Mayday, Mayday, Mayday

It’s a word that is easy to say. That is what Fredrick Mockford thought in the early 1920’s. He wanted a word that was easily understood by pilots (English and French) to indicate an emergency over voice radio. At the time, he was the officer in charge at Croydon Airport in England. It was a good choice because m’aidez in French means Help Me. SOS was the recognized telegraph signal but was not suitable for voice radio – ESOHES – which was the new tech on the scene. All this is background to our recent experience when sailing from St. Lucia to Bequia.

After Melanie and Dave flew home from Martinique, we sailed to St Lucia for a few days. Then we were off to Bequia and south. The sailing weather was great, with winds 15-20 knots on the beam although the seas were running 6-7 feet. We left Rodney Bay around 4 AM to be in Bequia way before sunset. Light winds and calm seas in the lee of the islands is balanced with high winds and seas between islands. This trip was no different. Sailing southbound, just after passing the Pitons in St Lucia, the wind picks up as you make for the north west corner of St. Vincent. Since the winds were moderate, and actually slightly north of east, I gave thought about sailing on the east side of St. Vincent down to Bequia, an island just south of St. Vincent. This might save time and miles and avoid the wind shadow of St Vincent. The down-side of that is that you are sailing along a lee shore with no place to land if something happens. And things happen at the most inconvenient time. A recent experience of our cruising friends also played on my mind. Their rudder got stuck hard over when sailing to Martinique and they circled an hour freeing it, all the while drifting toward Diamond Rock. They managed to disconnect the cabling and used the autopilot to steer, arriving safely in Ste Anne.

No, we will sail on the west side to Bequia and made a course to the lee of St Vincent. We would be in the lee of the island for lunch! All was going well until a pop and bang shook the boom and mainsail. We heard that before – when the boom broke, when the vang broke, when the stay sail tack broke, ect. But  this was a broken cam cleat on the boom vang. Not a terrible thing and an easy jury rig fix. We continued on.

We were about 5 miles off the northwest corner of St Vincent when we though we heard “mayday, mayday, mayday” on channel 16 on the VHF (the emergency channel). Nothing was heard after that until about 5 minutes later we heard it again. Yes, it was definitely a mayday. There were a few other sailboats in the area but we saw nothing unusual. This time I responded and ask who was calling a mayday. Again, no response for a few minutes and then someone said they had a broken mast. This started a very tortured conversation first with a man and then a woman. Apparently, they did not speak English very well and couldn’t understand our questions. Maureen was manning the VHF at this time as I searched for the boat. I spotted a boat that was about 2 miles away but it looked like it had a mast and sail up but not moving. I altered course to get closer and saw that the mast above the spreader was bent down to the waterline. Needless to say, their VHF antenna was probably down and they were on a hand held radio.

The area this took place in is known as a “compression zone”. It occurs at the end of the high mountainous islands where the wind is forced to whip around the island. This increases both wind and waves for a few miles. But the tradition of the sea, and common curtesy, requires an “all hands” response when another boat calls for help, and so we altered course to come up close. Over the next 30 minutes or so we circled around them and with radio relay help of two other sailboats closer to shore, got word to the local Coast Guard of the situation. It was a French sailboat about 40’ long with a man, woman and child aboard. Apparently no injures or sinking. We could do nothing else but assure them that the authorities were called, and help was on its way. In the meantime, the man was cutting away the rigging as you can’t use the engine until you make sure there is nothing in the water to foul the prop. We got word that the Coast Guard would be there in about a half hour (or was it an hour and a half?). They had to come from the other end of the island. Satisfied that they were on their way with the accurate GPS position we gave, we couldn’t do anything more (circling with main and stay sail in large seas is not pleasant!). We resumed our course south. In short order we saw the Coast Guard boat speeding up the island and turn out to sea toward them. We heard that they got to the scene and were proving assistance. We don’t know if they went aboard or not but we are sure they were well assisted.

No pictures on this post as in haste, “technical errors” ensued during the events described.

Just another day on the water? Perhaps, but as I wrote above, things happen. A simple word, thought about 100 years ago, saved the day for a French couple and a child.     

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