SMS screen 1
SMS screen 2
SMS screen 3
Which beacon are you talking about?
January 15, 2008 - Day 190 5.2121N,175.9324W
Thursday night on January 10th, before I slept, I had to send an email to my father which I had promised. But it was also important to dispatch about turning six months at sea, a story which got bumped when I found water in the cabin. Events were taking place faster than I could dispatch; "maybe I should skip some," I kept thinking...
I worked on that email after I posted the January 10 dispatch. It was approaching midnight PST when I was ready to send it. I brought out the satellite phone, connected it to my PDA and dialed for modem access. When my phone dialed, the satellite system had the opportunity for a handshake and sent down the pending SMS messages. As I was trying to hold the phone at the right angle to the sky through my cabin door, I tried to read the message. Something about a beacon... I could not lose the reception during transmission, so I paid more attention to the visible bars and the antenna.
Then I disconnected the PDA, packed it away together with all the unnecessary cables, keeping the phone out. The SMS was from Nancy, telling me that I had activated the beacon, that the Coast Guard had been notified and that Kenneth Crutchlow at the Ocean Rowing Society (ORS) knew.
"What beacon? What's she talking about?" were my initial thoughts. I was facing the cabin door. My heart raced, as my thoughts turned to: "Oh no, what have I done?" Immediately my head snapped to my right to look at the EPIRB mounted on the starboard cabin wall. Nope, that wasn't it. The EPIRB switch was still in the off position. I had not accidentally turned that on. What a disaster that would have been if...
I reached for the headlamp to shine a light on the ARGOS beacon outside. Maybe somehow the protective cap covering the "Request Assistance" switch had broken, exposing the switch. I cracked the door open and reached out to take a look. The cap was still on, there was no sign that the switch had been dislodged, nor did the beacon look overly active as I would have expected.
OK, there were no beacons "activated" within sight that I could tell. The EPIRBs on board are manually activated, so I ruled out flooding as a cause to trip the EPIRB packed in the liferaft Pelican case in the footwell. Of the two other ARGOS beacons on board, one had a depleted battery, the other had not yet been turned on.
I was relieved but not done. With my quick initial investigation complete, I bypassed Nancy and called ORS in London directly. They were the ones who would become the nerve center, and had the experience to advise Nancy and to communicate with the Coast Guard. I had to report in safe and to stop any drastic action which may have been initiated. We could worry about a fix later.
Kenneth answered the phone, and "Erden! Thank God!" was his loud joyful response upon hearing my voice. He wasn't listening to me for a few moments, laughing as he proceeded to announce my name to Tatiana across their office while I waited for him to return to our conversation. "Everything is fine here, Kenneth," I said, "I got a text message from Nancy, saying I activated a beacon. I did not activate any beacons." "I understand, are you all right?" "Yes, I am fine, so is the boat. Which beacon are we..." He interrupted me, saying: "OK, I will tell Honolulu Coast Guard to stand down. You call Nancy. We will sort the rest later."
When I called Nancy, she immediately recognized my voice, she was crying before she made it to the end of the words, "oh my love, I was so worried." She told me of what had happened, how CLS notified Kenneth at ORS, and Kenneth alerted the Coast Guard in Honolulu, and she called friends for support. "They had a plane and a crew on standby to look for you. They could reach your location within 8 hours of a distress call, they wrote." It was a false alert from the ARGOS beacon which had triggered the event. "I have been emailing with Lt. Nolan who is on duty in Honolulu. Kenneth asked them to ground the plane until we knew more, because apparently just one signal was received not several..."
Honolulu was about 1,350 nm from my location at the time. A plane with possibly 6 crew would cover that distance roundtrip during the night, to look for the proverbial needle in the haystack. I did not even have my anchor light or the SEA-ME transponder on, since my batteries are so drained from the lack of sun. They would have come to the location continuously reported by my ARGOS beacon, then scanned by a flood light perhaps as long as their fuel allowed. I would have been asleep, unaware. What a nightmare that would have been.
"In a real emergency, I will activate both the Request Assistance on the ARGOS and the EPIRB. If a beacon goes on, it will stay on. I will also call if possible. You can relax now. You have been through a lot, and it is getting late. Would you forward me the correspondence with Lt. Nolan so I can thank him also? Then promise me you will sleep?"
I called Kenneth back after I got Nancy to promise. He confirmed that it was the active beacon which had triggered the alert. "CLS doesn't like to interpret an alert. To them it is real until proven otherwise." "Can I trust this beacon to not repeat the alert? I mean, was it the beacon or the system at fault? Should I bring out the other ARGOS beacon?" I asked. "I think it was just a glitch, we will leave as it is for now." We couldn't know for sure.
Tatiana wanted a word with me, and she said: "When I was talking to Nancy, she was worried that you may be separated from the boat. I told her that you were experienced and you always had your harness on. You do have a harness on, I wasn't lying to Nancy when I said that, right?" "No you did not; only, it is a 10ft rope tied to my ankle which is my link to the boat. Don't worry, I am not going to separate from the boat..."
I got the phone number from Kenneth for Lt. Nolan, and called in for a brief thank you. "Trust me, I am innocent; I did not touch that beacon, I am still looking at that thing from five feet away" I said, which got a chuckle out of him. Clearly, we both knew this was the preferred outcome for the night's event.
So everyone concerned relieved, I could pull down the email from Nancy and write to Lt. Nolan to officially thank the Coast Guard for their professionalism and their willingness to reach out to find me. With that task also completed, I could take a deep breath myself and sleep.
This had been a close call.
I later received from CLS ARGOS in Toulouse, France the following note. Keep in mind that the ARGOS system has diverse applications among which are tracking assets, monitoring fishing fleets, and tracking wildlife as well as individuals like me on land and at sea.
"The explanations you have heard about the satellite low on the horizon is the way we explain it. This happens from time to time that the very last message received by the satellite before disappearing under the horizon enters in conflict with a radio message transmitting on a near frequency or even the same frequency. For example another Argos beacon.
In such cases even if we are almost sure that the message is wrong, our policy is to inform of a possible distress message. We think that it's better to give too much information in cases of human security than to withhold possible real distress calls."
In the end everyone was doing the best that they could with the available information, and each did the right thing with only one thought in mind: "Erden's safety at sea."
How can I thank them enough?