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Hams Help Out with Sea Rescue

12/16/2009

When Dave Nicholson, N2AWE, was stranded at sea earlier this month off the Bermuda Triangle, he had no fuel and his 47 foot sailboat had sustained severe damage in a storm. When they learned of his predicament, hams with the Maritime Mobile Service Net (MMSN) helped to coordinate with the US Coast Guard to bring fuel and a tow boat to guide Nicholson safely to port.

On December 1, Nicholson contacted the MMSN seeking weather information, telling the Net Control Station he had sustained damage to his boat during some foul weather the previous night. "His sails were damaged beyond usability, a fuel tank had busted loose and numerous other problems were at hand, including the remaining fuel had been contaminated," Richard Webb, NF5B, told the ARRL. "The net provided him with weather guidance and forecasts for his part of the world -- between Bermuda and the Bahamas -- and he went on his way."

Nicholson again contacted the MMSN each day on the next two days. On December 3, he asked for some weather routing, not just a forecast. "I then ran a phone patch to a recognized weather router in Florida for him," Webb recounted. "We also queried him as to his status, food and water availability and such. He told us his wife, who was with him, was a bit battered and bruised during the storm [that damaged their boat]." The next day, the MMSN arranged for Herb Hilgenberg, VE3LML, a marine weather router, to be on frequency to offer assistance to Nicholson.

Bill Sturridge, KI4MMZ, telephoned Fred Moore, W3ZU, asking for Moore to come on 40 meters to assist with getting the Coast Guard in touch with Nicholson. "We made several phone patches between the US Coast Guard in Miami and Nicholson," Moore said. ""We also established a radio watch to maintain regular communications with the vessel until the band went long, due to the fact that Nicholson was too near Florida." Coast Guard officials spoke with Nicholson, but he still was not ready to declare an emergency. "He just wanted to make the Coast Guard aware of his situation," Moore said.

According to Moore, the Coast Guard asked him to maintain a watch on 2182 kHz until shorter skip returned the next day. "Over Saturday evening, the Coast Guard attempted to have a vessel rendezvous with Nicholson to transfer some fuel, but Nicholson refused to take any fuel, as he wasn't sure if he could store it or utilize it at this point," Webb said. "On Sunday afternoon around 1700 UTC, I conducted a phone patch to the Coast Guard from Nicholson. During this patch, we discussed possible fuel deliveries. The Coast Guard said they would put out a request for nearby commercial vessels to provide some diesel fuel for Nicholson."

Webb said that Nicholson "could only rely on a solar panel to charge his batteries to operate his radio equipment and what other electronics had survived [the storm]. He had no autopilot, no navigational computer, no Winlink or other capability. He had the ham bands and the VHF marine channel 16 available, but with limited battery power."

Because of Nicholson's precarious situation, Webb said that MMSN decided to "guard on 40 and 80 meters for the nighttime hours and we arranged with operators to guard those frequencies. Nicholson did not make any of the nighttime schedules, which followed the regular two hour pattern set up over the previous days. Even if Dave did not make the other daytime schedules, he always made the 1700-1800 time slot on 14300 kHz to get the weather and update us on his position."

On December 7, Webb conducted another phone patch between the Coast Guard and Nicholson. The Coast Guard said they would send out another message for vessels to assist with a fuel delivery. "Later that afternoon," Webb told the ARRL, "we relayed a message to Nicholson from the Coast Guard that a tanker would endeavor to rendezvous with him to transfer some diesel fuel."

Moore said that the Coast Guard had located a Swedish commercial merchant ship that was willing to provide Nicholson some much needed diesel fuel. "In the wee hours of the morning," he said, "the captain of the commercial vessel advised me that he had delivered the fuel but the engine on Nicholson's boat was not functioning, was dead in the water without lights and was, in his words, a 'hazard to navigation.'" Webb relayed that the commercial vessel's captain had advised Nicholson to "abandon [the boat] and turn in a claim to the insurance carrier right away." Later that day, the Coast Guard located a seagoing tug to go on site and meet up with Nicholson. The tug then towed his family and boat to Nassau, arriving 36 hours later, around 2000 UTC.

Steve Carpenter, K9UA, told the ARRL that he kept Nicholson's father informed of the rescue via landline, per Nicholson's request: "The father -- who is 88 years young -- was very thankful for all the effort taken by the ham radio operators involved and for the time it took to keep him informed until the final report that his son and family aboard were taken into port safe and sound."



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