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Coast Guard forcibly removes circumnavigating sailor from boat

by Lee Mylchreest on 6 Dec 2011
Coast Guard in the act of forcing Howard from his boat .. .
Does your Coast Guard have the right to remove you from your sailing boat even though you don't want rescuing and did not activate your EPIRB? A recent incident off the coast of Mexico raises questions that have long been asked by cruising sailors. Dennis Howard, experienced sailor but legally blind, had long planned a life-affirming solo circumnavigation on his 20ft sailing boat, Avalo (see http://www.sail-world.com/Cruising/international/Sailor-set-to-inspire-us-all-with-solo-challenge/87162!Sail-World_story), but it was cut short by the Coast Guard.

Less than a week after leaving San Diego, he was met by the US Coast Guard after a storm off Mexico. They deemed his boat unseaworthy and ordered him off, leaving the sailing boat boat there, abandoned on the ocean. He claims the boat was fine, despite a broken boom, and that he was wrongly removed.

Dennis Howard had sailed out of San Diego on Nov. 1 after many months of preparation for what was supposed to be a life-affirming, around-the-world solo voyage, lasting two years.

Four days later, about 60 miles off the coast of the Baja peninsula, the U.S. Coast Guard ended Howard’s journey by removing him from his boat after a storm broke his boom and left him with only his foresail.

The Coast Guard’s version of the story is that it was dispatched on a rescue mission by Howard’s friends, who received an emergency message from the sailor during the storm.

Howard’s version is that the Coast Guard forced him off his boat, a 20-foot Pacific Seacraft Flicka called Avalo, without properly inspecting it for seaworthiness. They left the uninsured vessel there, along with most of the possessions he had in the world.

Now he wants the federal government to compensate him for the $150,000 loss, and the Coast Guard called out for overreaching. He has filed a claim, the first step toward a lawsuit.

A Coast Guard spokesman said the service couldn’t leave Howard in a situation deemed unsafe, with another storm approaching.

'The commanding officer of the Coast Guard cutter had to assess the whole situation, the sea state and what he knew about the boat. And he determined it was a life-threatening situation,' said Dan Dewell, spokesman for the Coast Guard’s District 11 headquarters in Alameda.

He told SignonSanDiego it’s rare for the Coast Guard to force a sailboat owner off his boat during a rescue, but he didn’t have statistics. 'We understand how hard it is for a sailor to leave his boat. It’s not the kind of decision you make lightly,' Dewell said.

Howard said the Coast Guard cutter crew was determined to make him abandon his sailboat without finding out the facts about his vessel. While he had left a message on a friend’s machine during the storm saying it was an emergency, Howard said he didn’t intend to issue a mayday call and had not turned on his emergency radio beacon.

The longtime sailor said he was certain he could make it to shore with one sail, the jib, after the boat’s boom broke and he had to lower the main sail. His outboard motor also had become a casualty, but it was a tiny, 3-horsepower motor intended solely for navigation in marinas.

He had deployed the sea anchor, and says he was ready for the gathering storm.

'I really was the only one who knew what the condition of my boat was, and they never talked to me about it,' Howard, 62, who said he has sailed 30 years, told SignonSanDiego. 'I never got to talk to a decision-maker. I didn’t even know why they were on my boat until they started screaming, ‘Get off the boat.’'

Appearing the morning the storm, the 378-foot Coast Guard cutter Mellon sent out an inflatable boat and put one Coast Guardsman aboard the Avalo.

Howard had saved money and prepared his boat for many months for his planned round-world journey. He had been a very experienced sailor prior to glaucoma removing most of his sight.

Prior to his departure, Howard talked about the challenge that faced him. 'There are the usual concerns about the boat and equipment; it would be foolish to not recognize the reality that things break and a thousand or two miles out at sea, these things can turn catastrophic. So I've spent more than a year reducing those chances.'

Howard's 20-foot boat had not only been re-fitted in order to make sailing easier, it is also equipped with essential technologies to ensure the safety of both Howard and other sailors, including an Automatic Identification System (AIS), which alerts Howard to ships within a 50-mile radius.

After much preparation, he was exhilarated by his anticipated time at sea. 'Those who have never sailed in blue water, particularly alone with the moon and stars and phosphorescence and wildlife and the majesty of the ocean would have to struggle to appreciate how beautiful it is.'

Now his beloved boat is left to fend for itself on the ocean and he is faced with a different kind of challenge - a lawsuit against the US Coast Guard.
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