Life and Death and Abby’s EPIRBs

The news about sixteen-year-old Abby Sunderland’s recent rescue has everyone asking questions.  Debates – mostly useless ones – about what her parents were thinking or the value of exploration and adventure will be what sailors talk about for a while.  Abby will return to her home, do some interviews, maybe even hit a talk show or two and soon enough we’ll leave the Sunderland’s alone.  Inquiries about her age and experience, or the decision to sail the Indian in Winter, and about the risks in general have most people who know me asking me what I think.  I wanted to wait until after her rescue to weigh in because I knew what most people seemed to forget including my friends, and the media, and young Abby and certainly her relieved parents: Her heavy-weather, high-seas, ship to ship rescue would be the most dangerous part of her trip.

The now ubiquitous device that certainly saved Abby Sunderland’s life, the EPIRB, saves roughly 1,500 mariners every year (source: cospas-sarsat).  As a former rescue professional I can’t help but love the things myself.  Removing the “search” from search and rescue has made all the difference to imperiled sailors and rescuers alike.  Less search time means increased chances for success and positive outcomes, so how could anyone not love and recommend the EPIRB?  They are, to my mind, the single greatest advancement to safety at sea since John Harrison invented the marine chronometer. But – here it comes – they are also (again, to my mind) large contributors to maritime accidents – like Ms. Sunderland’s – and might be the thing that get’s some mariners into trouble to begin with.  Yes, I said that.  Sometimes, EPIRBS do more harm than good.  Abby got lucky.

There is simply no way to imagine that the Sunderland’s decision to allow their sixteen-year-old daughter (and seventeen-year-old son before her) to venture out to sea alone was not influenced by the modern EPIRB.  She was carrying two of them aboard.  “Radio’s – check; SATCOM – check; Way to pinpoint your location and call for help if things go wrong? – check and check.”  The electronic “Time-Out” button provides a LOT of comfort to all of us who go to sea and I’m certainly not complaining; again, I love the things.  However, mariners need to address the growing and unspoken trend to rely on these devices as a replacement for an abundance of caution and judgment.  Yes – I can see many of you throwing the yellow flags thinking that I don’t know what the Sunderland’s considered; and that I can’t know that they were using the EPIRB as a replacement for caution.  Sorry, but I can.  Does anyone truly believe that if there were no EPIRBS – the Sunderland’s would have sent their little girl out there…all alone?  I don’t.  What do I think? With everything I am I believe that this thought – “If anything goes wrong, she can always call for rescue” is what made it all feel o.k. to everyone involved with the decision to let her go.  That thought has been at the root of more bad decisions and rolled around in the heads of those stranded at sea since the first year the devices hit the market.  Abby Sunderland was just the latest case, not the first, and she definitely wont be the last.

In my career I have seen more risky decisions made, some of which ended very unhappily, because the EPIRB was used as a sort of “Easy Button” to reset the game when things went bad.  There is no other way to explain three guys with two weeks sailing experience between them taking a trip across the Atlantic in January, or an insane french kid trying to row from New York back to France with little training, or foolish attempts to break age records for…whatever.  Sailboats have been around for a long time. That attempts to push limits of judgment and reason coincide with the advent of the 406 EPIRB is no coincidence.  Why didn’t some 16 year-old sail solo around the world in 1950?  Because, it would have been a wildly stupid thing to do and his parents would have tied him to a chair to stop him, that’s why.

The other thing is that knowing where you are and that you’re in trouble will always compel rescuers to go.  Everyone wanted Abby’s safe rescue and breathed a little easier when we learned of it this morning.  Everyone of us also needs to remember that a list of those hurt (or worse) during at sea rescues, or of those never found….with or without their EPIRBs…would be very long indeed.  Confirmed now is the fact that the captain of the fishing boat that rescued Ms. Sunderland fell overboard and had to be rescued himself. Safe rescue is not as automatic as the devices we carry.  Being found does not always mean being saved. The conditions that caused the problems are often still around and rescue sometimes (o.k. – usually) means someone else risking their life for the ones in trouble.

To a person, I know that rescuers never mind taking the risk.  That risk, however, is a fact that must be considered when you throw off the lines and head out to the big water.  Having the ability to tell the world that you are in trouble out there doesn’t mean that you will be anything other than “out there” in the most hostile and unpredictable environment on earth.  BIG MAIN POINT: If you need help – by all means call for it in any way that you can.  But dockside, before you decide to take a trip anywhere for any reason, realize this:  You are not taking the risk alone.  Adventure sailors- and anyone else who goes to sea (me included) –  take the people they might call on for rescue along for the ride.  What the EPIRB means is you can push a button now and risk someone else’s life too.

To be clear (again) I am not saying the EPIRBs are bad.  I suggesting that perhaps, we are using them incorrectly.  EPIRBs are last ditch wonder-flares for distressed mariners lost at sea – for that purpose they are my favorite must-have things aboard any vessel.  They should never be used as a planning tool.  They are not to be taken into account when making ANY decisions about what is safe and what isn’t, about what you can handle and what you can’t, they will not keep you out of trouble.  If you don’t feel safe making the trip without them, then you have no business making the trip at all.

All of that to one side – I’m very glad that young Ms. Sunderland survived and that she will be home soon in the arms of her family, with thanks to the truly courageous fisherman who rescued her at great personal risk – 2000 miles at sea in heavy weather.

Mr. and Mrs. Sunderland – you know way more about sailing than I do, and far more about Abby’s abilities than anyone.  What I know is this; that was very, very close.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Coast Guard.