The Voyage


Andy and Melissa are sailing around the world on their 48-foot sailboat, Spectacle.

The Position

Bali, Indonesia

The Pictures

The Voyage of Spectacle

Episode V — A Retrieval with “Flare”

Now that the wind had completely died and stalled us, we sat there and, truth be told, laughed our asses off.  We had been out in 44 knots of wind with (we think – we never saw them) 14-18 foot waves.  We had lost our engine – and fixed it – and lost it again. We had lost all electricity.  Thankfully, we had a hand-held GPS and paper charts, so we had managed to hand-steer ourselves into perfect position (for the second time), about three miles from the Sandbore Channel entrance.

Unfortunately, now there was (a) no wind, (b) fading daylight, and (c) all the problems previously described.  The waves were literally less than three inches tall, no bigger than an L.A. swimming pool when the Santa Anas are running.

We sat there for about 90 minutes, collectively sort of flummoxed, in these bathtub-like conditions.  Truth be told, I think Erik and Melissa were looking to me for some kind of leadership.  I was in no condition to provide it.  All three of us were tired but, more accurately, sort of “slappy.”  We all knew that this was the end-game (and that everything would be OK), but we didn’t really know how.  We told stories, goofed around and didn’t really discuss how we were going to finally land the boat.  The wind seemed to continue to fade, if that was possible.  We were sitting completely still.

Melissa had the idea to make a big sign indicating our predicament.  After finding an appropriate surplus panel and a blue Sharpie, we ended up with the results you see in the accompanying picture. 

Eventually, an east-bound plane appeared to be descending towards Provo.  Shortly thereafter, a west-bound plane appeared to be taking off from Provo.  In short order, we realized that we were in the flight path of the Provo airport.

“We should shoot flares at these planes,” said Erik, taking words out of my mouth.

“I totally agree,” I said. “Go get the flares.”

By now, Erik was pretty into the flares.  In fact, he has graciously decided to share some of his thoughts on the topic with all of you (Erik’s thoughts are in italics): 

“There is an art to shooting off flares, and if done correctly, it can be enjoyable and fun.  (I mean, besides the given circumstance that you are sending a distress call, so presumably you are in distress, which by definition is neither enjoyable or fun.) 

But, if shot hurriedly or in a panic, flares can be deadly.  So when you are famished, tired, desperate, sick, emotionally drained, and your eyes have exploded — your first time shooting a high-powered “Cannon Flare” that can be seen “for 30 miles” can be tricky.  Especially if you are barefoot and the plane is getting away.  Erik Heger -- Tired Sailor and Flare Connoisseur

If you find yourself in this situation, do not underestimate the value of picture-diagram instructions . . . . they are remarkably suited for the weary sunburned sailor adrift at sea.

Of course, reading instructions may be difficult for you because your eyes will have already exploded.  So take deep breaths, move to the back of the boat, and its easy as one, two, three.  If you have earplugs, insert them now.

Of course, after firing off 5 cannon flares, 4 pistol flares, all sorts of smoke flares, self-firing parachute flares, an assortment of handheld flares, and plenty of duds — well, after all that you begin to feel like you know what you are doing.  You also get trigger happy.” 

We (Erik) ended up shooting flares at three different planes.  Afterwards, for about 45 minutes, the sky darkened and the air traffic around Provo Airport appeared to slacken.  This was disheartening – we thought that someone would notice us sitting in such a conspicuous location (and behaving so conspicuously) that we’d be picked up pronto.  As darkness descended, for a brief moment we all thought that the lights of Provo were a boat coming for us.  Not so.

And then Melissa’s ears perked up.  “Do you hear that?” she asked.  I didn’t … at first.

Moments later, there was a faint sound: Chucka-chucka-chucka-chucka-chucka-chucka-chucka-chucka.

“I think that’s a helicopter,” I said.  And I was right.

Out of nowhere, low and loud, a helicopter appeared.  In the now-dark sky, it appeared unmarked, and its intentions were unknown (although we were pretty darn sure it was here for us).  Shortly, the anonymous helicopter (“Who is it?” we wondered aloud) began to circle us.  I now began to get visions of the bill for this operation (“$500 … $1000 … $1500” I said to myself, each time the chopper finished a lap).  After 15 or 20 laps, they shined down their high-powered spotlight on us.  Up went Melissa’s sign, as she traversed between the port and starboard decks holding it up for the copter to read.  I engaged in my own game of charades with the copter, communicating (or trying to) that we had no radio, no engine and no electricity.

Melissa said, “I think I should get the video camera.”  In hindsight, it’s a shame she didn’t.

The copter continued to circle us for – no joke — nearly an hour.  We assumed this was a Turks & Caicos chopper that was pinpointing our position so a tow boat could come get us.  Finally, the circling stopped and the chopper hovered in the air, turning towards us, in a menacing “attack”-like position.

“What are they doing?” we asked each other, somewhat alarmed.

At this point, we saw what appeared to be cables descending from the chopper.  It looked as though they were preparing to either send someone to the boat or try to pull us off the boat.


Melissa and I both had visions of Katrina-type helicopter rescues.

“We’re not abandoning this boat!” screamed Melissa.  “No f&^$ing sh$%!” I responded.

We started waving our arms and pointing to the sign frantically to try to communicate that.  All of the sudden, the copter dove at us, very low and very loud, passing right over the mast.  As it got close, we could … for just an instant … see that something was dangling from the end of a cable.

In a moment of temporary insanity, Erik dashed to the back of the boat and did his best Jerry Rice impersonation as he TRIED TO CATCH (!!!!) the object attached to the end of the helicopter’s line.

The copter roared overhead, no more than 100 feet off the surface (meaning no more that about 40 feet above the top of our mast).  This was extremely loud, but the real drama was the air wash from the blades.  Keep in mind, we had both genoa and mainsail up as we were trying to sail in.  These sails caught the air wash, which nearly (and I’m not exaggerating) knocked down the boat.  Erik’s “Hail Mary” reception might have been successful had he not been sliding down the deck as the rail was in the water.

All this drama was accompanied by a sort of clunking noise that happened just as the chopper passed overhead.

“They’ve dropped something for us,” said Erik. I looked up to see a line wrapped around our backstay.  They had managed to attach their delivery to our boat.  Nice flying, I must say.

As we began pulling in the line (the end of which was dangling in the water), I said, “This is going to be a hand-held VHF.”  A bit more tugging revealed a Pelican case.  Sure enough, inside was a hand-held VHF.  I turned it on.

“Helicopter overhead, helicopter overhead.  This is sailing vessel Spectacle, Spectacle over.”

“Spectacle, this is the U.S. Coast Guard chopper overhead,” said a woman on the other end.

Before this incident, I’d had very mixed experiences with the Coast Guard, including more than one interaction with a 19-year-old new recruit eager to show how macho he is.  After this experience, I’ll never have another bad thing to say about the U.S. Coast Guard.

What followed was just fantastic.  When you read the following conversation excerpts, keep in mind that the whole thing occurred on Channel 16, the main hailing channel.  Anyone within 20 miles or so with their radio turned on probably heard the whole thing, including the Turks & Caicos Marine Police.

I explained to her that we had no electricity and no engine but that all we needed was a tow and we just couldn’t seem to get one.

The woman on the other end chuckled.  “We’re well aware of your situation, and we’ve been on the phone with the Turks and Caicos authorities.  It seems they are (affecting whiney voice) afraid of the dark so they don’t want to come get you right now.”

“Okay…” I said.

“They want you to wait until morning and they’ll come get you.”

“Okay…” I said. 

Later in our exchange, she told me to stand by while she talked to the TCI authorities.

After a while, she returned.  “Captain, you’re not going to believe this,” she scoffed, still on wide-open Channel 16.  “They were wondering if you could move over and anchor behind West Caicos for the night.”

“Negative,” I responded.  “We’ll wait right here for them.”

“Yeah,” she chuckled.  “That’s what I figured, but I had to pass that along.  I’ll tell them.”

After a lull in the conversation, she returned.  “They say they’ll be out for you at first light.  But, you know, with them being on island time, that could be 11:00.  After all, they were supposed to come get you two days ago, right?”

I laughed.  “We’ll be right here,” I said.  After a few formalities, we were ready to get off the line, but I had one more question.

“How do I get your radio back to you?”

“Oh, that’s yours to keep,” she said.  “Compliments of the American taxpayer.”

I guess we’ll have a hand-held VHF from now on.

Eventually, we got off the radio and collectively laughed our asses off.  We had a (one) drink together, and settled in for our very uneventful watches, waiting for morning.  The boat mostly sat still through the night. 

Spectacle Getting Towed into Turks & CaicosAround 9:30 (first light, eh?), after about 10 radio calls from me, the tow boat arrived to get us.  The tow in was basically uneventful, but it was pretty amusing once we got to shore.  The guys from the Turks & Caicos Marine Police were sheepish.  No, that’s not quite enough – embarrassed bordering on mortified is more like it.  I met Mr. Lowe, who clearly was pretty uncomfortable.

“Yeah … uh, um … we had something come up on Christmas,” he said.

“Oh, yeah?  What was that?”

“You know … something … local … here.”

“Is that so?  Tell me about it.”

At this point, he basically stopped trying.  It was completely obvious that no such “something” had ever occurred.  Later, I got word that they’d earlier charged another boat nearly $2,000 for a tow.  They didn’t even try to charge us.  They didn’t even want a tip.  They also told us that they had been out looking for us the previous day, but when they couldn’t find us near the position reported by the other sailboat, they assumed that we had “gone back to the Bahamas.”  What?!?!  Apparently, it never occurred to them that we weren’t going to be able to sail directly into the wind to get back to the channel entrance. 

We also got word that it was indeed one of the planes we had shot flares at that had called the coast guard.  As wild as the flare idea, it’s what finally got us “rescued.”  Rescued, of course, is too strong a word – all we needed was a freaking tow.