To the life raft!
It had been close to 4 hours since we had capsized, Adam and I had been rowing since 2am with no rest, and none of us had eaten a full meal since 1900 hours the night before. It was time to rest, recoup, and come up with a plan of attack for getting the boat upright. After tossing around a few ideas for future plans and busting out the only reading material on the life raft, a mini bible, we settled in. The unmistakable roar of a flat bellied C-130 (USCG I know it wasn’t a C-130, it was an HC-144 who arrived on scene first and a C-130 who showed up later but we did start singing “C-130 rolling down the strip…”) filled the air. It couldn’t have been flying more than a few hundred feet off the deck, and with choked voices and red eyes, we quickly reasoned it wasn’t a site-seeing tour looking for whales. The choked voices and red eyes could easily have been from the hours of yelling and swimming in salt water or maybe being overcome with joy I can’t quite remember. Barrels were dropped to us from the aircraft. The task of dropping a barrel on a target from a plane is a tough one . Add in the factors of wind, current, waves and humans below and this difficult task becomes monumental. A VHF radio in one of the barrels gave us our first voice contact of the day. Our own handheld radio was trapped in the bow compartment that was still safely locked and dry, keeping our boat buoyant. The rescue crew was happy to hear that we were all four safe and uninjured. A boat was on its way to pick us up, did we need anything? Well honestly we could have used a couple of good jokes, but we decided it wasn’t time to broach that subject on an emergency frequency. They did us one better though. For the next many hours they would circle over head checking in every half hour and would not leave our side until they confirmed all four of us were safely onboard our rescue vessel.
The USCG informed us what sounded like the “Motor Vessel Hygiene” was on it’s way to pick us up since the other motor vessel Tanais Leader , who also answered the distress call, had it’s next port of call in St Petersburg (Russia, not Florida). Not that we wouldn’t have appreciated any ride at that moment but an international incident was less than advisable. We played an interesting game of twister for the next few hours as we waited for the Hygiene to arrive. At one point Adam was massaging Markus’ foot at another I was half asleep curled up against Jordan. We swapped stories and theorized the Hygiene could only be a luxurious megayacht from the Caribbean filled with sun kissed female dental hygienists ready to pull us aboard and help fix Adam’s broken tooth (it happened around week 4 or so of the trip). When the Heijin entered the horizon we realized we had been a bit off. It was a 25 story car carrier ship sometimes referred to as a RORO or Roll On Roll Off. They spotted our raft and began their approach. We were told to cut loose from the JRH to make the final maneuvering easier. The ship circled us twice, getting the raft within 1-2m of the starboard side. Let me reiterate this. A MASSIVE cargo ship that was easily 25 stories tall and as long as a city block circled our life raft, which was barely able to hold 4 full grown men, not once but several times. Before we were on deck we were in awe of the captain, pilot, and crew. It was nerve racking but after a few passes we grabbed a rope tossed from mid deck and one by one swung onto the 40 ft rope ladder to climb aboard. I stepped off the ladder and was greeted with the hospitality of a 5 star hotel. A warm woolen blanket straight from the dryer was wrapped around me, hands held me upright, and i was quickly ushered inside. Did i need medical attention? Was I ok? Did i need anything at all? Once the four of us were on board we were slowly taken up to the main deck. “Take it easy for your first steps on semi-dry land boys… No, we’re not letting you take the stairs, get in the elevator…Let’s get this ball rolling on documentation and then you can relax with hot showers and a fresh meal.” To say we were humbled by their generosity and graciousness is an understatement. Warm showers, full meals, movies to watch, shoes to wear, and cold beers with off duty officers all the while outfitted in the finest NYK orange jumpsuits.
Watch that 1st step
Once docked in San Juan, Petty Officer Harper, of the U.S. Coast Guard, calmly explained the circus we were about to step into. Yet at every step of the way we were only greeted by friendly faces and a helping hand. The border patrol were nothing but pleasant. The first word out of their mouths was an apology about the uncomfortable backseat of the car we climbed into. We had been in a rowboat for 72 days, I told them. The backseat was plush living to us. They attempted to find shoes for Adam’s size 14 feet without being asked and all came out to chat with us while we got cleared. It was the sort of welcome you hope for when arriving home, especially with travel weary foreign friends.. We made it back onto a USCG boat and assured them the “tippiness” didn’t bother us one bit. Family and friends filled the docks and cheered as our boat approached. “Well, are you guys coming on land or what?” We quickly disembarked. Unfortunately, in my eagerness to hop up and hug my family while attempting to look steady on weary legs, I slipped through a slot on the dock. I popped up to a horrific hush and burst out “And I’m back in the water again!” I raised my arms as Adam and Jordan pulled me back on shore, AGAIN. The crowd breathed a sigh of relief and the hugs poured forth. As we walked inside to debrief, a Coast Guard Officer chatted with me. He offered another set of dry clothes, a praise for our preparedness at sea, and the final comment, “A job well done son, but you need to stay out of the pool.”