Words have been swimming around in a confusion for days. Nothing adds up. Nothing makes sense.
It takes a while to know what hit you. Loss is an unexpected, side-swiping blow.
I didn’t know Rui-Han Yu well, but we shared the same dream. He too wanted to row the Pacific albeit a different route.
I met him in 2017 before his first attempt to row from San Francisco to China. I nicknamed him Captain Calamity and his Quest for China, but I was fond of him. Fond of his unstoppable drive to row an ocean.
This summer was his second attempt. Again he stopped in Hawaii, again he continued on from Hawaii, again he needed rescuing.
Here is my account of what happened, as told to me over the phone by Commander John Titchen of the US Coastguard. The call took place upon my request. I wanted to get a full understanding of the situation before responding to Rui-Han’s parents. They asked me to organise ongoing search efforts, which I estimated would cost upwards of $15k per day.
WEDNESDAY 27 November 6AM Hawaii-Aleutian time zone (GMT-10)
Anne Pang, a friend of Rui-Han Yu's cousin calls 911 in Missouri. The emergency services coordinate with the Chinese RCC (Rescue Coordination Centre).
Contact is made with Rui-Han YU via satellite phone. RY is running low on battery. He is advised to switch the phone on and off only when needed. RY says he has lost all safety equipment when the boat overturned. He describes the boat as "steadily sinking."
A USCG c130 SAR plane is launched from Hawaii, refuels in Kwajalein (pronounced Quadulan) in the Marshall Islands. The AMVER fleet is notified, to alert any and all ships in the area. A Good Samaritan vessel, a tanker diverts 150 miles to the scene.
At 4PM the c130 locates RY and he is sighted clinging to the overturned hull. RY is not wearing a PFD (lifejacket). Conditions on scene are 15ft seas 25kts of wind from the N/NE.
The c130 has 2 minutes of fuel time remaining before needing to depart. A liferaft is dropped. The raft opens. It has no canopy. Two data marker buoys are also dropped. The c130 overnights at Kwajalein.
THURSDAY 28 November 2019
The c130 is launched but unable to locate the hull. A Good Samaritan vessel diverts to the scene and sights the liferaft empty.
FRIDAY 29 November 2019
3 Good Samaritan vessels divert to the scene. The c130 locates the hull and the liferaft. No sighting of RY. Two data marker buoys are dropped. The liferaft and hull are now 34 miles apart.
SATURDAY 30 November 2019
The c130 is grounded for technical reasons. The search is called off having reached over 120 hours. By the 120th hour, 2,000 nm of track has been searched, including a 800 square meter search area. The water temp is 84 degrees F. Expected survivability in 84 degree water with no PDF (lifejacket) is 120 hours.
RY was never sighted in the liferaft dropped to him.
My conversation with Commander John Titchen was on day five, SUNDAY 01 December 2019.
None of the boats diverted to the scene launched a craft and banged on the hull. It was never considered that RY might have swum back inside the overturned hull. I told Commander John Titchen about the case of solo sailor Tony Bullimore who survived 4 days in his overturned hull in the southern ocean. He had never heard of him.
The Marshall Islands have a sizeable fishing fleet, I learned in conversation with Pacific Ocean rower Todd Bliss based in Hawaii. An idea formulated. To try and mobilise the fishing fleet in the area by posting an award. My hope was that at the very least, recovering the boat might offer some closure for the family. Rui-Han’s friends and I went into action to contact the Marshall Island authorities, consuls, embassies and the fisheries department.
Monday morning I got hold of the manufacturer of the boat, Rannoch Adventure LTD in the UK. They replied, "There would be about 400mm of air above the waterline inside the cabin, if the cabin was flooded. Not enough to survive."
I continued to carry the torch of hope.
Pat Hines who sold Rui-Han the boat emailed. “He was confident and knowledgeable but over the weeks I got to know him he seemed so casual about things like safety. He would smile at all my suggestions. He made a joke that women worry too much and that is why men discovered continents. As best google translation would do, I called him an ass. He would just smile.”
Pat and I spoke on the phone and shared our anecdotes of meeting Rui-Han. I told Pat how Rui-Han was drinking Coca-Cola when I first met him standing on his 2017 rowboat (abandoned south of Maui when he was helicopter rescued later that summer) and my horror on seeing his solar panels were damaged and his only satellite communication device was a Garmin InReach.
Pat told me that Rui-Han didn’t want the liferaft or the lifejackets she was selling with the boat.
I started to feel overwhelmed. I carried the last bastions of hope.
All hope was now gone.
“I talked to his mom a few mins ago, she was very sadden and was returning from the hospital after done receiving some fluids.” Rui-Han’s friend Shuping texted me.
The posted reward to find the boat (image attached) went out as an advert in the Marshall Island newspaper. Nothing came of it.
Rui-Han is the 9th person to be lost at sea in the 53 year history of ocean rowing. His spirit of adventure was fierce.
Rui-Han Yu, my brother in ocean rowing.
"Under the wide and starry sky
Here he lies where he longed to be" - Robert Louis Stevenson 'Requiem.'