MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Thursday, July 23rd. 

Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. 

Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham.

When hurricanes threaten U-S shores, residents in those regions know when to hunker down or get out of harm’s way. But what do mariners do when those storms brew at sea?

BROWN: Last year, an international search and rescue operation in the middle of the central Atlantic demonstrated to those working on the high seas that they are not alone. Bonnie Pritchett spoke with three men who helped search for the 14 sailors of the ill-fated Bourbon Rhode.

DIDIER: We were hampered by weather conditions…we were in the outer rain bands of Lorenzo so occasionally we would hit a wall of precipitation…

BONNIE PRITCHETT, REPORTER: That’s Commander Patrick Didier. He flies P-3 aircraft for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. On Sept. 26, 20-19 his 16–member crew of airmen and researchers prepared to fly into the rapidly strengthening Hurricane Lorenzo in the central Atlantic. The storm posed no threat to shore but its uncharacteristic development offered researchers a unique opportunity. Hours later, instead of monitoring the storm’s power they were searching for its victims.

DIDIER: If we go into those bands we’re not going to be able to see anything anyway because visibility went to zero when we were in it…[20:16 -] It kind of tore me up because, like, God I hope, I hope, hope there’s not someone in a raft in that cell because we would never see them…

About a week earlier the ocean-going tug the Bourbon Rhode left port from Las Palmas, Canary Islands en route to Georgetown, Guyana. The tug’s 14 crewmen came from Ukraine, Russia, Croatia, South Africa, and the Philippines.

And, as if in pursuit, the winds of what would become Hurricane Lorenzo blew off Africa’s northwestern coast and into the Atlantic’s warm, nurturing waters.

Ship and storm crossed paths in the middle of the Atlantic on September 26th. Hurricane Lorenzo was a Category 2 and strengthening. The Bourbon Rhode floundered in 110 mile per hour winds and 40–foot waves as sea water began filling the engine room. The crew issued a distress signal.

That call came into the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center at Fort de France in Martinique where Phillipe Bricquer is director. 

BRICQUER: It was very difficult for us to manage…

The tug’s last known location, almost 12–hundred miles east of Martinique, put Fort de France in charge of the search and rescue operation.

EDDY: They just called and asked for our assistance…

That’s Christopher Eddy. He’s the search and rescue program manager for the U-S Coast Guard District 7 in Miami.

EDDY: They were requesting U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue resources, like an airplane or a ship…

But, looking for the quickest response time, Eddy and Bricquer first searched satellite data for ships closest to the Bourbon Rhode.

EDDY: There were no vessels in the area… [17:08 -] We saw the hurricane. We saw where the boat was. We looked for other boats to go assist but there was nothing around. And that would make sense because there’s a hurricane there…

A cargo ship, the S-S-I Excellent, was the closest—about 8 hours away.

EDDY: It wasn’t lost on me, personally, that why would we send a vessel into a hurricane to help the vessel?… [19:08 -] But you’re asking people, professional mariners on the high seas, to go into a hurricane…

The Excellent’s captain willingly steered toward the storm and, hopefully, its survivors. 

BRICQUER: We knew this information with the Excellent…

Bricquer said the cargo vessel and the P-3 arrived at the beacon location about the same time only to find debris and a sheen of oil on the water. The Bourbon Rhode had sunk.

They searched for men in rafts or in the water. Didier’s crew stationed themselves at the windows and relayed any signs of hope to the SSI Excellent.

DIDIER: We were looking for anything. I mean, you’re out in the middle of the ocean. So, any kind of debris…

By the time Didier’s crew returned to base, more assets were on their way.

Lorenzo billowed into a category 5 while arching north—away from the search location.

They came from three continents and several nations: From the U-S, two NOAA P-3s and a U-S Coast Guard C-130; from Europe a French Falcon jet; and from South America a French Navy Frigate with its Panther helicopter; and 21 commercial vessels.

BRICQUER: All captains say yes…

Bricquer said that although it cost them time and money, every commercial vessel commander agreed to divert course toward the scene. Some even volunteered.

FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPEAKER AND SOUNDS ON SHIP DECK

On September 28th, rescuers found three Bourbon Rhode crewmen—alive—in a raft. Days later, they retrieved the bodies of four others from the water. And the search continued.

With each passing day weather conditions improved but the search area expanded—exponentially.

Again, Patrick Didier:

DIDIER: So, within 24 hours, given however fast the currents are going. Which, I guess, in that part of the world is something like four or five knots…. [31:17] In the course of a day its 120 miles…[31:22-] and that 100 square miles can quickly become 1000 square miles.

A computer program called a Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System reveals the once invisible, watery path toward possible survivors.

EDDY: OK, in 14-foot seas, at 40 knots of wind, we’re looking for three people in the water at this particular time when they went into the water. We will be on the scene in three days, we have to drift those search targets for three days…

After searching 103–thousand square miles of ocean for six-weeks, the remaining seven crewmen were never found.

While tragic, the tale of the Bourbon Rhode demonstrates the lengths mariners will go to seek and save those lost at sea. Even Didier, a pilot, finds hope in that.

DIDIER: I like to think, in the back of my mind, if anything happened to us, people will come together to do anything they can to rescue us… [35:31 -] And I’m glad I had the opportunity to participate in that. But, I’m sorry that 11 people lost their lives.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Bonnie Pritchett.


File photo of M/V Bourbon Rhode.  Credit: Bourbon Offshore

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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