Worst Case Scenario
In the spring of 2011, three yacht captains responded to a distress call concerning a missing diver off the coast of Cat Cay in The Bahamas. Captains Baron Rohl, Russ Grandinetti and Michael Galgana were located in Bimini when the missing diver’s wife initiated a distress call to the United States Coast Guard.
“I was docked [in Bimini] and monitoring [channel] 16 in the pilot- house when I overheard the distress call,” says Grandinetti. “[The caller] was obviously on the edge of panic; you could hear it in her voice. The Coast Guard began repeating a lot of the same questions, and after each answer she would plead, ‘Are you coming?’ and instead of responding to her question, they would ask her another. I remembered thinking to myself, they’re not taking her seriously and I did not think they were coming. I couldn’t take it anymore. I hopped in my tender to help search for the missing diver.”
As Grandinetti was underway in his inflatable heading out to assist, he overheard Rohl (accompanied by Galgana) on the radio asking the female in distress to identify landmarks she could see from her position. By sheer happenstance, Rohl and Grandinetti had known each other for many years, both having operated fast ferries in New York Harbor prior to 9/11. “Although we both had run some very high-tech boats, in that life and death situation, we had nothing but radio communication and a couple of boats with motors,” Rohl says.
The captains admit that they were operating on instinct. “The radio on Baron’s boat kept cutting out, and in my haste I had hopped in my boat without binoculars,” Grandinetti says. “This was not a high-tech rescue; it was very much an exercise in listening to the voice in your head and using what you know.”
Fortunately for the lost diver, the two vessels managed to execute a perfect search pattern and found him just as daylight was running out. In an interview with Dockwalk, the captains were reluctant to congratulate themselves for saving the diver; instead, they were anxious to share lessons they learned from the rescue.
“I feel like a lot of captains are way too dependent on technology these days and that too many yachts are detached from their surroundings. There were dozens and dozens of boats in the area and only three helped in the search. I know of captains who do not keep the pilothouse radio on 16 because it’s too [noisy]. There are a lot of captains who don’t want to be bothered responding to another vessel in distress,” Grandinetti explained, frustrated. “There is no such thing as 911 at sea — we’ve got to be willing to look out for each other.”
“We searched for over two hours,” Rohl says, “and after all the questions and radio communications, neither the USCG or BASRA ever arrived to help in the search.... I would really like to know why.”
LCDR Matt Moorlag with the Seventh Coast Guard District had an explanation. After looking into the incident, Moorlag explained that because The Bahamas is a sovereign nation, the USCG operates in a different capacity than mariners might expect when in U.S. waters. For the situation in Bimini, the responding USCG station was in Andros and coordinating with sector Miami. “What every mariner should know is that before resources can be deployed, there are certain steps that must take place, the first of which is to get basic information. You are going to be asked to identify your position and give your lat and long. You are going to be asked the nature of the distress. They are then going to ask you to identify the number and description of people on the boat, as well as a detailed vessel description. This is essential information we require for all search and rescue events. Before the rescue effort begins, resources must be made ready; this includes putting together a mission brief, following standard preflight procedures and establishing a mission safety model. . . . For events in U.S. waters, our goal is to launch in under thirty minutes, but in The Bahamas, it’s not unreasonable for launch to take considerably longer. . . . Mariners should be cognizant that The Bahamas is a sovereign nation and prepare accordingly,” explains Moorlag.
The report available from the Coast Guard in the immediate aftermath of this incident indicated that while still in pre-launch procedures, the USCG received word that a diver had come ashore on South Bimini, and the search was then called off just as resources were preparing to launch.
“I had a feeling that may have been what happened,” Rohl says, “and it just goes to show how bad the communication really was during the rescue. We heard the same report while searching — that a diver had come ashore on South Bimini — and, although it was near our search area, I knew it couldn’t be him.” Rohl reasons that the diver who had come ashore met the description of the missing diver, but having once had the misfortune of getting lost on a dive himself, Rohl knew “the first thing he was going to do was ditch his tank. If you ever have tried swimming for shore with a spent dive tank, you know you’d ditch the tank, it just did not jibe with me that he was the missing diver.” It was nearly an hour later when the real missing diver finally was found, alive and unscathed — and without his dive tank as Rohl suspected.
“The USCG is appreciative of captains like [Rohl, Grandinetti and Galgana],” Moorlag says. “Good Samaritans are an integral part of safety of life at sea; they are force multipliers for us and very often assist in saving lives.” In light of his recent res- cue participation, Grandinetti says, “For guys like Baron and me, we believe that there is a brotherhood among mariners and everyone who goes to sea. Pay sharp attention and listen to your instincts. You have to rely less on technology and tools and more on the skills you have and what you know.”