CLEARWATER - Thanks to a flight crew from Clearwater's Coast Guard air station and an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, two women were rescued off the coast of Puerto Rico after clinging to the upturned hull of their boat for 16 hours.
Sarah Kessans and Emily Kohl, both from the Midwest, were rowing across the Atlantic when their boat, American Fire, capsized after being hit by a rogue wave January 15. They were competing in the international Woodvale Atlantic Rowing Race 2005, an estimated 60-day challenge. They had been at sea 47 days.
The rowing pair were halfway through completing the 2,913-mile race, which started in La Gomera in the Canary Islands. Their goal was to be the first to cross the finish line at Antigua in the West Indies off Africa's coast.
Though the wave capsized their 24 foot boat, the women were able to successfully activate the EPIRB they had onboard, which sent out a signal.
A full-scale search and rescue mission was coordinated by the Coast Guard, which dispateched a fixed-wing C-130 aircraft from Clearwater's air station to lead in the search.
Maj. Ben Maipre, the mission's pilot and commanding officer, said, "We got the message from the rescue coordination center in Norfolk, Virginia. It was unusual for us to get a call to go that great a distance. It was a five hour flight from Clearwater to Antigua and then a four hour flight to their location."
Maipre described the rescue scene: "We were the only air craft in the area. It was an hour and a half before sunrise and still dark. One of our crewmembers spotted something. Using night vision goggles; I was able to see their strobe. We dropped a flare down to the women for light. An hour and a half later they were picked up by a tall ship, the Stavros S Niarchos."
The British Stavros S. Niarchos had been alerted that they were the nearest vessel to the stranded rowers and changed their course to help in the search.
The crew of the Niarchos was new to sailing, let alone participating in rescues at sea. The majority of Niarcho's crew were novices as the ship is part of Britain's Sail Training Association, a group that provides hands-on sail training voyages for adults each winter in the Caribbean.
Maipre said after picking up the women the Niarchos set sail for their original destination in Barbados, where the women, who are reportedly doing fine, will disembark.
Maipre, who lives in Clearwater and hails from Boston, said the credit for the mission's success goes to his crew's teamwork. The members of the search and rescue mission were: Lt. Cmdr. Andy Delgado, his co-pilot, and Petty Officers Karl Poelker, flight engineer; Robert Blume, navigator; Jonathan Aman, radio; Cory Burns, drop master, and David Sexton, sensor operator.
Lt. Alex J. Moore, a C-130 pilot and assistant public affairs officer at the Coast Guard Air Station in Clearwater, said, "We want to stress to boaters the importance of using Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons." They are available at most marine stores and increase a boater's probability of being found by tenfold."
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