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Family missing at sea: Hoax or not, a lesson to foolproof family ventures

Family missing at sea? While the US Coast Guard decides whether the family missing at sea since Feb. 24 is a real family or a hoax, it's a good time to consider the risks of great adventure. Yours too could be a family missing at sea without proper planning, as this blogger's almost was during 12 hours near the Florida Keys. 

By Lisa SuhayGuest Blogger / February 26, 2013

The Coast Guard called off a search for a family missing at sea after a two day search effort came up with nothing. Either the Pacific Ocean swallowed the family whole, or the distress calls on Sunday afternoon were a hoax.

While the US Coast Guard suspended its search today for a missing family at sea thought to have been lost aboard a 29-foot sailboat Sunday, suggesting either the whole thing is a hoax or the Pacific Ocean had taken them for good, I am reminded of the times I  lived aboard a sailboat with my husband and kids. We worried our loved ones to pieces as we had the adventures of a lifetime with our sons.

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Lisa Suhay, who has four sons at home in Norfolk, Va., is a children’s book author and founder of the Norfolk (Va.) Initiative for Chess Excellence (NICE) , a nonprofit organization serving at-risk youth via mentoring and teaching the game of chess for critical thinking and life strategies.

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The crackling, garbled, weak radio distress calls — now being considered a “possible hoax” by the USCG —  made from 65 miles off shore and received by the USCG were believed to be coming from a distressed 29-foot sailboat, Charmblow, that was carrying a couple and two children, ages eight and four, says USCG Monterey Bay Station’s Executive Officer Noah Hudson. The USCG was able to pinpoint one of the initial distress calls using a Rescue 21 radio-only line of bearing as coming from the sea, Hudson says.

No sailboat named Charmblow is registered with the federal boat registry, nor had any boat by that name been to call at any marinas along the entire West Coast, Hudson says.

“It’s never an easy decision to suspend a search,” Hudson says. Of the veracity of the radio emergency calls Hudson added, “I’ve heard distress calls that sounded real and very emotional and turned out to be hoaxes and some that sounded completely fake and turned out to be the real thing. That’s why we take them all very seriously.”

My husband and I have been out there on the water with two toddlers, in bad weather, underprepared, and like this couple (real or imagined) without a life boat or emergency position indicating radio beacon, or EPIRB. We were stupid and we learned fast that as wonderful as the adventure can be, it could become terrifying in an instant.

We “lived on the hook,” meaning we were always short on cash and anchored off a town, touching the marinas only as a drive-thru for groceries and diapers.

In fact, I will never forget sailing from Pine Island, Fla. to Key West aboard our Jim Brown designed 37-foot trimaran with two pre-schoolers. We hit a poorly forecast tropical depression on the way back from the Keys.

For those next 12 hours, the most terrifying of my life, we could not make any kind of decent contact with any vessel or land station via our outdated radio. At one point my husband was nearly swept overboard when a hatch cover he stepped on gave way beneath him and he hung by his fingertips to the life rail because he hadn’t secured his lifeline.

Because we were living aboard long-term at that point, the folks at Bob & Annie’s Marina on Pine Island knew us well would have responded to the hearing our story on the media with a call to the Coast Guard. 

However, living aboard and cruising is not like living on land. Marinas are not yacht clubs with switchboards. If someone passes through and heads on to another port or says they’re going to live on the hook a while, nobody reports them missing.

People living aboard cruisers aren’t plugged-in to the internet or checking their Twitter and Facebook feeds. Many people with kids who decide to try their hands at “the adventure of a lifetime” will live on a few thousand dollars a year so the kids can swim with manatee, eat fruit off the trees, and see flying fish as our first two boys did. When our baby cried from colic, dolphins would swim up and bump the sides of our boat because they thought one of the hulls might be “in distress.”

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It was a beautiful and terrible, amazing and terrifying lifestyle that if I had to live all over again I would, but with far more safety measures and equipment aboard. If this all turns out to be a hoax let it be a cautionary tale for all the parents thinking of taking to the water with their children. While we want our children to have the time of their lives out on the water, we want those lives to be long.

On the chance that it’s a case of a boat from foreign waters, not on our federal boat registries, and perhaps sailing under the social radar, I will still say my own little sailor’s prayer, “Oh God, thy sea is so great and my ship is so small. Watch over me in rough weather and hear my call.”

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