• Ana

Man Over Board - no, this was not a drill


30 minutes have passed since the last VHF communication and I still feel the tears starting to flood my eyes, my stomach a small ball. This was not a drill, this was a real Man Over Board incident close enough for us to hear it all morning but far enough for us not being able to assist, especially given the recurrent engine problem that we were trying to solve at sea.

It was late morning, maybe around 10.30 when the first message came in, we were already dealing with the usual problem of dropping RPMs and if we had not been dealing with it at the time we would have probably missed it given the numerous Pan Pan messages from Tarifa Traffic Radio regarding adrift rafts with illegal immigrants in the Gibraltar Strait area but this one was different, it had coordinates and the person was clearly in distress.

The coordinates were reasonably close, enough to capture my full attention since I'm the one filling the log book.

The message wasn't clear, a lot of background noise, a strong accent in limited English and a clearly distressed person.

We waited for the repeat

Pan Pan, Pan Pan, Pan Pan

Motor vessel Anne I

Man Over Board

Longitude 0 3 4 degrees 3 8 minutes 2 seconds North

Latitude 0 1 2 degrees 4 3 minutes 3 seconds West

It took several repeats to get the full coordinates and vessel name right but the emergency message was pretty clear a man had fallen from a cargo ship and they couldn't see him.


Our hearts shrank, there was nothing we could do to help we were a day away and we were at the moment with a dead engine. On our thoughts was that at least the sea and wind conditions that were causing us difficulties would be the best chance for the victim. Little swell, no waves, calm seas and winds that blew at best 7 knots.

We were having difficulties with this forecast, light winds on the nose we couldn't head north, so we were battling with our engine to try and get closer to shore.

After many repeats we started listening two other cargo vessels replying, they were a couple of hours away and they could assist. Messages back and forward with clear difficulties in communication due to the weak English level of the distressed vessel and it was confirmed the vessels would start a search and rescue mission on the trail of the distressed vessel.

2h was their ETA to the incident.

During that time we kept trying to solve our huge problem, our engine went from losing RPMS to not start at all. Check valves, check fuel lines for fuel and air leaks. Nothing would work and we had already checked the tanks in Gibraltar.

The emergency message kept coming at steady intervals.

Pan Pan, Pan Pan, Pan Pan

Motor vessel Anne I

Man Over Board

Longitude 0 3 4 degrees 3 8 minutes 2 seconds North

Latitude 0 1 2 degrees 4 3 minutes 3 seconds West

Our stomachs upside down with each repeat, our minds wondering if a cargo vessel cannot spot a MOB in these sea conditions what are the chances in gnarly weather?

We carried on, "dismantling" our yacht to expose one of the tanks to check the fuel intake and in our worst thought jury rig one of the spare fuel containers directly to the engine.

Finally, on the other side of the VHF, we hear one of the assisting vessels asking if any sort of debris had felled with the victim. The distressed vessel with big language difficulties explains or expresses that a white square horse danbuoy was deployed. We assume they're trying to explain that one of the new MOB devices was deployed.

The assisting vessel says they can see some lines floating in the water and asked for radio silence.

The team on this vessel had clearly assumed the command of the radio and search operations since the distress on the other vessel was clearly becoming a difficulty. Radio silence was ordered several times.

And then they confirmed they had found the victim and were trying to retrieve him to their vessel. Radio silence was asked.

After a few moments, they informed the victim was on board and that operations to return the victim to the original vessel were required. A lot of confusion on the VHF with the vessel that issued the Pan Pan trying to understand if it was confirmed they had the victim on board or insight. Finally, the vessel that did the rescue confirmed very clearly that they had the victim on board but it was not a good outcome, the body needed to be transferred to the original boat.

After that, the radio went silent.

Tears flooded our eyes as we looked at each other. We knew what was on each other minds, we are super careful, always wear our life vests and always clipped in if the conditions are not perfectly calm. Here we were today, none of us wearing a life jacket in the middle of an ocean passage both of us going up on deck and below deck having the other one at the helm. Sea and wind conditions calm, too calm.

Today we confirmed that we will keep and reinforce our habit of wearing the life jackets and safety lines.

And will keep in mind that it took around 3h to find a Man Over Board in good sea and wind conditions during the day by 3 fully crewed cargo ships that have the advantage of height.

We are just two and a dog.


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