the waves were maybe a foot higher and closer together so John got the stern to the skiff at more of a lateral position to the waves. Once again, I am awakened to the port engine and the seas. I looked out our cabin window and see the skiff – NOT TIED. Here we go again, John was able to finally get the stern positioned and Perry made the leap to the skiff but was not able to hold on and fell into the water. John was very nervous for a few seconds, as he put the engines in neutral immediately and he could not see him. John was worried that Perry would be caught between the skiff and our boat or worse, his legs caught in the prop. Perry was quick enough that this did not happen and Frankie was right on top of him letting John know where he was and what was happening. Thank goodness he had a life vest on and he was able to pull himself on the skiff just as quickly as he fell in the water. I am pretty sure he walked on water! John went to the port bow locker and got an even bigger and longer line, which we then attached to the skiff and moved it from the starboard cleat to the port aft cleat.
On Friday morning, June 5, 2020 the Coast Guard utilized the information we provided on our USCG boat registration and called our son in Virginia who was our emergency contact. Thank goodness we had already let him know through our In Reach Satellite what was happening the day before. Our son was able to provide our In Reach contact information to the Coast Guard out of Miami and he also lets us know that they would be contacting us. I was able to communicate with the USCG through the In Reach and they had now determined that they would send the USCG Yellowfin cutter out of Charlestown to intercept us about 72nm southeast off the coast of Charleston around 1430 Friday afternoon.
Frankie and Perry were very happy, but also nervous not knowing what was going to happen next. They didn’t know whether they would be able to keep their skiff or how would they be getting back home. Frankie said, “The good Lord has taken care of us this far and he will continue to take care of us, I got the faith”.
Around 1430 the Yellowfin shows up 8nm away on our AIS making 14knots straight for us. Once they were upon us, John put the engines in idle but kept the transmission engaged and auto-pilot on to keep our boat on a slow but steady course. The Captain of the Yellowfin made radio contact with us and asked us to provide him with a brief overview of whom we had on board and how we picked up the two Bahamian fishermen.
So we kept it very official and informed him in short order. He of course asked the COVID-19 questions of all of us on board which we were happy to report that we were all feeling good with no symptoms. The USCG cutter launched their rescue boat “Big Tuna” out of the back of the cutter with crewmen on board to pick up Perry and Frankie.
Before they left they gave John and I very big hugs and we exchanged contact information and they thanked us again and again. The Big Tuna pulled up to our Starboard sugar scoop and got both of the guys. One of the crewmen handed John a Challenge coin and said that their captain wanted us to have this as a token of the Coast Guard’s appreciation of accepting and successfully completing the rescue.
As we are pulling away to set course towards home, the USCG hailed us again to thank us and tells us that we have successfully completed one of the oldest traditions of mariners – helping each other and says that we have saved these fishermen’s lives. At that point, it really hit home what we had just accomplished.
We make it back to our marina safely well before the front approached with a very good tale to tell. John called Perry and he said that they were still trying to arrange transport of their skiff back to West End. Perry and Frankie were both doing fine. We later received this wonderful letter from the USCG.