At 8:15 on Monday morning – forget all about which time zone – a solo sailor in a remote part of the Australia’s Tasman Sea fired the emergency beacon from his crippled boat. The lone mast had snapped in a storm and, low on fuel, the bad weather only heightened his misery. So he fired a device called an EPIRB and soon a very strange thing happened from high above in the sky.
A huge Air Canada Boeing 777 came screaming across what appeared to be the top of the water. The jetliner, which normally flies at 35,000 feet, diverted from its normal Sydney-from-Vancouver route, dropped to just 3,700 feet over the sea and – with 220 sets of wide-open eyes scanning the water and a wingspan of just as many feet – promptly found “a needle in a haystack.”
As the plane’s captain resumed altitude to get back on course, the navigator radioed the precise coordinates, confirmed human activity on the sailboat, and – presto – the sailor has since been rescued by a New Zealand Police launch and was due to be back on land sometime yesterday.
Think about that for a minute. As one passenger wrote on Facebook, “15 hour flight ends up being 17 hours as we descend to 4,000 ft. to locate a capsized yacht for search and rescue. Amazing, and slightly off-putting, to see what a Boeing 777 aircraft can do when not on autopilot and flying/circling low over the ocean. Found the boat thanks to people who bring binoculars in their carry-on (yup, like 6-7 sets aboard) and now we are home safely.”
Stephen Hosking, who runs the Quays Marina at Church Point on the Australian coast, has never heard of anything like it. “We’re told the EPIRB is the absolute last resort when we are out on the water. He must have been in trouble and would have tried everything before setting it off. Either that or he’s an idiot.”
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority takes EPIRB alerts very seriously and almost the instant the beacon was charged it was determined a ship-in-distress was about 270 nautical miles east of Sydney. It was also quickly learned Air Canada Flight AC033 was the closest vessel to the digital “Mayday!”
Capt. Andrew Robertson, the Air Canada chief pilot, was contacted by Australian air traffic control. “There is a ship, a yacht in distress, may be sunk, and you are the closest aircraft. Would you be able to assist?” came the query.
“Once we put the (coordinates) into our computer … and determined we had the fuel … I made a PA announcement to ask the passengers to watch for the boat because it is like searching for a needle in a haystack,” Capt. Robertson said.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve just received a call from search and rescue teams in Australia saying that there was a yacht that was sinking off the shore of Sydney. We are the closest air craft in the vicinity and they have asked us to identify the location of the boat. It is going to mean a slight detour…”
After flying for almost 14 hours, there was a decided “nervousness” as the gigantic airplane began to rapidly descend. “Almost right away my First Officer spotted something, but at 5,000 feet it is hard to make out details. So I went from 5,000 down to 3,700 … and they saw what they thought initially were three people on deck, but it turns out there was only one.”
The pilot said the 220 passengers were “awesome” as they tagged along and, while the search delayed the plane’s arrival by 90 minutes, the passengers were “really happy and pleased with the outcome.”
One passenger was Canadian songbird Jill Barber, a popular singer who promptly Tweeted, “It was not what I’d call an uneventful flight … very impressed with the response of the captain, the crew and the passengers!”
Jill admitted anxiety at first. “Anything out of the ordinary on a long flight like that, over the ocean, can make your heart race a little bit. So, everybody was concerned but – you know – rolling with it. When we began circling around, it was a bit scary. It felt like we were flying right on top of the water. We had a pretty good view and (the pilot) was tipping the wings from side to side to maximize the view.
“Everybody on board cheered and clapped when they announced they had found the boat and a police boat was en route. But it was not uneventful at all,” the singer laughed during an interview.
After the boat’s beacon was activated, an Air New Zealand Airbus 320, en route to Sydney from Auckland, also joined in the search and a cargo ship, the ANL Benalla, arrived at the site to shield the stricken boat from high winds.
Within a few short hours after the sailboat was spotted an Australian rescue airplane dropped a life raft, provisions and a satellite phone. Since then, a New Zealand police craft, called the Nemesis, has rescued the sailor and is was expected to arrive in Sydney Harbor by late Wednesday.
The sailor, not yet identified, will have a whale of a story to share with his buddies but, my oh my, can you think of how many thank-you notes he has to write to his rescuers?