When Rick Rodriguez’s sailboat collided with a whale in the middle of the Pacific Ocean earlier this month, it sank within about 15 minutes. But not before he and his three fellow mariners had escaped with essential supplies and cutting-edge communications gear.
One was a pocket-size satellite device that allowed Mr. Rodriguez to call his brother, who was thousands of miles away on land, from a life raft. That call would set in motion a successful rescue effort by other sailors in the area who had satellite internet access on their boats.
“Technology saved our lives,” Mr. Rodriguez later wrote in an account that he typed on his iPhone from the sailboat that had rescued him and his crew.
People involved in the roughly nine-hour rescue say it illustrates how newer satellite technologies, especially Starlink internet systems, operated by the rocket company SpaceX since 2019, have dramatically improved emergency communication options for sailors stranded at sea — and the people trying to find them.
“All sailors want to help out,” said Tommy Joyce, a friend of Mr. Rodriguez who helped organize the rescue effort from his own sailboat. “But this just makes it so much easier to coordinate and help boaters in distress.”
Starlink’s service gives vessels access to satellite signals that reach oceans and seas around the globe, according to the company. The fee-based connection allows sailors to reach other vessels on their own, instead of relying solely on sending distress signals to government-rescue agencies that use older, satellite-based communication technologies.
But the rapid rescue would not have been possible without the battery-powered satellite device that Mr. Rodriguez used to call his brother. Such devices have only been used by recreational sailors for about a decade, according to the United States Coast Guard. This one’s manufacturer, Iridium, said in a statement that the device is “incredibly popular with the sailing community.”
“The recent adoption of more capable satellite systems now means sailors can broadcast distress to a closed or public chat group, sometimes online, and get an instant response,” said Paul Tetlow, the managing director of the World Cruising Club, a sailing organization whose members participated in the rescue.
A sinking feeling
Whales don’t normally hit boats. In a famous exception, one rammed the whaling vessel Essex as it crisscrossed the Pacific Ocean in 1820, an accident that was among the inspirations for Herman Melville’s 1851 novel “Moby Dick.”
In Mr. Rodriguez’s case, a whale interrupted a three-week voyage by his 44-foot sailboat, Raindancer, from the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador to French Polynesia. At the time of the impact on March 13, the boat was cruising at about seven miles per hour and its crew was busy eating homemade pizza.
Mr. Rodriguez would later write that making contact with the whale — just as he dipped a slice into ranch dressing — felt like hitting a concrete wall.
Even as the boat sank, “I felt like it was just a scene out of a movie,” Alana Litz, a friend of Mr. Rodriguez and one of the sailors on Raindancer, told NBC’s “Today” program last week. The story of the rescue had been reported earlier by The Washington Post.
Raindancer’s hull was reinforced to withstand an impact with something as large and heavy as a cargo container. But the collision created multiple cracks near the stern, Mr. Rodriguez later wrote, and water rose to the floorboards within about 30 seconds.
Minutes later, he and his friends had all escaped from the boat with food, water and other essential supplies. When he looked back, he saw the last 10 feet of the mast sinking quickly. As a line that had been tying the raft to the boat started to come under tension, he cut it with a knife.
That left the Raindancer crew floating in the open ocean, about 2,400 miles west of Lima, Peru, and 1,800 miles southeast of Tahiti.
“The sun began to set and soon it was pitch dark,” Mr. Rodriguez, who was not available for an interview, wrote in an account of the journey that he shared with other sailors. “And we were floating right smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a dinghy and a life raft. Hopeful that we would be rescued soon.”
‘Not a drill’
Before Raindancer sank, Mr. Rodriguez activated a satellite radio beacon that instantly sent a distress alert to coast guard authorities in Peru, the country with search and rescue authority over that part of the Pacific, and the United States, where his boat was registered.
In 2009, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter rescued a sailboat crew whose vessel had collided with a whale and sank about 70 miles off the coast of Mexico. But Raindancer’s remote location made a rescue like that one impossible. So in the hour after it sank, U.S. Coast Guard officials used decades-old satellite communications technology to contact commercial vessels near the site of the accident.
One vessel responded to say that it was about 10 hours away and willing to divert. But, in the end, that was not necessary because Mr. Rodriguez’s satellite phone call to his brother Roger had already set a separate, successful rescue effort in motion.
Mr. Rodriguez’s brother contacted Mr. Joyce, whose own boat, Southern Cross, had left the Galápagos around the same time and was about 200 miles behind Raindancer when it sank. Because Southern Cross had a Starlink internet connection, it became a hub for a rescue effort that Mr. Joyce, 40, coordinated with other boats using WhatsApp, Facebook and several smartphone apps that track wind speed, tides and boat positions.
“Not a drill,” Mr. Joyce, who works in the biotech industry, often from his boat, wrote on WhatsApp to other sailors who were in the area. “We are in the Pacific headed that direction but there are closer vessels.”
After a flurry of communication, several boats began sailing as quickly as possible toward Raindancer’s last known coordinates.
SpaceX did not respond to an inquiry about the system’s coverage in the Pacific. But Douglas Samp, who oversees the Coast Guard’s search and rescue operations in the Pacific, said in a phone interview that vessels only began using Starlink internet service in the open ocean this year.
Mr. Joyce said that satellite internet had been key to finding boats that were close to the stranded crew.
“They were all using Starlink,” he said, speaking in a video interview from his boat as it sailed to Tahiti. “Can you imagine if we didn’t have access?”
Of course, there was one sailboat captain without a Starlink signal during the rescue: Mr. Rodriguez. After night fell over the Pacific, he and his fellow sailors resorted to the ancient method of sitting in a life raft and hoping for the best.
In the darkness, the wind picked up and flying fish jumped into their dinghy, according to Mr. Rodriguez’s account. Every hour or so, they placed a mayday call on a hand-held radio, hoping that a ship might happen to pass within its range.
None did. But after a few more hours of anxious waiting, they saw the lights of a catamaran and heard the voice of its American captain crackling over their radio. That is when they screamed in relief.