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SOS Really Did Work

The ‘MV Tectus’ was a 65,000 ton dry bulk carrier bound from Denmark to South Africa. My wife and I had joined her in Sonderjylland, Denmark on the 21st March 1984 together with the Captain and several other Officers. We had over-nighted in Aabenraa, which was a typical immaculate Danish small town to be proud of, and which puts many places to shame. We had a day to enjoy the town and the people so we made the most of it.

On joining the ship I found that the ‘Sailor VHF’ in the Radio Room had been defective for some time and I scheduled repairs for the first quiet spell at sea which did not occur until we were south of the Canaries. It was a normal morning watch that day with investigation and repair of the fault to be in the afternoon, so after lunch off I went back to the Radio Room to get started.

Being outside formal watching hours the Auto-alarm was on though never-the-less I also had the main receiver on 500 Khz monitoring the Distress Frequency burbling away in the background, this being fairly normal procedure when conducting non-radio watchkeeping work in the radio room outside normal watchkeeping hours. I spent some time with the Sailor transceiver and had narrowed the fault down to within a whisker when I heard strength five Morse signal

(SOS All Stations this is etc)

blasting through on the main receiver; this was followed by a position and a report of finding a lifeboat. A quick mental check of the position given, our own noon position together with the very strong signal strength left me guessing it must real close maybe some 15 miles away; this turned out to be 12.5 miles away when the Second Mate checked the chart. A Ghanaian ship had spotted a lifeboat from a Spanish fishing boat and picked up six survivors. The fishing boat had sunk the previous day after an engineroom fire and explosion. Eighteen hours in, the open boat had taken a surprising toll on the survivors and the Ghanaian ship was taking them helter-skelter to port for medical treatment, meanwhile there were another six personnel not accounted for from the fishing boat.

All this information was passed to the Captain on my way to the Bridge, the Captain followed me up there and started search procedures right away whilst I returned to the Radio Room.

No Auto-Alarm signal had been transmitted despite the alert being out of normal radio watch keeping hours and really the message priority should have been XXX not SOS if I wanted to nit pick, never-the-less the alarm had been raised. I relayed the message to Las Palmas Radio (EAR), advising them that no Auto-Alarm signal had been sent, they then took over as controlling station leaving my vessel functioning as local control and contact.   

The buzz went quickly around the ship and off duty personnel turned to as extra lookouts; the wives abandoned sunbathing duties to join the lookout squad (and hopefully not distract them) to search the seas around us, my wife kept me advised as to what was happening on deck as the bridge was far too busy to think of keeping the radio room informed. So all in all the search was carried out but we were the only ship searching, as the Auto-alarm signal had not been sent to alert other vessels and when I had suggested sending the Auto-Alarm signal I was told not to bother as it was now down to EAR and the bridge search party would handle things locally on the Bridge VHF. What happened in this respect I don’t know as I was unable to monitor VHF Channel 16 because my own VHF was still under repair. I do know that no other ship joined in the search though!

Las Palmas despatched a search Helicopter but all contact was via the coast radio station as I still had that defective VHF and no air-band radio for direct communication, the bridge did not use their VHF for this purpose. However there was little delay in comms via EAR so despite the lack of direct contact I was satisfied with the relay of information back and to between the ship and the helicopter.

After some time there were squeals from the wives and my wife came in to tell me a liferaft had been sighted and we were proceeding towards it, information I confirmed via the bridge phone and duly passed on to EAR and our Aerial Search party; at about the same time the aircraft had passed information to me, via EAR, that they had found three bodies, gave the position and asked that we recover them.

It was all happening at this point, the bridge sounded the ships whistle which alerted the guys in the liferaft, first one head poked out closely followed by two more so, after duly advising the bridge of the three bodies sighted, I was able to pass the word back to the aircraft that we were dealing with three live survivors first and would look for the bodies afterwards.

Six in the lifeboat, three in the liferaft and sadly the three bodies accounted for all 12 of the crew members off the fishing boat and when we got our three survivors onboard we found that one was the skipper of the fishing vessel and he confirmed the numbers of personnel on the boat at the time of the distress.

Our three survivors were fit enough to scramble up the pilot ladder despite the ship being in ballast making it a high climb. They appeared to have faired better than the reports we had received of those in the lifeboat, sure adrenaline had probably kicked in with the rescue but they were cheerfully able to take advantage of our crew’s hospitality that was, needless to say, generous.

The fishing boat skipper came into the radio room and made a call to Las Palmas and, though common language was a struggle was able to tell us about the Engineroom fire, a gas cylinder exploding and having to abandon the vessel, they had apparently got six men into the lifeboat whilst they had tried to put the fire out and save the ship all to no avail, the liferaft had not inflated properly and they had to use the hand pump as best as they could whilst onboard the now sinking fishing vessel, gunnels awash they had floated the liferaft off and scrambled aboard. During the night the boat and liferaft had drifted apart, they had seen the guys in the lifeboat rescued but had been unable to attract the attention of the Ghanaian ship and told us they had felt pretty low when they saw it sail away.

However they couldn’t thank us enough and there was much camaraderie on the way back to Las Palmas as you would well imagine, sadness at the loss of the three lives but our guys already knew they were dead, had tried unsuccessfully to get the bodies into the liferaft so had then said a prayer and left them.

As for ourselves we were on a high for a good few days after that rescue. I have been on a number of man overboard searches which had been unsuccessful and I had experienced the communal guilt felt on sailing away when the search had to be abandoned. That was an awful feeling and gloom would hang over the ship for days as we thought of the fellow seafarer(s) left to their fate, a fate probably already sealed by the time it was decided to call off further searching. This rescue was something else again, one of those occasions where I felt, we all felt, that something had been achieved that day.

The next day it took me ten minutes to finally locate that fault and another thirty minutes to locate and fit the spares needed to restore that VHF to operation. I have often wondered what would have been the outcome had I not chosen that particular time to make repairs to the VHF, indeed what would have happened if the VHF had not been defective in the first place when I wouldn’t have heard to SOS!! Life’s full of coincidences, some we could do without but others like that defective VHF we can be truly grateful for.

I had been on an Landing Ship(Tank) [LST] when a soldier had been lost overboard; his buddies had seen him go and raised the alarm straight away. We got him back onboard after following the standard man overboard procedure of dropping a life ring whilst steaming straight on, then another life ring about half a mile on before turning to bring the ship back onto the life rings using them to direct us back to where the man was, during this time the lifeboat was prepared for launching and launched when we were back in position. There were a hundred troops plus all the off duty ships personnel with the duty deck and bridge personnel out there looking, I had put the radar off and climbed the radar mast to look hoping the advantage of height might help, at one stage we could hear the guy shouting but could not see him in a very moderate Mediterranean Sea. Finally I did spot him and shouted down to the bridge but lost sight of him as the ship rolled, even knowing where he was it took me another minute to re-locate him so we could direct the lifeboat to him. Unless you have experienced it you can have little or no idea how difficult it is to spot a man in the water.


But there were times when SOS worked real good!


Mike G Ridehalgh
Snr REO (ret)