ARGOS tracking beacon in position on the boat.
The round clear cap on the right covers the ARGOS "Request Assistance" switch and its cardboard seal. The cap has to be unscrewed and the seal broken before the switch can be activated.
EPIRB in the cabin. The blue switch on top right has to be physically lifted and pushed back 180-degrees to activate.
3 Hours in the Abyss...
January 12, 2007 - Day 187 5.6465N,175.1260W
I was nearly asleep Thursday night, January 10th when at approximately 9:23pm PST (05:23 GMT) the phone rang. Assuming it was Erden, I stumbled to the phone, only to hear Kenneth Crutchlow's voice on the phone, Head of the Ocean Rowing Society in London, England. The time of the call and urgency in his voice told me it was not a social call. He relayed that he had just received a call from CLS ARGOS (headquartered in Toulouse, France) that they had picked up a distress signal reading from Erden's ARGOS tracking beacon, meaning that its "Request Assistance" switch was activated.
Trying to wake myself fully, and feeling my heart race and my mind race further, I followed Kenneth's instructions to get the registration numbers of the EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) on the boat so Kenneth could relay these. I ran downstairs to my office and struggled looking for the paperwork initially saying to myself, "Where is it? Where did I file that paperwork?"
As you can imagine, I am the keeper of MANY files and tons of paperwork on this expedition, and I knew time was of the essence. The more I panicked, the longer it took to find things. I had to remain calm. Breathe...
So what did this mean exactly? Why did the beacon go off? How much danger was he in? He had just posted a dispatch four hours earlier... what could have gone so wrong in that time? Bad storms? He has had many of those. Hit by a ship? Was he injured? How injured? Was he alive?
These questions and hundreds of others were racing through my mind. At the same time, I was trying to remain calm and rational, two qualities that are absolutely necessary in any emergency. I kept asking Kenneth questions as I searched for the numbers. "Is there a possibility that the beacon could have been activated by accident," I asked. His reply: "In all the years we have been following ocean rowers, we have never had an incident where this was activated accidentally. It can't physically happen. Erden would have had to pull the switch." Not the words I was hoping for!
I sent two text messages to Erden's satellite phone and tried calling him twice. His phone was not on. After finally locating the EPIRB registration numbers, Kenneth copied those in a message to the Coast Guard (CG) so they were at least aware that a distress signal was picked up and that Erden's last known coordinates were: 5.900N and 174.279W. We hung up. I sat here... alone, shocked. I needed support.
I first called my dear friend Emily, whose husband Dean answered. Together they heard my fear and committed to be with me throughout this ordeal for whatever I needed. I needed them to stand by with me. I would call them back as soon as I knew more.
Several phone calls went back and forth between Kenneth and his wife Tatiana. So I kept all lines in my home open for their calls, while using my mobile phone to dial up three other friends who I thought would be awake: Brad Vickers (fellow ocean rower and A-n-O board member), Susan Alford (my climbing partner) and Chris Beer (A-n-O legal counsel and good friend). Although I left a message for Brad, I reached Susan and Chris and they both supported me through the agonizing hours that passed. Susan was ready to come over and spend the night. As nice as it would have been to have someone with me, I needed no distractions. I had to be rational. I had to think. I had to be calm. I was comforted knowing that they were all there on stand-by with me, and as Emily said, holding vigil. We were anticipating the worst.
Kenneth called again, saying, "We have no notification that an EPIRB was activated. That usually happens within 15 minutes."
If an EPIRB were also activated, that would mean a distress call and an emergency rescue would be requested. That would mean that Erden was in a life threatening situation. It had now been over an hour with no EPIRB reading. How were we to interpret this? This is good news I thought. But what if Erden was separated from the boat and could not get to an EPIRB? I knew he had one in the cabin and another packed with his life raft, but what if he couldn't get to either? My worst thought was that the boat had been split in two and he was drifting in the water, not attached to the boat, shark infested waters... you know where my mind was taking me. "Snap out of it!" I kept telling myself; these thoughts were not helpful. Stay calm... stay focused. Erden would be furious with me if I let these thoughts take over!
The Marshall Islands were 800 miles to his west. The Solomon Islands were south of that, yet even further away. There was nothing near him we concluded. He had passed Palmyra weeks ago. "Call Don Bekins" I thought. He knows this part of the Pacific. I only had Don's email, and it was late. Think... what good would it do to contact Don right now. Scratch that one. "Peter... call Peter Hogg," I thought. He had sailed these waters. Then again, what good would it do... these kind men would not be able to make a decision for me.
So 50 minutes after the ARGOS activation was noted, time was passing: a decision was needed. By then we had determined that the Honolulu CG in Hawaii had jurisdiction over those waters. We had mapped Erden's exact coordinates at the time the signal was received. Again, I pressed Kenneth, "Are you telling me with 100% accuracy that the beacon could not have gone off without Erden's intervention?" I had to be re-assured again. If we were going to notify the CG and potentially deploy their resources, we could not take these decisions lightly. I needed as much information as possible. And, as Kenneth so kindly pointed out... the decision to act, or not, was mine. Now there was a load on my shoulders!
"What would Erden want me to do?" I kept asking myself. I went over and over in my mind the emergency procedures we spoke about many times about what to do in these possible scenarios, but when the moment actually happened... those procedures were somewhat skewed. Think, think...
It was while on the phone with Tatiana again that I became calm and resolved in my decision, and she concurred. I couldn't live with myself if we did nothing. AND, I couldn't call out all resources of the CG unless we were 100% sure there was dire danger. Let's ask the CG to broadcast the nearest ships in that area. At least a broadcast would not pull out all stops and commit excessive human and physical resources. It was just a phone call. Knowing Erden was still possibly in the shipping lanes, there had to be ships nearby that could go "have a look."
By now nearly 1 hour, 40 minutes had passed and I sent a formal email request to the Honolulu CG lieutenant on duty, copying Kenneth in England, to activate the plan. Let's determine if there were any ships nearby to check on his coordinates.
After the formal request went out, I felt resolved that a decision was made, and now we waited and waited. I called Chris Beer. I said, "wouldn't it be something if while all this was happening, Erden was inside that cabin oblivious to what was going on." We got a relief chuckle out of that, but I had already been convinced this was not a likely scenario.
Tatiana was finalizing the exact mapping to upload to the website when she phoned me back around 12:10am (08.10 GMT) to say that CLS ARGOS had just called and said they had only received one signal, not several, as is expected when a beacon is activated. I saw this as good news. "One signal, something is wrong. Maybe he really is OK," I thought.
Just then I heard the other line ring in their office at ORS and Kenneth answered. Tatiana and I remained quiet, as it would be an update from either the CG or ARGOS. Kenneth yelled... it's ERDEN!!!!!!!
Erden called me right away to say he was safe and oblivious to what was going on until he got my text message that the beacon was activated. He had by chance turned on his satellite phone and seen my messages. I rambled on and on in fits of tears of relief about what the past 3+ hours had been like. We called off the CG, and they stopped any intervention. We all breathed easier and had many laughs of relief over this, and joked, was Erden just putting us through a "dry run" ... to test us?
After four hours of this, I finally went back to bed in a state of complete gratitude... that he was spared, that we were spared this agony, and I knew immediately of the lessons I had learned. As Erden said, this in the end becomes all about relationships -- we know who our friends are, and we feel comforted knowing that there are people in far flung corners of this world, who will go out of their way to come to his help.
We are still investigating with CLS ARGOS what could have caused a false signal. In the history of ocean rowing, Kenneth had not known this to happen by accident. (For more on the history of ARGOS use in ocean rowing see: 21 Years). It was later learned that there was one other incident where lightening struck the device and a signal went out.
Again we discussed our drills for emergency procedures; what to do, and when to do it. We will continue fine-tuning our procedures as, although this "drill" went well, it helped us to review our practice in emergency response.
I would like to publicly thank Kenneth and Tatiana Crutchlow, the kind souls behind the scenes, every day charting Erden's coordinates and tracking his progress. Without them, I don't know where I would be. With them, they help to keep Erden alive and me sane. They are my true heroes. A special thank you also to wonderful friends... my support team at home that I could never do without. You know who you are. And finally, to the fine men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard for their professionalism, kindness and for just knowing that they are always there, no matter what. First responders are the real heroes in our lives.
In deep gratitude,