Power & Motor Yacht
Into the Storm
Two ships sank after Hurricane Joaquin hit the Caribbean in 2015. Only one was saved. This is their harrowing story.
Journalist Tristram Korten’s recently published book Into the Storm describes the sinking of two ships in the Atlantic Ocean during the Category 4 Hurricane Joaquin in 2015 and how their respective captains dealt with extreme circumstances, one successfully and the other catastrophically. The book also closely details the role a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter rescue team—more specifically, the efforts of swimmer Ben Cournia, helicopter pilot Rick Post, flight mechanic Joshua Andrews and commander Dave McCarthy—played in saving the 12 crew members of the freighter Minouche after they’d abandoned ship for a liferaft in the midst of a veritable meteorological melee. The following excerpt has been edited for space, and captures the essence of the daring rescue. In doing so, it emphasizes the level of character and commitment that stands behind the motto of the rescue swimmers at the Coast Guard’s Aviation Technical Training Center at Elizabeth City, North Carolina: “So others may live.”
BBefore would-be rescue swimmers can call themselves U.S. Coast Guard aviation survival technicians, they must first survive the training school. It’s not uncommon for two-thirds or more of a class to drop out. Officially, the Coast Guard states that the attrition rate is 50 percent. Anecdotally, it is often much higher. Ben Cournia, for instance, entered with a class of nine. Three graduated, one of whom had started in another class of 12. When all 11 of his original classmates dropped out, this one remaining recruit transferred to Cournia’s class. A recent class of 16 graduated four swimmers; in another, only five of 24 candidates made it through the process.
The physical conditioning is relentless. Cournia recalled waking up at 5:00 A.M., eating only a small breakfast (“otherwise you’d throw up”), then running, running, running: sprints, 12-mile runs, running through waist-high water. Then lunch, and swimming, swimming, swimming: 500-yard sprints, 500 yards underwater (in 25-yard intervals), 3,000 yards of laps. Add to this the survival technique classes, which the recruit cannot fail if he has any hope of graduating. In these classes, swimmers are confronted with simulations—a downed pilot wrapped in a parachute, a crew from a sunken fishing boat—and must figure out the rescue on the fly. There are “water confidence drills” in which an instructor swims up to you and basically tries to drown you. The school boasts fans that can replicate the winds in a Category 1 hurricane, a wave-making machine and speakers that can blare thunderclaps at tremendous volume.
As relentlessly exhausting as the physical training is, the mental tests might be worse. Instructors repeatedly try to undermine the swimmer’s confidence, constantly encouraging him to quit, telling him he’s not good enough.
“Your body can adapt physically,” explained Senior Chief Scott Rady, who coleads the school today with Cournia’s former supervisor John Hall. “But mentally, that’s the one you have to overcome.”
In fact, most of the candidates who don’t make it through the program “self-select out,” as Rady put it. Another percentage can’t continue because of physical injuries. Many of these candidates do return and eventually graduate. (This may be the reason the Coast Guard cites a 50 per-
cent attrition rate.) Since the program started almost 30 years ago, a total of 940 aviation survival technicians have made it through. Today there are 360 rescue swimmers spread out among 26 Coast Guard air stations. Three of them are women.
Now, as Cournia peered down at the roiling sea from the open door of the Jayhawk, he was relying on every shred of his training and conditioning to override his body’s normal response to danger. He had to go where it was not logical to go. He sat on the edge of the metal deck, his legs out the door, his eyes fixed on the liferaft bobbing in the waves below. He reached up and snugged his mask to his face, then clamped his teeth around the snorkel’s mouthpiece. Joshua Andrews checked the cable clipped onto the swimmer’s harness.
“All right, swimmer’s at the cabin door,” Andrews reported into the cabin’s radio. “Ready for harness deployment of the rescue swimmer.” “Roger, you may begin hoist,” Rick Post responded. From his seated position, Cournia gave the thumbs-up and then pushed himself out the door into the air.
“Swimmer’s going out the cabin door.” While the pilots struggled to hold the helicopter in a hover, Andrews would be their eyes and ears for what was happening below.
As Cournia descended on the cable, he twisted in the wind. The water beneath him heaved back and forth. Big, long swells surged and then relaxed. Steeper waves crested and broke, causing the surface to erupt in a foamy effervescence.
“Swimmer’s on the way down,” Andrews said. “Swimmer’s in the water. Swimmer’s away. Swimmer’s okay. Clear to move. Back and left 30. Retrieving hoist.” “Roger,” Post responded. “Back and left.” When Cournia hit the water the sea felt reassuringly warm, but the strength of the swells and the ferocity of the waves caught him off guard. The water lifted him up and slapped him in the face. Waves crashing over him kept flooding the snorkel, forcing him to blow lungfuls of air through the tube to clear it. Still, he was in his element, and his apprehensions lifted as he steadied himself against the swells. He lifted his head and spotted the life raft a few yards away. Arm over arm, he dragged himself through the water in a freestyle crawl, swimming over and under the waves until he reached it.
Inside the orange floating hexagon, Capt. Renelo Gelera (the Minouche’s skipper) remembered what amounted to someone knocking on the door, a tap-tap on the curtain of the enclosure. He unzipped the curtain and saw a lanky guy in a swim mask hoist himself chest high into the raft, resting on his elbows. Cournia’s exact words may have been lost to the adrenaline of the moment, but they were something like, “Hi, I’m Petty Officer Cournia, U.S. Coast Guard. Does anybody speak English?”
The crew of the Minouche stared at him with wide eyes, tensed with overwhelming joy. “Yes,” Gelera answered, trying to contain his excitement. “I do.” “All right, sir, you’re going to interpret for me. Is anyone hurt? No? Good. Okay, I’m going to take you out one at a time. Don’t panic. I’m going to swim you over. The helicopter is going to drop down a basket. I’m going to put you in the basket. Make sure you keep your arms and legs inside the basket in a seated position.” Gelera repeated the instructions to the crew in Creole. Something, apparently, was lost in translation. Gelera remembers the rescue swimmer saying something to the effect of, “Listen carefully. I am here in order to save you! But I cannot guarantee that I can make it to all of you. To those who are going to survive, good luck. To those who are going to die, I’m very sorry.”
“That’s what I translated,” Gelera recalled. “I understood him. At that moment, they [the Coast Guard crew] also put their life 50-50.” Gelera thought Cournia was telling them that it was a crapshoot if any of them would survive this ordeal.
(Needless to say, Cournia later recoiled at this. “I would never say that!” he said, then started laughing.)
Henry Latigo, the chief mate, asked Cournia what had happened to their boat. “It’s gone,” Cournia said, and was struck by the shocked expression that flitted across the men’s faces. It was as if, bobbing alone out here in the storm, they were only now grasping the magnitude of their situation.
Cournia asked, “Okay, who’s going first?” Gelera translated, and several hands shot up in the air. Gelera said, “I’m the captain; I’m not going yet. I want to go last.”
Cournia pointed at the most scared-looking man, indicating he should come forward. The sailor did, and Cournia guided him down the boarding ladder of the raft and into the water. Then he grabbed the collar of the sailor’s lifejacket, put the man in a cross-chest carry and started swimming. Cournia could see the helicopter hovering overhead. He waved a chemical light in his hand to signal a pickup. As the Jayhawk swooped over them, the searchlight beam illuminated the cable and basket as if it were spotlighting a solo performance on a Broadway stage.
In the helicopter above, Andrews manned the hoist mounted outside the cabin door, with 200 feet of stainless steel cable, made up of 133 strands of wire, wrapped around a motorized drum. Post may have been flying the bird, and co-pilot David McCarthy may have had operational control, but at this point, Andrews was giving the orders. He was the fulcrum between the pilots and the swimmer (and the survivors) in the water. He gave the directional commands so the pilots knew where to position the helicopter. And he was responsible for the swimmer’s safety.
Down in the water, Cournia and the sailor waited for Andrews to lower the basket, which was just that: stainless steel bars welded together into a basket big enough for a grown man to sit in with his knees up. Post was still getting the hang of maneuvering the helicop-
ter in the high winds and rain. As a result, the crew was having a hard time keeping the basket stationary on the surface of the water. Cournia would get close enough to reach for it, but then a big wave would sweep over them and carry the basket away. When the helicopter tried to move the basket closer, waves caught it and skipped it across the water. Cournia had to make sure that neither he nor the sailor got hit. Finally, after a few passes, he managed to seize and steady the basket. Then he pushed it down so he could float the sailor into it. Cournia reminded the sailor to keep his hands and feet inside at all times. He took a quick look underwater to make sure nothing was clinging to the basket, and finally signaled the okay sign to pull him up.
From above, Andrews was trying to keep his eye on how the swimmer was functioning in the water, which was difficult because it was dark. Andrews could see only the reflective tape on the raft and on Cournia’s gear, along with the chemical light attached to his black mask and the strobe light flickering on top of the raft. Protocol was for someone’s eyes to always be on the swimmer. So when Andrews had to turn his attention to unloading the first survivor, he asked the pilots, “Eyes on swimmer?” They answered in the affirmative and Andrews grappled with unloading the Haitian sailor. Once the man was out of the basket, Andrews pushed it back out the helicopter door and lowered it. After it hit the water, he saw a strobe flashing in the dark. This was the swimmer’s emergency signal for a pickup. Andrews relayed this to Post and McCarthy immediately. “Initiating emergency pickup,” Andrews said. “Roger,” Post replied. When Andrews looked back down, he saw the strobe sinking in the water, flashing more and more faintly. For an instant, he felt a surge of horror. But then he saw Cournia, who had just finished loading the second sailor into the basket and was swimming back to the raft. With a sigh of relief, Andrews realized the light must have been a strobe that had fallen off the survivor’s life vest.
Andrews reeled in the cable and pulled the second sailor into the cabin, still in the basket. Once inside, though, the sailor, barefoot in cutoff jeans and a T-shirt, cramped up with fear. His eyes were wide and he refused to get out of the basket. Andrews yelled at him to climb out. When that didn’t work, he tried prying the man’s fingers off the metal bars. Finally, he unceremoniously flipped the basket over and the survivor tumbled out into the cabin.
Andrews looked down for his rescue swimmer. Nothing. Then he spotted him, furiously swimming after the drifting raft.
After sending up the basket for the second time, Cournia had turned to swim back to the raft . . . only to find it wasn’t there. The wind and waves had pushed it more than 100 yards away. He cleared his snorkel, put his head down, and started swimming. Waves crashed over him and pushed him down. He’d surface and continue slashing the water in quick, decisive strokes. After a while, he lifted his head, but the raft still seemed about a football field away. He swam for a few minutes more, then checked his progress. Again, the raft was barely any closer. It seemed like it was drifting as fast as he could swim. Ultimately it took about 10 minutes of powering along in the crawl to reach the raft, but he made it. He pulled out another sailor and signaled for a pickup. By the time this third sailor was loaded and the basket was hoisted, the raft had drifted again. And Cournia was getting tired.
None of this was lost on Andrews. He saw his swimmer constantly struggling to catch up to the raft, and he didn’t think Cournia would last the night if he kept having to give chase like this. He consulted with McCarthy, and they agreed to pull the swimmer and regroup. Andrews sent the cable down and signaled for Cournia to hook in.
After they hoisted Cournia up, the crew debated different approaches. The solution they settled on was to “hover taxi” Cournia to the raft, meaning that the swimmer would dangle above the waves on the cable while Post flew him to the raft. Cournia would then detach and swim out the survivors. A relieved Cournia agreed that this sounded like the best plan.
The method worked well. Cournia was able to extract the next four survivors without incident. The dark cabin of the Jayhawk was filling with heaving bodies intermittently illuminated by the strobes on their life vests. They were dressed in shorts and T-shirts with no shoes. Most seemed dulled by shock.
It was now close to 2:00 A.M. They had been aloft for almost five hours. The crew was losing valuable time fighting the weather. And McCarthy was concerned about fuel. Down in the water, Cournia was worried about the same thing. Hoping to make up for lost time, he had begun speeding up his process, trying to get the sailors out of the raft faster and faster. When he went to the raft for the eighth sailor, even he had to admit he was going too fast.
Inside the raft, Gelera and the crew had calmed down as the rescue operation unfolded. Every time one of them would leave the raft, everyone else repositioned so their weight was evenly distributed. The raft was maintaining its position in the waves, but Gelera was worried that a big wave could still topple them over. When Cournia returned for the eighth time, the sailors could tell something was different. The res-
cue swimmer was much more brusque and direct. Cournia pointed at one man, a short but heavyset fellow who went by the nickname Maco. “You! Let’s go!” Cournia shouted. Maco started to come forward, but then hesitated. Cournia gave him some space, but Maco refused to move. Maco, it turned out, didn’t know how to swim. Gelera and the others were yelling at him in Creole to jump, “Ale! Ale! Sote!” But Maco couldn’t bring himself to do it. He started to scoot back into the raft.
Cournia could hear himself getting louder and louder as his impatience showed through. He was thinking about the fuel. The Jayhawk carries about 900 gallons, which gives it a 700-mile range depending on the weather, or about six hours of flight time. But flying in this weather was burning more fuel than normal. Just trying to maintain a hover in the headwinds was taking its toll, and they needed to leave enough juice to get back.
Finally, fed up with Maco’s hesitation, Cournia reached forward, grabbed the collar of his life vest, and pulled him into the water. The sailor exited the raft headfirst and splashed into the sea on top of the rescue swimmer. Maco gave a terrified yell and grabbed hold of Cournia, wrapping his legs and arms around him in a panicked clench. He pushed Cournia’s shoulders down, struggling to stay above the water.
Cournia had a flashback to the training pool in Elizabeth City, battling an instructor during a water confidence drill. Now, with Maco, the events unfolded in a kind of slow motion that felt hyperreal. His training kicked in and he did what he had been conditioned to do: suck, tuck and duck. He sucked in a deep breath, tucked his chin to his collarbone to protect his airway, and tried to duck out of the sailor’s grip. The key was to stay calm. He wormed one arm free and gave Maco a gentle tap on his chest to let him know everything was okay. That didn’t work. In fact it seemed to frighten Maco even more. The sailor thrashed about more chaotically, tightening his grip on Cournia, who was still underwater. So Cournia did what he was trained to do next, which was to take his free arm and jam his thumb into a nerve center under Maco’s jawline. This allowed him to work his other hand free so that he could grab Maco’s elbow and jam that thumb into another pressure point there. The sailor froze, and Cournia used the moment to resurface and suck in a lungful of air. Back in control, he flipped Maco around in a front head hold. Then he signaled for the basket.
McCarthy, in the copilot seat, was monitoring all of the operation’s moving parts. Each time a sailor was pulled into the cabin, he reported it to their radio guard, with whom the Jayhawk crew is expected to stay in contact throughout the mission. By now the cutter Northland was on scene and radioed in, awaiting instructions on how it could help. McCarthy was also monitoring wind speeds, the weight inside the cabin, the fuel-burn rate and the radar. As time wore on, McCarthy realized the average time to recover each sailor was taking longer and longer, in spite of Cournia’s efforts to speed things up. At this pace they wouldn’t have enough fuel to stay aloft in order to recover all 12 sailors in one sortie. The Jayhawk was going to have to return to base and refuel. When McCarthy conferred with Post and Andrews, they agreed: It was time to head back. Andrews dropped the cable hook down to Cournia, signaling him to come up.
The swimmer did as he was told; he locked in and rode the cable up. But once inside the cabin, Cournia balked. “Why?” he asked. He was frustrated and pumped full of adrenaline. His job wasn’t over and he wanted to stay with the raft. Andrews remembers him saying “There are still people there!” McCarthy understood where his swimmer’s passion was coming from. He admired that. But as the officer in charge, McCarthy’s first responsibility was for the safety of his crew. He denied the swimmer’s request. McCarthy assured Cournia the sailors would be okay. The Northland was on the scene and able to keep close watch on the raft. This was an order. Post turned the helicopter around and pointed the nose toward the Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater (CGAS Clearwater) in Great Inagua, Bahamas.
Communication with the sailors on the raft was handed over to the Northland. However, when the guardsman on the ship tried radioing, he could hear only muffled static. The radio operator gave instructions to Gelera, who held the radio, that if they could hear him, to key the microphone twice. Two crackly transmissions came through. The guardsman tried to sound as calm and reassuring as he could. His job right now was to keep the survivors from panicking. He explained that the helicopter was low on fuel and had to return to base, but it would fly right back. In the interim, the ship would monitor their safety.
The return flight to base took less than half an hour, shorter than the flight out because they had a tailwind. They arrived over Great Inagua without incident. As Post began the descent, McCarthy thought he’d give his copilot a break, some time to clear his head from the stress of maneuvering the Jayhawk in the storm. So he took the controls for the landing. As they settled on the tarmac and began taxiing to the hangar, McCarthy saw birds huddling on the flight apron. Apparently they were weathering out the storm there. Then, just as he was rolling toward the hangar, McCarthy saw one of the birds startle and lift its wings. He stomped on the brakes. “No, no, don’t do it!” the pilot yelled, to no avail. The bird went straight up into the rotors.
It wasn’t McCarthy’s love of wildlife that had him screaming at
the windshield. A bird strike prompts an automatic flight shutdown while the whole aircraft gets inspected for any damage that could compromise its safety. They rolled into the hangar, thinking this inspection would add more than an hour to their turnaround time.
Todd Taylor, the aviation maintenance technician for the base’s other flight crew, watched from the hangar as the bird was flung off to the side. Taylor had been trying to think two steps ahead in order to get the Jayhawk airborne again as fast as possible. Before the helicopter landed he had organized a “hot gas” refueling, where the helicopter lands, turns around and remains on the runway with its engine running while its tanks are filled.
After the bird strike, there would be no hot gas. Now Taylor had another idea. He ran into the storm and searched for the bird. When he found it, a little gray tern with a cap of black feathers, it was 90 percent intact. It had not gotten sucked into the engine or been pureed in the rotor hub. This meant he could order an expedited inspection. Taylor called Clearwater for clearance, which was granted.
Inside, the survivors were unloaded. The rescue swimmer from the second crew had been ordered to meet them and provide first aid. In his zeal, he also thought he’d be replacing Cournia for the second sortie. “Aw, man!” Andrews recalled him saying when told he wouldn’t be heading out.
The expedited inspection took only about 30 minutes. The helicopter crew took advantage of the break. They used the bathroom. They drank water and stretched. As ground crew mechanics inspected the helicopter, Andrews played out all the cable and inspected it to make sure there were no frays. He restocked the cabin with chemical lights.
McCarthy, meanwhile, had his own inspection to do: his crew. They had a quick briefing, and McCarthy looked for any signs of exhaustion in his men. He looked in their eyes and listened for slurred words. If he had seen any indication that they weren’t ready—if they seemed fatigued, if they’d lost any focus—he could have swapped out his crew for the second unit. But the men were alert. More than that, they were eager to get back out there. And it made sense to keep the same team. They had figured out how to handle both the wind and the waves, and they’d developed a system that was working. As McCarthy put it, they were “in their battle rhythm.”
THROUGH SURF AND STORM AND HOWLING GALE
We’re always ready for the call, We place our trust in Thee. Through surf and storm and howling gale, High shall our purpose be. Semper Paratus is our guide, Our fame, our glory, too. To fight to save or fight and die, Aye! Coast Guard we are for you! —Coast Guard Marching Song
All Thursday, as Gelera sailed the Minouche into the Windward Passage and the Coasties on Great Inagua hunkered down in their hooches, Hurricane Joaquin’s power grew and its cloud cover metastasized. Tendril-like bands stained the sky for 185 miles out from the eye. In every direction, the sky was mottled in shades of black, gray, light gray and even a terrible white that was not the peaceful puff of a cumulus cloud on a summer’s day, but the roiling white of ice and water violently sucked up and expelled. The storm itself lumbered south at about 5 miles an hour, twisting with an amoral anger.
As the crew of the Northland sailed west off Haiti’s North Claw, they watched the sky fill with increasingly dense gray clouds. The winds picked up and they could feel the long, rolling swells move beneath the hull of the 270-foot cutter. The officers on board had spent the morning and afternoon plotting how to stay out of the storm’s way, yet remain close enough to respond to an emergency if needed. By the time they were off Cap du M™ole, Haiti, the wind was blowing 25 knots.
After going over the weather maps, the Northland’s captain, Commander Jason Ryan, had decided to sail his ship south, through the Windward Passage, to escape the storm. He wanted to take the ship to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, using the island as a windbreak. The ship could refuel at the U.S. military base there. He set course.
Even beneath the shelter of Cuba’s eastern tip, the seas were 8 to 10 feet. As Ryan was conducting his nightly routine, checking in on the ship’s Combat Information Center, the ship’s main command room, then approving the night orders on the bridge, District 7 called. It was about 9:30 P.M. and there was an emergency. They wanted the Northland to divert to a cargo ship in distress, the Minouche, which had sent a Mayday that the crew was abandoning a sinking ship.
There would be no sleep that night. Ryan gathered his command staff for a quick strategy meeting. The Minouche’s location was far enough south of the storm’s eye—about 140 miles at that point—that Ryan felt it was safe to sail to it, so they plotted a track line to its coordinates and set a course. They would be sailing downswell, with the wind at their stern. Still, the ship was looking at three to four hours to get to the Minouche. That time would be spent scrambling to ready the ship for hurricane conditions.
The captain got on the ship’s public address system and announced the mission. “Good evening, Northland, this is your captain speaking. We have been diverted by the District 7 Command Center to the motor vessel Minouche’s last known position. Prepare for heavy seas.”
Ryan’s engineer officer started to fill the ballast tanks with water so that the ship would ride steadier in rough seas. The standing order to reduce nighttime engine output was rescinded. As the Northland’s twin turbocharged diesel engines roared to life, the first lieutenant ordered heavy-weather lifelines rigged on the forecastle, the forward part of the ship, so that crew members, wearing five-point harnesses, could clip onto the line when they were on deck to avoid being swept overboard. The decks were cleared of unnecessary equipment that might break free in bad weather. Watertight doors and hatches were closed. These were the same procedures as if the ship was getting ready for battle.
Ryan and his officers then debated the rescue options open to them. The seas would be too rough to launch a smaller rescue boat. They might be able to improvise life rings on a long line that could be thrown to the sailors, who could then grab onto the rings and be pulled aboard. The Northland could also drape a ladder-like net off the side and try to drift up to the life raft, then have the men jump in the water and climb up. None of these scenarios were ideal.
In his cabin, Capt. Ryan dressed in his foul-weather gear. He grabbed his binoculars and an extra flashlight. Then he went to the bridge and tracked their progress. (continued on Page 130)