A Coordinated Search and Rescue Effort
The resulting distress signal was received by the SARSAT (Search and Rescue Satellite) System and marked the beginning of a remarkable effort by United States Coast Guard and Navy personnel to rescue the endangered sailor. A helicopter were launched by the Navy’s USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and an aircrew was dispatched in a HC-130J Hercules aircraft by the Coast Guard’s Air Station Elizabeth City. A vessel participating in AMAVRS (Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue System) was dispatched to the area to assist.
By the time the Navy helicopter arrived on the scene, the Gloria A Dios had sunk, and Lieutenant Commander Scott Pichette and his helicopter rescue crew took in the situation. "Most of us have been in [the Navy] for almost 18 years, and those were some of the biggest waves any of us had seen," said Pichette. Ice, snow and hail served to make the rescue inconceivable to the rest of us, however the veteran crew managed to locate Clements via his dim, pocket flashlight, extract the solo sailor, and lift him to safety. After which, the crew returned to the Dwight D. Eisenhower with dwindling fuel, and the C-130 as escort.
Clements was knocked off his vessel sometime during the night, after it was demasted and finally sank. He was somehow able to find a liferaft dropped by the Coast Guard aircraft during the night. Clements’ EPIRB provided initial location information to rescuers and ultimately he was found by Navy personnel because of a flashlight he was carrying. The Eisenhower’s helicopter picked Clements out of the water and transported him safety back to their ship. While this effort was underway, a helicopter from Air Station Elizabeth City flew to the Eisenhower, refueled and brought Clements back to shore at Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
In a press release concerning the incident, Coast Guard Watchstander Lieutenant Scott Farr said, “When a mariner in distress is hundreds of miles offshore, the best platform to assist might be a commercial vessel transiting between ports or a DoD (Department of Defense) asset. The Motor Vessel Ryujin, was diverted, but could not maintain their course to affect a rescue due to heavy seas. Ultimately, the quick and effective coordination between the Fifth District Command Center, Air Station Elizabeth City and the USS Eisenhower provided assistance to this mariner with the use of multiple aircraft by coordinating and leveraging their unique capabilities when no one else was within 100 nautical miles of the sailboat's position.”
Dennis Clements had a model year 2000 ACR Satellite2 406 MHz EPIRB, a manually activated beacon, according to ACR marketing manager Chris Wahler, who spoke to the sailor after his rescue. He had the EPIRB mounted in its bracket on a bulkhead inside the cabin near the companionway, says Wahler.
He says federal regulations mandate that all EPIRBs must activate when they become wet, but a manually activated EPIRB like Clements' model will not activate if it's properly positioned in its bracket, he says.
"What I learned from talking to Mr. Clements is that he had put the EPIRB in the bracket backward," says Wahler. This negated the effect of a magnet on the device that prevents the EPIRB from activating in the bracket when it becomes wet, he says.
So when a wave crashed through the cabin and soaked everything, the beacon went off, says Wahler. "That, to me, is luck," he says.
The Coast Guard launched rescue efforts at about 5 p.m. Jan. 2 in response to the signal.
Despite the unforgiving conditions, mechanical and electrical problems, and holed cabin side, Clements says he thought activating the EPIRB was unwarranted. "I didn't know if the thing worked anyway," he says. And when it did activate, Clements says he thought about turning it off.
"I always believed that you turned on your beacon as you climbed up out of your boat and into your life raft," he says. "I wasn't sinking at the time. I had just shattered the port side. I had taken a couple hundred gallons of water on board, but I still thought I could make it."
Clements' EPIRB, which didn't have GPS, has a 15-year lifespan if maintained properly, says Wahler. ACR recommends that the batteries be replaced every five years. (For commercial users, federal regulations mandate replacement every five years, he says.) Clements says he knew his beacon's batteries should have been replaced.
"It was 10 years old," he says. "I knew it was out of date. I didn't have a budget to buy a new one - that wasn't high on my list of stuff to do. So I basically just took it apart, opened it up, took each one of the batteries out, and checked them with a volt meter. They were registering the rated voltage.
"I looked at the possibility of replacing the batteries, but they were like $100 a piece or something like that," he says. "The unit was so old, I thought to put $100 batteries in this thing when it's 10 years old - it would be a better price decision to buy a new one and, like I told you, it wasn't in the budget."
Wahler says EPIRB users should never disassemble the devices, because they could damage them or put them back together incorrectly. ACR does not offer user-replaceable batteries, says Wahler. The user must bring the beacon to a service location. (There are 60 in the United States.) For about $250 to $300, the battery and the seals and gaskets are replaced. The unit will also undergo a pressure test to make sure it is still watertight, as well as a transmission test.