The US Coastguard has said it will resume a search and rescue operation within the hour for the four missing British yachtsmen who got into difficulties 620 miles (1,000km) east of Cape Cod in their boat, the Cheeki Rafiki, on Friday. The coastguard had called off the search for Paul Goslin, 56; Andrew Bridge, 22; Steve Warren, 52; and James Male, 23, after a spokesman said the men could only have survived for about 20 hours after the “time of distress”. A family and public petition, however, said they could still be found alive.
We are getting more pieces of the jigsaw but in these cases you never have the complete picture of what happened and the conflicting reports from numerous sources make it even more difficult. When working out the chances of survival, our role is to look at the facts, examine the best and worst case scenarios, estimate what has happened and advise accordingly.
Yesterday I spoke with the US Coastguard and I understand that the yacht’s Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) was not triggered, nor does it appear to have been transferred to the life raft, which suggests that the vessel was abandoned as an emergency, not in a controlled manner and the life raft was perhaps not launched. The coastguard’s information also suggested that two of the crew’s personal locator beacons – which have to be activated manually – were activated at the same time, not separately as has been suggested. This changes the picture significantly.
The US Coastguard and Canadian Coastguard employ sophisticated search modelling systems such as Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System, or Sarops, which use data such as last known location, wind speed and ocean currents, to work out where and object might be or have drifted. It is by no means a guarantee but since the US Coastguard had a good data point from which to start, one would expect them to find a raft if it were possible, even if weather conditions were not conducive to surveillance.
The crew were sailing back from a regatta in Antigua when the boat began taking on water and diverted to the Azores. If they made it into the life raft they would have had the best possible chance of survival, although the conditions were far from favourable even for survival in a life raft.
If they were in the water of the Atlantic Ocean, we would be talking about hours rather than days. The sea conditions would have been around 13-16 degrees Celsius and the wind speeds at the time of the accident were around 30-40 knots with six metre waves. In calm conditions, we would anticipate survival times in the water of about six hours but the prevailing conditions were not ideal so it might be less than this.
US Coastguard rescue teams searched for 53 hours before calling off the search on Sunday. The UK Coastguard said its counterparts did all they could. But the search is now back on.
Even though we employ all our scientific knowledge in these cases, search and rescue remains more of an art than a science. It is my sincere wish that these young men have beaten the odds but my experience suggests that hope is, sadly, running out.