International partners rescue sailors from the mid-Atlantic

JRCC Halifax
JRCC Halifax coordinated international rescue of sailors in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean


By Lucy Ellis, Canadian Joint Operations Command Public Affairs

When a CC-130 Hercules aircraft left Greenwood, Nova Scotia at 1 am on June 9, 2017, the crew thought that they were being sent to help a single sailor in distress in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. By the time they reached the sailor, two other vessels also needed help.

The crew quickly realized that they were just one part of a growing search and rescue mission that would eventually see six sailors rescued from four vessels over three days.

This effort, led by the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) Halifax, came to include air and maritime assets from four countries, as well as seven commercial vessels. From Canada, five Royal Canadian Air Force aircraft, one Royal Canadian Navy frigate, and two Canadian Coast Guard ships were tasked to help.

“The responsibility for bringing them to shore doesn’t lie solely on anybody’s shoulders,” said Sean Arbour, a Maritime Search and Rescue Coordinator at JRCC Halifax who helped coordinate this mission. “To share part of that responsibility is a really great feeling.”

The sailors were competing in the Original Singlehanded Transatlantic Race and Twohanded Transatlantic Race from Plymouth, UK, to Newport, Rhode Island.

More than 900 nautical miles east of Newfoundland, the sailors were hit by a severe storm: they faced 15 metre waves and winds between 90 and 130 kilometres an hour. For reference, the yachts in the race were between about 8 and 18 metres long.

“It was probably the strongest winds I’ve ever flown in, and probably the worst weather I’ve had to deal with,” said Captain Jonathan Bregman, an Aircraft Commander at 413 Search and Rescue Squadron. “From my perspective, visibility was quite poor. We were dealing with some heavy rain at the time which really obstructed the view. It was difficult to locate the boat until you were quite close.”

Despite all of that, they made contact with the first sailor. The Hercules crew spoke to him by radio and stayed above his yacht, the Tamarind, for just under two hours. Without a plane overhead, the sailor had no way of making contact with the rescue coordination centre. A Portuguese P3 Orion arrived on the scene and took over the top cover duties so the Hercules could go refuel. The sailor was rescued on June 10 by RMS Queen Mary II, a cruise liner that diverted its course to help.

“One of the oldest traditions of the maritime industry is that people out on vessels typically respond to any kind of emergency,” said Mr. Arbour. “We received messages from close to a dozen vessels that were willing to help. The vessels that were tasked to help were very diligent and very cooperative.”

JRCC Halifax’s job wasn’t done. Two more yachts, the Furia and the Happy, sustained substantial damage during the storm and their crews required rescue. JRCC Halifax tasked a CP-140 Aurora from Greenwood to fly between the ships and monitor their condition. While the Aurora is not usually used for search and rescue, its surveillance and reconnaissance tools allowed it to keep a close eye on the situation.

The rescue centre worked with international partners and directed the research vessel Thor Magni and the merchant ship ALP Forward to the distressed vessels where they rescued all four crew members.

A fourth boat, the Illumia, was able to get out of the violent storm area but was severely damaged. Captain John McSheffrey, a CH-149 Cormorant Aircraft Commander from 103 Search and Rescue Squadron in Gander, Newfoundland, got the call on June 11. The boat was around 350 miles offshore, which is outside of the range that the Cormorant would typically respond to.

“The vessel was drifting and it wasn’t going to get any closer. And because of the storm, the condition sounded pretty serious,” said Captain McSheffrey. “The only way to do the mission was to get fuel on an oil rig on the way out, and on the way back. Typically, we don’t do that.”

Despite the far distance—Captain McSheffrey noted that this was the furthest he has flown out to sea—the rescue was a success. Supported by a Hercules, the Cormorant easily located the sailor. He was hoisted up to the Cormorant from his life raft in around 15 minutes and was brought safely to shore.

Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Charlottetown was also initially tasked to help during this mission. The ship steamed throughout the night in high seas before being redirected once the rescues had been completed.

Throughout all of this, JRCC Halifax worked closely with the United Kingdom, Portugal, and the United States.

“It’s good when we can reach out to other countries and other industries and find such good cooperation, because I don’t think the job would be possible without the strong cohesion between all organizations,” said Mr. Arbour.

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