Friday, July 17, 2009

Regina Maris in the 1972 Pacific hurricane

Robert Eisberg who sailed aboard the Regina Maris in 1972 was kind enough to send me a copy of a report he sent to the F.C.C. at their request concerning Regina Maris radio communication during the 1972 Pacific hurricane. It is quite a tale. I hope you enjoy it. To download a copy of the report click here. He also sent me the e-mail reproduced below which explains some of the items in the report and contains additional information.
My wife Lila, 12-year old daughter Joann, and I sailed on the Regina Maris from Ensenada bound for Tahiti via the Marquesas and Tuamotus. We intended to then fly to Australia where I was to spend a sabbatical leave. The voyage was a "share the work, share the expense" arrangement with Oceanwide Adventure Cruises of Palos Verdes, California. Everyone was assigned a task; mine was to give classes in celestial navigation. For that purpose I brought along a sextant, a nautical almanac, sight reduction tables and a portable multi-band radio to receive the time signals needed for celestial navigation (but I was not the Regina Maris navigator). The multi-band receiver turned out to be useful, as described in the F.C.C. report. But we encountered heavy weather not long after leaving Ensenada and so I never had a chance to teach celestial navigation.

In the pounding the Regina Maris was getting from the turbulent seas she began to leak seriously -- very seriously as hurricane Cecile approached. Continuously pumping at full speed strained the two powered bilge pumps. Finally they both failed and we were then keeping the vessel afloat by a large manual pump and bailing. This is where the F.C.C. report begins. The next paragraph provides some information not in the report to be read while reading the report.

I used the International Phonetic Alphabet in my MAYDAY call. For example "Romeo Echo Golf India November Alpha" spells REGINA. Ocean Station November was a Coast Guard vessel located about halfway between San Francisco and Honolulu to collect weather information (this was before weather satellites), provide a place for airplanes in trouble to ditch, and to listen for distress calls from boats. Single side band is a more sophisticated form of radio transmission normally used at the time by the Air Force jet but not compatible with the older double sideband receiver in the Regina Maris. Because of the hurricane we had not been able to get a "fix" on our position for several days and so knew it to no better than within about 1 degree of latitude and 1 degree of longitude; near the equator that means to within a region of about 60 nautical miles by 60 nautical miles. So the Air Force jet the Coast Guard diverted to look for us said we must make ourselves as visible as possible by spreading marker dye, producing smoke by burning oil soaked rags, raising as much sail as safety allowed, and flashing mirrors in the sunlight. It subsequently told me that what they saw first were the flashing mirrors. The two airplanes that arrived later dropped by parachutes a large number of small gasoline powered pumps and many cans of gasoline. The hurricane had passed by us when the Vishva Tirth arrived, allowing people to transfer to it from the Regina Maris. But some stayed on the Regina Maris to keep the gasoline powered pumps running. Several days after the Vishva Tirth began towing the Regina Maris to San Pedro the hurricane bent back and passed quite near us. The Vishva Tirth crew, who were terrified, said that they are usually able to avoid hurricanes but could not avoid this one because their speed was now limited to the hull speed of the Regina Maris they had in tow. A day later a large Coast Guard cutter arrived and began circling around us. With my multi-band receiver, I heard a message from the cutter to the Vishva Tirth saying they were present to pick up survivors if it or the Regina Maris went down. But it did not prove to be necessary and we all arrived safely in San Pedro 12 days after the tow began.

From San Pedro Lila, Joann and I returned to Santa Barbara, disposed of our filthy clothes, packed clean clothes, flew to Tahiti, spent two weeks there and in Bora Bora, then flew on to Australia. Four years later when applying to Harvard Joann described her experience on the Regina Maris in the essay that was part of the application. Her high school and SAT grades were very good; but the same was certainly true of the many others applying. After enrolling she came across a member of the selection committee who told her that her Regina Maris experience essay was of great interest to the committee and clinched her admittance.

I hope my experience will be interesting to people reading your blog.

Robert Eisberg