How long would it take for helicopters to rescue people in the middle of the Atlantic?
June 5, 2012 6:23 PM   Subscribe

Say you're on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic and something happens and it capsizes. How long would you have to be out there until the Coast Guard rescues you? Hours? Days? How fast can those big helicopters get to you? I am talking middle of the ocean here. Thanks.
posted by Sully to Technology (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is like asking "how long is a piece of string?" There are too many variables that could be at play for you to get any sort of accurate answer. Where, exactly in the middle of the ocean? What ocean? Are there other boats nearby? How near are they? What country are you nearest? How fast is your ship sinking? Etc.
posted by Specklet at 6:28 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Other ships would get to you first, most likely, if you were in the "middle of the ocean." The coast guard of the nation you were closest to would probably mobilize as well. If the US government mobilized a force, it would be more likely to be the US Navy than the US Coast Guard.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:28 PM on June 5, 2012

Oh, the Atlantic, I'm sorry, I didn't see that.
posted by Specklet at 6:29 PM on June 5, 2012

Former Coastie here: This is really, really hard to say, because as you point out, it's a goddamn big ocean. How close are you to a Coast Guard air station? Max speed on a Jayhawk helicopter is around 200mph, and the relative safe range is 700 nautical miles (according to Wikipedia).

That said: it's not just the Coast Guard that will come for you. It's more or less anyone nearby who hears the mayday and is able to respond. That could be anything from a civilian fishing ship to the vessel of a foreign navy.

Also, if you're not too particular about Coastie rescues and you'll accept a less-glamorous surface ship rescue... my ship, while in port, was generally held to a "be ready to go within an hour of being recalled" status. We could get up to around 27 knots before we started having engine trouble. After that, you just need to do the math.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 6:31 PM on June 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Due to my wife's reading of Life of Pi, I recently read about the Baileys, who were lost at sea for 117 days in 1973. However, I don't think they didn't have a method to send a distress signal, which I think is implicit in your question.
posted by bessel functions seem unnecessarily complicated at 6:33 PM on June 5, 2012

Here's the US Coast Guard datasheet on vehicles. If you want to know where the bases are on the Atlantic, you could do some Googling, the Coast Guard's page on the Atlantic Area might be a good starting point. (No guarantees, I didn't actually kick around on the Atlantic Area page.)
posted by scaryblackdeath at 6:36 PM on June 5, 2012

Judging by the heatmap of modern shipping channels (from Sea Lane), you're never terribly alone in the Atlantic.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:41 PM on June 5, 2012 [5 favorites]

Amazing. Thank you all. I guess I was just curious, because my mom takes a lot of cruises. And I was wondering if, worst case scenario, her ship sank in the middle of the ocean and if they're on freaking lifeboats - how long they would have to wait out there before help arrived.

I just said Coast Guard not because I wanted anything fancy, but because that's the first people I thought who would be responsible for something like this. But it's nice to know that when people are in trouble out at sea, everyone tries to look out for each other.

I guess if, worst case scenario, not too many ships are out in their vicinity - how soon could a rescue copter get out there? I am assuming that it would have to fly from the mainland, which is thousands of miles away. But from what I'm hearing - the Navy would be able to send some copters out there if they had an aircraft carrier stationed close by. How soon from mayday, ballpark, would they get there?

posted by Sully at 6:43 PM on June 5, 2012

How long would you have to be out there until the Coast Guard rescues you? Hours? Days? How fast can those big helicopters get to you? I am talking middle of the ocean here.

Realistically? If there happened to be another ship in the area, a few hours. If not, could be days. The fastest cutters only go about 28 knots, which is about 32 mph. It still takes five plus days to sail across the Atlantic. And "those big helicopters" only have an effective range of a bit under 800 miles, so they won't be coming, as they'd likely lack sufficient range to do any kind of significant search pattern before they had to turn around.

And it would probably be a joint Navy/Coast Guard force. The Coast Guard is pretty much the world leader in massive search and rescue operations, but the Navy is both an order of magnitude larger and significantly more active in blue-water theaters. There's pretty much always at least one carrier strike group in the Atlantic somewhere, and there always a few dozen subs patrolling around. Odds are pretty decent that the Navy has a ship within a few hundred miles of any given point of the Atlantic pretty much round the clock. The Coast Guard tends not to be so widely deployed.

But it would most likely be a civilian ship that found you. The Navy has about 280 ships of all descriptions. The Coast Guard has about 240 (plus like 1,800 boats, but they won't be doing blue-water missions). There are tens of thousands of civilian vessels, and ocean search and rescue is just about the only thing that almost every nation on earth will totally ignore nationalistic differences to accomplish. The deep is and has always been recognized as the enemy of all mankind. Any and every ship in practicable range would consider changing course to assist. The closest would almost certainly do so. But they'd all be in conversation, and it would be decided very rapidly which ships would be diverted, based on proximity and resources. Someone could likely be there within a few hours.

But it probably would be a few hours. Again, the Atlantic is very heavily trafficked, but it's also really damn big. 106 million square miles. You could put ten thousand ships on it without any of them being within a hundred miles of any of the others. Granted, shipping isn't exactly evenly distributed, but that's still a lot of space. Given that top speeds are still only a couple dozen miles an hour, that space translates into time very quickly.
posted by valkyryn at 6:47 PM on June 5, 2012 [10 favorites]

capsizing is one thing, tho...falling overboard is completely another. There was a report i heard a few months back on npr (kpcc in L.A. if you want to try to find it) about a cruise passenger's family's attempt to find her...apparently it's the cruise ship industry's dirty little secret...people get drunk and fall overboard all. the. time. by the time it's noticed that they're missing it's often too late to try to find them, and rescue attempts are rarely mounted.
posted by sexyrobot at 7:11 PM on June 5, 2012

Looking at a historic example you may have heard about, the Titanic put out a mayday call at about 12:30 am and the Carpathia was on the scene by 3:30 am. The Carpathia's max speed was 17 knots, vs. a modern container ship which does about 23 knots, or a modern US destroyer which is capable of about 30 knots.

It should be noted that ships tend to sink close to the shore (where there are more things for them to run into) than out in the middle of the ocean.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:22 PM on June 5, 2012

Another factor to possibly consider is weather (which could very well be the reason for the random capsize/sinking of a ship away from shore/the usual sinking dangers) In a hurricane, for example your rescue would likely be delayed, I think, because the majority of vessels that might normally be in the area probably would've navigated away from the storm and also even the best rescuers in the world run into problems that delay/prevent rescue (I'm thinking The Perfect Storm here).
posted by blaneyphoto at 7:41 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

First, one of the things that US Coast Guard members often say is "so that others may live" (Also, Semper Paratus, always prepared). They do actually go out in hurricanes to rescue boneheads and unfortunate or misinformed folks. For video of helicopters at work in serious weather, check out some episodes of Coast Guard Alaska. I don't have tv, so I can't really vouch for it as a whole show, but I've seen some clips that make me worry for my CG friends. A little.

So. This is something I know a little bit about due to my social circle. USCG helicopters are based in several air stations in the US. I'm acquainted to varying degrees with some pilots who work on the Dolphin aircraft (the HH 65 series). These men and women train relentlessly for search and rescue (as well as some...uh....other) missions, focused especially dealing with boats and water emergency situations.

First thing, if you were on a disabled cruise ship and lots of people needed evacuating, the C-130, a fixed wing aircraft would be your most likely bird to find you. It would direct another boat, or be escorting the Jayhawk or Dolphin that would pluck you out of the water a few at a time.

If you're having a medical emergency and need to be evacuated from a cruise ship, this may be done by a helicopter crew if there is one near enough.I say that because crews have a limit to the amount of hours they can fly in a day/shift. The station has a crew on site, and a crew on call (sometimes 2 crews on call, and if they go through all the crews on call, you could still get, well, called!) Otherwise, by a smaller "tender" boat from the cruise ship over to a boat prepared to take you to a harbor. (A friend of mine has a great story about landing a helicopter on two different cruise ships in one day for medical evacs.)

And here's where things get kind of interesting, to me. The helicopter crews deploy sometimes. This means, that a guy who usually lives on land in or near a port goes and spends 2 weeks or a month living on a boat. With his helicopter. On a boat*. Sure, sometimes they deploy to another port and get to hang out on dry land. I never ever know where they're going before they go, and I just have a vague idea of where they've been, as far as the land stuff goes. So it's conceivable that a boat with a Dolphin Helicoptor on it could be close enough to your cruise ship to rescue the people in the most dire condition back to the cutter or perhaps a Good Samaritan boat, or to an island nearby with a landing space for a C130, which doesn't do air rescues. The helicopters don't hold dozens and dozens of people, so triaging and prioritizing is done by the swimmer.

Have you seen water rescues? They are pretty awesome! The rescue swimmer gets lowered down into the water and checks on you. It is late, and as pumped as I am about the Coast Guard, I am going to sleep. If you want to know more, let me know!

The call and duty situations are pretty cool (to me, as an outsider!) and the randomness of which crew gets an interesting case and who gets the night of 16 broken EPERBS in a row...makes for some stories.

*And no beer, since you can't have any alcohol for at least 12 hours before you fly one of those things. But I guess nobody gets beer on the boat anyway, right?
posted by bilabial at 8:20 PM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Geez guys. What's with all the chicken-little scenarios? Let's get a little more realistic and less panicky about the consequences of a mid-Atlantic capsizing.

Yes, choppers are short-ranged and ships are slow, but a compromise between the two would be fixed-wing turboprop aircraft that can reach a stricken vessel very quickly and para-drop emergency supplies. So what will likely happen is:

1) Disaster hits your boat. Let's say rogue wave, to imagine the worst case scenario.
2) Boat sinks. If it sinks so that quickly you couldn't launch and board the lifeboats and everyone drowns, then this is a moot discussion. If you are able to get into a lifeboat, then most likely there will have been time for the ships crew to send out a distress call by ship-to-ship radio or satellite channels. In fact, it's virtually guaranteed that a modern cruise ship will have the systems to send out an automated distress call. Your lifeboats will also have emergency comms gear.
3) Your general location will be known. As others have mentioned, the Atlantic is heavily trafficked. All the ships in the vicinity will start looking for you. A dozen SAR aircraft, the aforementioned turboprops, will start criss-crossing the area within hours.
4) Dozens of lifeboats in the water will be spotted almost immediately. Certainly within a few days.
5) You are taken to dry land. The end.
posted by wutangclan at 8:25 PM on June 5, 2012

Or, what bilabial said.
posted by wutangclan at 8:25 PM on June 5, 2012

Well, there can be a lot of speculation, but now I'm curious to ask my father (USCG officer for 20+ years) and my uncle, who is a marine safety expert.
posted by blaneyphoto at 8:32 PM on June 5, 2012

Years ago I met a guy who worked on a freighter, and very early one morning, in the middle of the Pacific, while he was checking a gizmo towed on a line behind the ship, he fell overboard. Nobody knew he was gone until much later, when they figured out that he must have fallen over and turned around. He stayed afloat by treading water. He saw sharks, was stung by jellyfish, etc., but he knew that they would come back for him. I recall that it took about 24 hours, but he made it.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:47 PM on June 5, 2012

Oh. And the c 130 that finds you will drop some life rafts!

If its safe.
posted by bilabial at 5:27 AM on June 6, 2012

Aircraft related rescue would most likely be USAF Pararescue (PJ's) as their helo's can do air to air refueling from HC-130's. East end of LI has the 106th ANG that does a lot of work in the Atlantic and gained notoriety for their actions that gained attention in the movie The Perfect Storm.
The HC-130's can also insert PJ teams via air drop with RAMZ packages (Zodiac inflatable boats) but probably wouldn't do that unless a ship was in the area and could pick everyone up soon after the drop. Medical issues might necessitate the drop. Your typical PJ is EMT-P rated these days and a lot of them have combat related experience. If your hard up you can't ask for a better group of guys to come bail you out. But I digress.
posted by a3matrix at 7:23 AM on June 6, 2012

I'm pretty sure other ships are required by international law to respond to a distress call, so it matters how close you are to another ship. IIRC there is a real-time map somewhere of ships in the ocean (I may be thinking of planes).
posted by desjardins at 10:19 AM on June 6, 2012

« Older Books about the Bay Area?   |   Songs of s/he said; s/he said Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.