Sea rescue by big-ass vessels?
October 31, 2007 12:39 PM   Subscribe

What is the "man-overboard" or "we just spotted a stick-thin and hairy Tom Hanks on a makeshift raft" scenario for very large and heavy ships, like container ships? It's not practical to stop them and it can't be done in any reasonable amount of time or distance, and I assume they don't keep a helicopter on board. Do they drop a speedboat to go and pick the guy up, which then catches up with the ship?

Also, in the second scenario, I'm curious as to whether a massively-laden vessel running on tiny margins would effect a rescue of somebody in ragged loincloth on the open ocean. I assume maritime law requires it, but I'm cynical about corporate behavior when no-one's looking (imagine that) and wonder if anyone knows how this would play out in practice.
posted by George_Spiggott to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'd imagine they call the relevant authorities.
posted by fire&wings at 12:40 PM on October 31, 2007

When the Trashman sank, the surviving two were picked up by a Russian at least some cargo ships stop and fish people out of the water.
posted by aramaic at 12:51 PM on October 31, 2007
posted by Comrade_robot at 12:52 PM on October 31, 2007

The first episode of I Shouldn't Be Alive (the one with the sharks and the survival raft) ends with the survivors being picked up by a Russian cargo ship. It doesn't go into the rescue process, but they definitely didn't call in the authorities. I imagine they used a small craft to tug the raft to the freighter.

Incidentally, that ep is one of the f'ing craziest hours of television you'll ever watch. Seriously.

WARNING: Following the link spoils the entire ep, but it's no secret that there are survivors, as they're interviewed throughout.
posted by mkultra at 12:53 PM on October 31, 2007

Toss him a rope/net/line and haul him in like a tuna.

If the guy can't grab a line, the ship launches a powered rescue boat.

Per Nova, "the 1983 SOLAS treaty allowed cargo ships shorter than 280 feet in length and passenger ships carrying fewer than 200 passengers the option of carrying only life rafts (no lifeboats), as long as they were in sufficient numbers to accommodate everyone on board. Since these life rafts have no means of propulsion, these ships must carry at least one rescue boat, which facilitates man-overboard rescues, assists other ships in distress, and tows life rafts away from danger."

And, this guy was lucky.
posted by jamaro at 12:57 PM on October 31, 2007

You wouldn't want to take a big ship directly next to a man floating in the water. It would be dangerous. In extreme cases the ship might hit him, or he might be sucked under by turbulence.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:04 PM on October 31, 2007

On every sailboat I've been on it's some permutation of:

1. Toss life ring and scream real loud.
2. Mark position on GPS (that's what the MOB waypoint is for).
3. Come about.
4. Start engine.
5. Try to pick him up.

Sailboat don't stop or turn real fast (depending on the wind) so I would imagine that that they do something similar on container ships, except with a bigger life ring or maybe a small raft that they later pick-up with a small boat.
posted by 517 at 1:09 PM on October 31, 2007

I'm cynical about corporate behavior when no-one's looking (imagine that) and wonder if anyone knows how this would play out in practice.

Apart from whatever maritime law requires, there is a great brotherhood-type relationship among those who have worked on open-ocean commercial vessels at whatever level, from deckhands all the way up to captains. Anyone who has done that kind of work for a significant span of time will have some story they can tell of the death, or near death, of someone they worked with, or at least someone who once worked on the same boat they did. This exists across nationalities, across languages and cultures, across the type of vessel military/shipping/fishing/whatever. A castaway or man-overboard scenario creates one of the greatest senses of urgency of any emergency that might happen in that kind of work, short of open warfare. I would even go so far as to say that this reaction goes back to prehistory.

So, even if we had a situation where a skipper was so smothered by corporate interests that he might value some abstract bottom line over a stranded castaway--which is hard to imagine in itself since the shipping industry is basically a complex matrix of contractors, as opposed to a top-down Wal-Mart style system--any head of the boat who refused to aid someone obviously in need would be in seriously hot water with his crew, perhaps even a mutiny, or at least be reported to the relevant authorities.

Note that what you're asking about is different than a ship not responding to another in distress, where it might be too far away to render aid in time, another ship might be closer, might be dangerous to approach, etc.
posted by Brian James at 1:10 PM on October 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

Yes, they would pick up Loincloth Man. There is something often referred to as the "unwritten law of the sea" or the "unwritten law of mariners", that dictates that the operator of a vessel will go to the aid of another vessel in distress, or a man overboard, so long as the rescuer's own safety is not not in jeopardy.

This law, which is considered pretty sacred within the seafaring profession, is not quite unwritten, it's U. S. Law enforceable by the Coast Guard in territorial waters, and U. S. flag ships are bound by it.

And, it's perfectly practical to stop and turn around any ship, no matter what size, on the open ocean when someone's life depends on it.

A friend of mine was on a sailboat that got disabled in a hurricane in the Caribbean. Not quite in loincloths, but they signaled and were picked up by a Polish freighter with a Liberian crew (or some such combination), bound for Hamburg, Germany. They got berth and board on the ship and flew home from Hamburg, no payment accepted.

Other parts of the "unwritten law" are "women and children first", and "the captain goes down with the ship," or at least is the last person off.
posted by beagle at 1:18 PM on October 31, 2007

When I worked on a cruise ship, I was taught the procedure was thus: 1) upon "man overboard" call (and this can mean either "someone just fell off our ship" or "hey, there's Tom Hanks in the water"), the officer on navigation will at that very second note the exact position of the ship and the relative position of the sighted man in the water, then; 2) if calm seas, a flotation device of some sort is dropped, usually the capsule kind that automatical inflates itself into a little boat when it hits water, then; 3) the ship begins the process of slowing and turning around to return to the position of the original sighting/loss.

Current and wind and conditions can of course affect any and all of this.

A man went overboard on the ship I worked on. Or rather, it was presumed he did, as he disappeared in the middle of the night. He was a crew cook, and no one much knew him or knew if he had been upset or depressed. But when it was discovered he was missing, the ship - with 1800 or so passengers aboard - turned right around and went back to scour the ocean area where it was thought he might have gone overboard. All sorts of other ships in the area showed up to help.

This was cold water in late fall, and there was very little chance he survived, much less survived long enough to see the ship come back, but it came back anyway. As Brian James said, there is a code.
posted by minervous at 1:20 PM on October 31, 2007

Lots of good answers, thanks, and apologies to anyone I don't mark who deserves it. I've been wondering this for some time, it just came up in conversation, and I knew there'd be people here who could speak with authority
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:24 PM on October 31, 2007

My sister-in-law is an officer in the US Navy, and while stationed on her last ship they rescued 2 men from a boat in distress. Rescue was performed via an inflatible boat, seen here.
posted by xsquared-1 at 1:40 PM on October 31, 2007

This might be stretching it a bit, but it's helpful to think of it as the same kind of situation as in Star Trek II during the Kobyashi Maru test. You always rescue a ship, or a person in distress, even at your own peril. It's just what you do.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:15 PM on October 31, 2007

posted by LobsterMitten at 2:21 PM on October 31, 2007

I think what Brian has posted above is true, but there has been one big, occasional exception.

There were cases where a cargo ship passed a foundering overloaded boats full of "boat people", and took them aboard with the intention of dropping them at the nearest port, only to be told that they couldn't. Such cargo ships have sometime been stuck with those refugees for weeks or longer, because no one would take them.

After two or three high profile cases like that (my memory is that it was Australia who refused to let the refugees be unloaded), there have been stories that some cargo ships who saw foundering overloaded boats full of "boat people" would pass them buy and not render assistance.

I don't render judgment on that, but I would like to point out two salient points: first, those on the foundering boat put themselves in that predicament; there isn't any feeling for the cargo sailors of "They'd help me if I was in a fix, so I'll help them." Those refugees aren't part of the brotherhood.

Second, part of the compact is that if a ship helps someone in need, that they not get stuck with them. They should be able to take them to the nearest port and unload them, and be on their way.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:27 PM on October 31, 2007

The incident to which Steven refers involved the MV Tampa.
posted by PuGZ at 3:15 PM on October 31, 2007

That's certainly one of the cases I was remembering. I think there were a couple of similar cases having to do with overloaded foundering boats off of Viet Nam, too, where well-meaning cargo ships got stuck with passengers they couldn't unload.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:10 PM on October 31, 2007

I was aboard this ship traveling between two Marquesas Islands in the summer of 2006 when it u-turned in the middle of a delivery to respond to a series of flares it had seen.

The flares were shot by a local fisherman who's boat had lost power and was drifting aimlessly further and further away from land.

The Aranui is a container ship that makes a repetitive three-week circuit between the Marquesas Islands and the larger islands of French Polynesia. It is basically the only way for large-scale supplies to get to and from the Marquesas islands. It also had birthing for roughly 200 passengers.

Locals use it as a low-cost alternative to flying to get from island to island within the Marquesas and also to Tahiti and the bigger, less remote islands. When I was on board it was the start of summer vacation and so the vessel was overflowing with teenagers going from the only high school in the archipelago to the islands where their families lived, all sleeping in deck class.

The fisherman that was rescued (they used one of the cranes to lift his entire boat onto the ship) was the father or uncle or cousin of one of the boat's deckies. So, considering the Aranui's relationship to and dependence on the local community, I don't think the procedure was out of the ordinary for this particular vessel.
posted by Brittanie at 7:11 PM on October 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Not everyone is quick to stop to help, it would appear.
posted by triv at 8:33 AM on November 1, 2007

FWIW, the book "The Perfect Storm" deals with this in some detail. Specifically, how hard it is, and what the kinds of situations there are when vessels can/not render aid themselves to a distress call.

The movie was shite, but the book was a great read.
posted by zap rowsdower at 11:51 AM on November 1, 2007

From my younger brother, who I sent this thread to (he's finishing his schooling at a merchant marine academy in the SF bay area):

It is well known that ships carry high speed rescue boats. Our ship has two of them, and they are the ones that all the students like to drive. They are bright orange, and they get lowered off the ship by a crane in the event of an emergency. When they are lowered off the ship, the ship immediately reduces its speed until the rescue boat is finished rescuing. Then the rescue boat catches back up with the ship and is lifted back up onto the ship again. The ship never stops or changes course. It is too costly with fuel, puts the ship behind schedule, and there is really no need for it since the high speed boats can catch up so quick...Also, it takes large ships miles to turn around and/or stop.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:49 PM on November 1, 2007

Just one more data point: writing in The New Yorker recently, Raffi Khatchadourian noted that even though environmental activists (on board two aging ships) and the Japanese whaling vessel Nisshin Maru were basically attacking each other, when a Zodiac with two activists went missing, the law of the sea took precedence. "Watson issued a distress call on the radio, and, moments later, the captain of the Nisshin Maru responded, asking how he could help."
posted by gac at 10:13 AM on November 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

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