Power & Motor Yacht
INTO THE STORM
The Northland was moving at a fast clip of about 18 knots, aided by the running winds. But as soon as they cleared Cuba and entered the open expanse of the Windward Passage, the Northland began to rock.
Joaquin’s winds were coming from the south, but also from the west here, and this created a confused sea state. Waves coming from one direction met waves coming from another. Sometimes their energy would cancel each other out. Other times they would combine and stack up, turning 15-foot waves into 20-footers or even higher.
Meanwhile, the Northland’s crew were constantly scanning the water ahead with infrared cameras. Floating cargo has a slight temperature differential, enabling the crew to spot debris before the ship crashed into it.
The ship approached the scene at about 1:45 A.M. Ryan made radio contact with two Good Samaritan vessels standing by, the Falcon Arrow and the Cronus Leader, to let them know they were free to go. After keeping vigil over the tiny raft, they could finally continue their journies. (The ships moved off, but stayed in the area, avoiding the storm.) Then Ryan radioed the Jayhawk crew for a status update. At that point, the helicopter had just finished hoisting the fourth survivor. McCarthy advised Ryan that the pilots were wearing night vision goggles, which meant the Northland had to be careful not to blind them with its searchlight.
Ryan asked how the Northland could assist. “Run an orbit around the raft from about a mile away,” McCarthy answered. That way the helicopter could use the ship’s navigation lights as a reference for the horizon. “Roger that,” Ryan responded.
As the Northland set a course circling the raft, the Jayhawk lifted another two sailors. Then a band of intense rain and wind came through. Ryan and his sailors watched as the helicopter struggled to hold its position, flying up to get above the bad weather. Twenty minutes later the Jayhawk descended and lifted two more sailors, for a total of eight, and McCarthy announced their intentions to fly back to Great Inagua. McCarthy asked the Northland to maintain radio contact with the survivors in the raft.
From inside the raft’s enclosed tent, the men could hear the thudthud of the helicopter fading as it headed back to Great Inagua with their crewmates. They were now down to four. It was completely dark other than the distant lights of the Northland. The assault from the waves continued, but the raft was holding up. Despite assurances from McCarthy that they were coming back to rescue them, despite the ship hovering on the horizon, the men felt utterly alone as the storm—a storm that seemed to be attacking them personally—raged outside. “They are not coming back,” the chief engineer told his captain. “I think we are going to die.”
The bird strike on Great Inagua that delayed the return of the Jayhawk undoubtedly exacerbated the sailors’ despair and sense of abandonment, but if the engineer could have seen inside the North- land at that moment, he would have been reassured that no one had forgotten about them. Inside the ship’s Combat Information Center, an infrared image of the raft was blown up on a 46-inch screen. The Coasties were watching the raft intensely.
Finally, about an hour and a half after it had left the scene, the helicopter hove back into position over the liferaft with a reassuring whoosh of the rotors. The rain seemed to have intensified, coming down in solid sheets that knocked the aircraft around. Post steadied the Jayhawk into a hover, and Cournia took his stance by the door, ready to deploy. But something was wrong. Post, who couldn’t see anything out the windshield, was flying almost entirely by his instrument panel. His altitude was good, but his hover bar showed him moving even though he felt as if the aircraft was stationary. His mind couldn’t reconcile how his body felt with what the instruments said. This was a dangerous sensation for a pilot. Vertigo could set in and the pilot could think up was down, and try to fly accordingly. He needed to reestablish some frame of reference. Post alerted his crewmates that he was having trouble staying oriented. He hit the “auto depart” button, which takes control of the Jayhawk and lifts it 300 feet in the air, then reestablishes an even longitudinal hover. It’s a reset, a way for the pilot to start over and try again. From there, Post knew which way was up.
McCarthy, meanwhile, radioed the Northland and asked again if the ship would be able to launch a rescue attempt on its own. He needed to constantly assess what options were open to him. But Ryan was even more convinced than before that a ship-based rescue was too risky in these conditions.
Post flew the Jayhawk back down. The raft had drifted, so the crew had to spend a few minutes searching for it. Once they’d located it and positioned themselves above it, Cournia again sat in the open doorway and clipped the hoist hook into his harness. Then he pushed himself out of the helicopter into the night.
In the water, he quickly fell back into the rhythm he had established earlier. He swam up to the raft, pulled himself in and grabbed the first person he saw. This time it was Capt. Gelera—his translator and the one survivor who had specifically asked to go last. “It was dark. I grabbed the wrong one,” Cournia would say in retrospect. But at the time, no one wanted to argue and slow things down, so Gelera splashed into the water. Cournia gave the signal for the basket. Andrews lowered it and Cournia loaded Gelera in. Thumbs up. Andrews hit the hoist button and started lifting the basket. Cournia hung from the basket as it lifted out of the water, as he had done on the previous hoists, in order to keep the cable straight and minimize swing. That technique had been working well. But this time, as he let go and slipped back into the water, a gust of wind pushed the helicopter downward, lowering the basket with Gelera in it. At that exact moment, a large wave came rushing forward. The wave swallowed the basket and pulled the cable taut, like a big fish on a line.
Inside the cabin, the soothingly calm robotic voice of the alarm sensor warned “Altitude, altitude,” as the Jayhawk dropped and Post struggled to gain some lift. Down in the water, the basket was getting carried away by the wave so swiftly that Andrews worried it would get ripped from the hoist. He began frantically playing out cable to put some slack in the line. Then, afraid he might run out of cable, he started giving the pilot directions to keep up with the basket: “Back and left 10 . . . Back and left 20.” Pilots, as a rule, don’t like to hear big numbers. It means something is wrong and getting worse. Post was no exception. He was also dealing with the added challenge of having his sensory perception challenged; the black void outside still played havoc with his orientation, and while he maneuvered the controls to fly backward, he didn’t feel like the craft was in fact moving
in reverse. The basket, meanwhile, came ripping through the wave, swinging back wildly in the other direction. Gelera clung with both hands to the sides of the basket as he was plunged into a sensory spin cycle, first submerged in seawater, then sent reeling uncontrollably through the dark night air.
From the liferaft, Chief Mate Latigo peeked through the curtain and saw his captain swinging in such a steep arc, he was sure the basket would flip and Gelera would tumble into the sea. Inside the helicopter, the violence of the return swing pinned Andrews’s head against the door, the cable gouging a deep line in his helmet and knocking his radio off. He was freed only when the cable swung back again in the other direction. By then, Post had regained control of the aircraft, which helped stabilize the cable, allowing Andrews to reel in the basket with a white-knuckled Gelera in it, for the most part unscathed.
Gelera crawled out of the basket and Andrews unclipped it from the cable, then sent the hook down to Cournia for the hover-taxi. But as the cable ran through Andrews’s gloved fingers he felt a snag. This was not good. Andrews inspected the cable as best he could in the dim light. At about the 70-foot mark some strands in the cable had broken, likely as a result of the whipsawing motion during the last recovery. As with the bird strike, an equipment problem of this magnitude triggered an automatic mission shutdown, per Coast Guard regulations. The helicopter would again have to return to Great Inagua, where the crew would have two options. They could swap out the cable drum or they could take the other helicopter. Andrews hoisted Cournia into the aircraft and explained the situation to the crew. Cournia suggested a quick splice, but in Andrews’s estimation, the spot where the cable was frayed was too high—too far from the basket connection—and the splice would not be strong enough for the strain of the work they still had to perform: hoisting the last three sailors. There was no avoiding it. They were headed back.
Cournia knelt down next to Capt. Gelera and explained what was happening. Gelera, struggling to contain his emotions, desperate not to leave anyone behind, replied: “By the way, sir, thank you so much for helping us. But please go back and save the crew members.”
McCarthy again checked with the Northland to see if there was any change in their assessment of the conditions to engage in a rescue operation. Capt. Ryan discussed the options, which still excluded a small boat rescue. Ryan said they could try to drift close enough to the raft so the men could climb aboard. But to do that he would probably wait until there was some daylight, which was still hours away. A nighttime rescue was just too risky. The two men agreed it was best to continue with the helicopter operation for now, even with this new delay.
As Post pointed the Jayhawk northwest toward the island, McCarthy radioed that they would be returning with a frayed hoist cable. He told the base they needed to use the other helicopter and asked that it be prepped and ready for flight. But in keeping with the night’s progress, there was yet another problem. The storm, which by now was heavily battering Great Inagua, had knocked out the island’s main power supply, which came from a giant generator. The air base had a backup generator that immediately kicked in, but the storm killed that as well. This meant the massive concrete doors of the hangar wouldn’t open. There was nothing for the Jayhawk to do except continue to the base and hope that the problem would be solved before they arrived.
On base, the ground crew scrambled for a solution. A giant chain connected to four different motors pulled the doors open and shut. Civilians were in the water, and that helicopter had to come out. The men on base had only minutes before the Jayhawk would return. Todd Taylor, the aviation technician who’d expedited the inspection after the bird strike, told his crew to grab tools and dismantle the motors. Once they were disengaged, the doors would roll with less resistance. The men then strapped to the door one end of a sling normally used to airlift equipment. They attached the other end to a mule, the vehicle used to pull the helicopters out onto the runway. Then they gunned the mule’s diesel engine, with its 212-feet-perpound of torque, and wrenched the doors open, inch by inch.
By the time the Jayhawk landed, the ground crew was hooking up the second helicopter to tow it onto the runway. Post, McCarthy, Andrews and Cournia jumped out, grabbed the gear they needed and boarded the new Jayhawk. Gelera headed into the hangar to join Maco and the others, finally safe.
The Northland, meanwhile, had moved to within about a half mile of the liferaft and was sailing an oval-shaped pattern around the last three survivors. The seas were still too rough to get any closer. Joaquin remained a Category 4 hurricane, gusting up to 130 miles per hour, and it had grown in size. Hurricane-force winds now extended fifty miles out from the eye, and tropical storm-force winds extended out 200 miles, precisely where the rescue operation was taking place. There was a glimmer of hope, though. The storm was beginning its long-awaited shift to the northwest, a very slow turn at about 3 mph.
These were still dangerous seas for the tiny raft. But there were dangers also for the 270-foot Northland. Turning a ship in high seas can be perilous when the ship is broadside to the power and unpredictability of storm waves, and the cutter was doing it regularly—during every rotation of its oval pattern. It required a dexterous hand at the wheel. The conning officer, who gave commands to the helmsman, was trying to time the waves as he gave his commands. The idea was to drive into a swell slowly, then speed up as the ship turned, to minimize roll. At every turn, the quartermaster of the watch would wait for a signal, then announce over the public address, “Stand by for heavy rolls as the ship comes about.” The conning officer would then give the command for full rudder to turn the ship and “goose the engines” to drive the ship around quickly. Across the ship, the crew were doing crabwalks to get around, scurrying from one handhold to the next, which is why the ship’s safety maxim is “One hand for you, one for the ship.”
Eventually, the helicopter crew whirred back onto the scene in the new Jayhawk. Post, confident and practiced in his ability to hover in the high winds now, smoothly maneuvered into position over the raft. Cournia clipped in, and Andrews lowered him into the waves. The crew was synced like gears in a watch, moving quickly with as little wasted effort as possible. And to Cournia, it looked as if the lightning and rain had gotten even worse since the last sortie, which could generate more friction in the blades. Cournia slipped into the water and swam over to the raft. He pointed at Jules Cadet and
pulled him into the sea.
Throughout the night, Cadet had oscillated between bouts of fear and surges of hope. When they’d first jumped into the raft and abandoned ship, he’d thought there was a strong possibility he would die. When the helicopter had arrived and started rescuing people, he’d thought they had a chance. When the helicopter left without him, his mind had spiraled back to its fixation on impending death. Then, when they survived inside the raft for so many hours and the helicopter returned for a third time, he again believed they might survive. But now that he was in the water, with the rescue swimmer gripping him securely, he somehow felt simultaneously safe and accepting that he might not live, despite the fact that he was closer to being rescued than he had been all night. It didn’t make sense, but he felt a strange mix of happiness and fear. He let the swimmer guide him through the water, which was reassuringly warm as well as powerfully threatening, and let the waves he had been cowering from all night wash over him.
Cournia swam Cadet over to the basket and loaded him inside. As the basket was hoisted, Cournia hung on to minimize swing, and as he was lifted out of the water he felt a sudden jolt pass through his entire body. It was so strong that it locked his arms in a spasm of convulsed muscle. He tried to free his grip but couldn’t. Eventually the jolt passed and Cournia was able to drop back into the water.
A special static discharge cable—which had been attached to the basket to siphon excess electricity generated by the helicopter’s blades cutting through the air—had somehow ripped off, and a cur- rent of electricity had passed from the helicopter’s metal frame down the cable to the basket. This meant Cournia had to be extra careful to make sure the basket was in contact with the water whenever he touched it, in order to provide a ground for the electricity.
The second-to-last survivor pulled out of the raft was Henry Latigo. When Cournia pointed at him, Latigo scooted forward clutching a plastic bag. “You can’t bring that,” Cournia told him. “Please, sir, may I?” Latigo pleaded. “It has our passports and certificates. If we don’t have this maybe we can’t work?”
Latigo was a lifelong sailor, which in all practical terms meant he was a man of no nation. Like Gelera he had shipped out early, leaving his home on Cebu Island as a young man to become a merchant mariner nearly 40 years ago. He had been married, but the union didn’t survive his long absences. He hadn’t been home to see what family he had left in seven years. He had no permanent address other than the ship he was on, and right now that home was at the bottom of the sea. Without papers, Latigo would be as adrift in the modern world as he was right now. He was a good choice to guard that bag and make sure it arrived onto dry land. It contained his entire existence.
Cournia relented and pulled Latigo and his big plastic bag filled with the crew’s documents, as well as the boat’s money, into the water. Holding on to the collar of Latigo’s life vest, Cournia swam him to the basket, floated him inside and sent him up to the helicopter. When the cable came back down, Cournia clipped himself in and was taxied over to the raft for the very last survivor.
The last sailor’s rescue went so smoothly it was almost forgettable—Cournia, utterly spent by then, has almost no recollection of it—except for the unforgettable fact that a man’s life was being saved. At any rate, the sailor rode up without incident—the last in
the ragged line of sodden, desperate men who had been on the receiving end of Joaquin’s fury all night long. When the sailor was safely inside the helicopter’s cabin, Andrews unclipped the basket and sent the cable and hook down one last time. Cournia, bobbing in seas that had tried and failed to subdue him for the past 10 hours, grabbed the hook and clipped in. As he was lifted out of the water and hoisted up by his crewmate, he felt his body go limp with fatigue at an effort that had pushed his training to the limit. Around him the winds still whipped and below him the waves still collided and plumed into a white froth. Dawn was just starting to speckle the sky with its light, faint rays of green and pink struggling to make their way through the cloud cover.
McCarthy radioed the Northland that the mission was over. District 7 was notified and radioed in one last request: Could the swimmer please puncture the life raft so it would not be a hazard to shipping?
Cournia, safe in the helicopter and finally headed back to base, rolled his eyes. The request was politely declined. The storm was still raging, the sky still mostly dark, but McCarthy and Post could see the day’s first light bleeding over the edge of the horizon below the cloud cover as the Jayhawk settled onto the tarmac back on Great Inagua. It was 6:25 A.M. In the left ankle pocket of McCarthy’s flight suit, where it had been the entire time, was his daughter’s stuffed turtle.
After landing and signing the aircraft in, Post walked over to greet the Minouche crew, who were huddled under blankets on the hangar deck. He wanted to make sure they were okay, of course, but he was also curious about what had happened on the ship. The captain explained how their ordeal had gone down: the list, the loss of engine power, the big wave. It had been a horrific night, but they were all smiles now. They said thanks— mési in Haitian Creole— shaking Post’s hand and clapping his shoulder. Post wished them well. Then he headed to his hooch.
The helicopter crew was exhausted but still wired from the adrenaline that had coursed through their veins throughout the night. They all wanted to get a message to their families, but the base’s internet connection and phones were down. Cournia had been messaging with his wife right before he was called to the hangar. His last words to her were something to the effect of “Gotta go, there’s a ship down in a storm.” Post’s wife, Rachel, also a Coast Guard helicopter pilot, was well aware her husband was on a mission in a hurricane and was waiting with growing apprehension to hear whether he was back. Eventually, the base’s communications officer relayed a message through to Clearwater, asking the air station to contact all the families and let them know the guardsmen were safe. Finally, the men could get some rest.
Andrews was starving, but once he got to his hooch, he realized he was too tired to feed himself. Instead, he collapsed into bed.