Ham radio operators help crew of stranded ship


By COLIN M. STEWART

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Hawaii Island ham radio operators aided Tuesday night in efforts to rescue the two-man crew of a French sailboat stranded on a reef more than 3,500 miles to the southwest of the Hawaiian Islands.

A spokesman reported Wednesday that the U.S. Coast Guard was continuing to monitor the situation involving the “C’est La Vie,” a 53-foot sailboat that had run aground on a reef in western Chuuk Lagoon, near Polle Atoll. As of presstime Wednesday evening, there was no word whether the crew had been recovered.

“They reported that they were taking on water, but that they were doing well, and the apprehension level was low. They had a life raft and safety equipment,” said Chief Warrant Officer Gene Maestas from Honolulu. “They also reported that they believed they could walk ashore on the reef, if necessary.”

Chuuk public safety officials had also been notified.

Tuesday night’s excitement began shortly after Big Island Amateur Radio Club member Richard Darling made contact with fellow club member John Bush around 9 p.m. Tuesday. Bush was in Northern California, testing a radio antenna and system he has been working on for the past year and a half to provide emergency and support communications for communities in the Federated States of Micronesia.

The islands have few modern communications options, he explained, with even fewer lines of communication that reach farther than Guam. In May, Bush was presented with the American Radio Relay League’s 2012 International Humanitarian Award in connection with his efforts to help residents there make contact with far-flung relatives and loved ones in the event of emergencies.

“There are two people we normally work with and take care of there in Yap … and, ironically, the day before (Tuesday) they had just put their antenna in place, and that made the difference in everything working,” Bush said of the encounter.

Around 10 p.m., as they communicated between their friends in Micronesia and Bush in California, Darling and his wife, Barbara, received a distress call from the “C’est La Vie.”

“They said they had a hole and were taking on water and wanted some help,” Barbara Darling, BIARC’s president, explained Wednesday morning. “We ended up calling the Coast Guard in Honolulu, and they relayed the info to Guam.”

Bush explained that the Darlings, from their position in Hawaii, were able to receive a strong signal from the floundering sailboat and collect important data, including their location, the danger level they faced, and other critical information, and then to pass that information on to their friends in Micronesia and Bush in California. Bush was then, in turn, able to pass the information on to the Coast Guard, which then alerted local authorities in Chuuk.

The ham operators were also able to assist the Coast Guard in making direct radio contact with the sailboat, Bush said. But at around 4:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, he received a phone call from the Coast Guard saying that the boat’s radio had gone silent.

It was likely that the radio’s battery had run out, or perhaps been submerged by rising water levels in the boat, Bush said. Or, the transition from night to day may have affected the ability of radio signals to propagate through the Earth’s atmosphere.

In any case, Bush and the Darlings were mostly playing a waiting game Wednesday, waiting to hear word of the crew’s fate.

“Basically, there’s nothing I can do right now. It appears the situation is under control. (Wednesday night), around midnight or 1, I’ll give them (the Coast Guard) a call again and get an update,” Bush said.

As for how the club members view their involvement in the rescue efforts, he said they were happy to help.

“It’s great to see how many people are willing to work very hard when there’s a crisis of this sort,” he said. “It makes you feel good that people will rally to save other people. I don’t look at it as any kind of hero situation. It’s just stuff that needs to be done and you do your best to make sure that in a situation like this, nobody dies.”

Maestas said that he was aware of a few instances where ham radio operators had provided much-needed information in search and rescue operations.

“I’m not familiar with a lot of interaction with ham radio operators, but I have heard that from time to time they’ve picked up conversations and distress calls. It’s not something we engage in frequently, though,” he said. “It’s certainly welcome, however. We appreciate any passing of informaton from civilians.”

He added that other radio operators who may find themselves in a similar situation should remember to collect a few vital pieces of information, including the distressed vessel’s location, including coordinates if possible, the size and name of the vessel, as well as the status of the vessel, and whether there is any immediate threat to life.

People on Hawaii Island who are interested in learning more about ham radio are invited to contact the Big Island Amateur Radio Club at www.biarc.net, or visit the American Radio Relay League at www.arrl.org.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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