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Nine days after huge waves swept over the sailboat Low Speed Chase off the coast of San Francisco, Calif. tragically claiming the lives of five of its crew, and casting the boat upon the rocky Farallon Islands Erickson Air-Crane was called upon to recover the wreckage.
Racing the Clock
The salvage mission was based from the quiet Half Moon Bay Airport southwest of San Francisco. Ballard Diving & Salvage of Seattle, Wash., along with Northwest Underwater Construction of Vancouver, Wash., were brought in to conduct the operation on the remote and environmentally sensitive islands 27 miles off the coast.
The Erickson crew flew an S-64F Aircrane down from Oregon on the morning of April 23 with the plan of performing the salvage the following day. Shortly after arriving at Half Moon Bay, however, the crews took advantage of the favorable conditions to conduct the mission that afternoon.
Aris Helicopters, whose northern California base is in Hollister, Calif. (about 95 miles southeast of San Francisco), was also brought in to support the operation. Big Dawg, a Sikorsky S-58T, was used to ferry the four-person salvage crew, a biologist and hundreds of pounds of tools and equipment out to the islands to prepare the boat.
The S-58T launched from Half Moon Bay around 3:40 p.m. local time for the 15-minute flight to the islands. Flying in over the specific island where the Low Speed Chase was reported aground, crews caught sight of the ill-fated, tattered sailboat lying on its side on a rocky ledge just a few feet above the crashing waves.
Unfortunately, hundreds of seals, sea lions and huge elephant seals along with thousands of sea birds were clustered around the boat and the intended landing area. Accordingly, Aris chief pilot Samuel Nowden followed the approach suggestions of the biologist and slowly maneuvered the S-58T into the rocky landing zone so as to not cause a stampede of seals as they moved away from the area and headed for the water.
Once on the island, the salvage crew, along with Erickson S-64F crew chief Jason Weber, began the task of readying the 38-foot, 15,000-pound sailboat. The mast, rigging and all lose hardware were cut from the hull using power saws and cable cutters, and stowed in the boats cabin.
As per the mission brief, the salvage crew understood that, due to the developing overcast and dwindling daylight, the Aircrane would not launch from Half Moon Bay after 6 p.m. So, if they were not able to wrap up their work in time, the crewmembers would be forced to leave the boat until the following day, knowing full well that the rising tides overnight would likely ruin much of their work.
As the deadline approached, the salvage crew gave the Aircrane the go-ahead to launch. The work pace then quickened as the crew made the finishing touches to the heavy yellow slings around the hull and scurried about the rocks retrieving tools and debris.
The Erickson Aircrane arrived at the island about 6:20 p.m., a 200-foot long line and electric hook trailing below. With incredible precision and timing, the hook was set alongside the salvage crew, the connection was made, and the Aircrane lifted the boat clear of the rocks for the flight back to the mainland. The entire evolution required the Aircrane to be on scene for less than two minutes.
Anatomy of the Accident
It was fitting that the Low Speed Chase was recovered by helicopter, as helicopters had also played a critical role in the rescue efforts immediately following the accident on April 14.
The Low Speed Chase had been participating in the 2012 edition of the annual Full Crew Farallones Race amidst 12- to 15-foot seas, which are not unusual conditions for the area of the Farallon Islands. The sailboat was rounding one of the small islands when it encountered large waves breaking near an offshore reef.
A large wave surprised the crew, jumping up from a harmless rolling swell and forming into a crashing wave as it rolled across the shallow reef. Six of the eight crewmembers were swept into the frigid, churning water. Seconds later, another wave struck the floundering sailboat, sweeping yet another crewmember into the ocean.
Days after the tragic event, one of three surviving crewmembers, Bryan Chong, wrote a first-hand account of the incident to the sailing community. In it he described the moments after the first wave: I was underwater until the boat righted itself. Confused and disoriented, I looked around while water cleared off the deck. Nick [Voss] and I were the only ones still on the boat. The sails were shredded, the mast snapped and every flotation device had been ripped off. We immediately began to try pulling our crewmembers back into the boat but a second wave hit us from behind.
Chong was ripped off the sailboat by the second wave. He wrote, The best way to describe the water in the break zone is a washing machine filled with boulders.
Air and sea rescue assets were quickly mobilized from the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and California Air National Guard (CANG). A USCG Eurocopter MH-65 Dolphin from Air Station San Francisco arrived and rescued two survivors. One of the two Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawks that had been sent from CANGs 129th Rescue Wing at Moffett Field rescued a third. Other assets, including a USCG Lockheed C-130 long-range transport from Air Station Sacramento and several USCG surface craft also responded and participated in the search efforts.
During the USCG and CANGs subsequent search of 5,000 square miles of ocean, only one additional crewmember was located and pulled from the water. Sadly, he was pronounced dead at the scene. At press time, four other crewmembers remained unaccounted for and were presumed lost. (Nick Voss and the boats owner and captain, James Bradford, were the other two survivors.)
In spite of the less-than-ideal outcome, the rescue efforts were praised. Wrote Chong: The U.S. Coast Guard and Air National Guard performed the rescue operation with a level of professionalism that reinforces their sterling reputation for assistance during these types of emergencies. Were incredibly fortunate to have these resources available in our country. If we had been in another ocean off another coast, then Jay, Nick and I may not have been rescued.