Rescue Questions and Lessons

How would you like to be alone in a row boat in 10 foot seas and the wind blowing over 30 miles per hour? Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? How about if you planned to be there – or at least knew there were strong possibilities such conditions were likely to be encountered? What if you thought it could be even worse? What would you think if all this was taking place over 500 miles from shore?

I don’t know all your answers to the above questions but if you planned to paddle a rowboat in sea conditions like this you could be called an adventurer. Perhaps an “extreme adventurer” would be a better term. Perhaps and even better explanation is, “you are nuts” or a “crazy-person extreme adventurer.” That’s what I call Niall Macdonald, a Scotsman who planned to row his boat across the Atlantic Ocean.

In Macdonald’s behalf, he wasn’t in a 14 foot skiff such as you or I might paddle around a pond or small lake in search of perch. His vessel was a 24-foot, ocean going rowboat, purportedly built to weather all sorts of oceanic weather and equipped with a variety of emergency supplies and safety features, including an inflatable lifeboat.

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Now I can call him Lucky Mack. The boat wasn’t up to the task, his emergency gear was.

After making good progress for a few weeks, conditions worsened. Mack took cover inside his water-tight mini-cabin to ride out the tempest. Then he heard something break and suspected the rowboat’s hull had been cracked. He donned his bad-weather gear and a harness to leave his compartment for an inspection. Shortly after he opened the hatch, a wave hit, water poured in and the voyage was doomed.

He activated his EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and abandoned the ocean rower for his life raft. The ill-fated paddler was able to take his satellite phone on the raft so he, at least, knew help was on the way.

Initial contact via EPIRB was with the U.S. Coast Guard. Then a number of other agencies were called into action. Also involved, were rescue agencies in England. The Canadian government in Nova Scotia launched a C-130 aircraft to assist in the rescue, due to the distance offshore. The USCG also coordinated with Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, Rome to divert a nearby Italian Naval warship to Macdonald’s direction. First on the scene was a Netherlands-flagged merchant ship responding to the calls for help being broadcast on marine channels. The Dutch ship’s crew performed the actual rescue and Mack was soon on route with them to their scheduled port of call in Canada.

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Macdonald’s extreme adventure, no doubt, was as much a manifestation of personal issues he owned as much as being a way to raise money for the Scottish Association for Mental Health. That’s beside the point of this story.

Take away number one is the importance of planning for the expected and unexpected whether you are on a rowboat on a small lake, a day of fishing on a Midwestern reservoir or going solo across the Atlantic. Macdonald’s equipment (besides the life raft) included an EPIRB, a personal locator beacon (PLB), satellite phone, VHF radio, navigation lights, flares, immersion suit, life jacket and a transportable kit with other items to help him survive in an emergency.

The second take away I get from this is how much did this rescue cost? It’s a much debated, seldom solved issue. In Macdonald’s case, I would guess he’s getting off pretty well “Scot Free” (pun intended). The US Coast Guard doesn’t charge for search and rescue efforts, nor does the Canadian equivalent. (The cost of the C-130 is about $8000 per hour.) I doubt the Dutch freighter is charging him much, instead, using the rescue in their own public relations work.

In many countries, the answer is simple. By their laws, the person being rescued is responsible for the costs of the rescue and many outdoor enthusiasts travel with insurance specifically to offset costs should they need to be rescued. Here in the US, some states have statutes allowing rescue agencies to send a bill to people they helped, especially, if the behavior in which they were involved was deemed reckless or negligent.

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What do you think?

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Mike Schoonveld
Mike Schoonveld grew up hunting and fishing in rural Northwest Indiana. In 1986 he piggy-backed a career as an outdoor writer onto his already long tenure as a wildlife biologist with the Indiana DNR. Now retired from his DNR position, Schoonveld is a U.S. Coast Guard licensed boat captain, operates Brother Nature Charters on Lake Michigan and spends much of his time trailering his boat to fishing hotspots around Indiana and the Midwest. Mike can be reached through his website or visit Mike's Outdoor World Blog at


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