Last fall, the U.S. Coast Guard informed The Nature Conservancy that a distress signal had gone off in the remote Central Pacific, 15 miles southeast of Palmyra Atoll, where the Conservancy operates a research station. A solitary sailor en route to Hawaiʻi from the Line Islands was stranded at sea, and both his health and his boat were severely compromised.
“It wasn’t until 8:30 or 9 that night that we able to make contact with the man,” said Zach Caldwell, the Conservancy’s dive safety officer for the atoll. “He was using a hand-held VHF radio and we could barely hear him. He said his boat was disabled and sinking. He sounded hysterical.”
When it was safe to go out the next morning, Caldwell and three others went in search of the sailor. Motoring out of the channel into the open ocean, they encountered rough, choppy seas, yet within two hours had managed to locate the man, who was now 15 miles east of the atoll.
When the crew boarded the vessel, they found the sailor lying half-conscious in the cabin. He didn’t know who, or where, he was. “His symptoms seem to indicate that he had had a heart attack or a stroke,” said Caldwell. “He said it felt like someone was sitting on his chest and he couldn’t breathe.”
Caldwell’s training as a dive safety officer qualified him to administer first aid. He took the man’s vital signs, administered CPR and gave him oxygen. “What I was doing was text book and what I teach in my dive safety classes,” he said.
Still, the situation was far worse than he had anticipated. The sailor had a fever and a blood-soaked bandage on his right leg, and when Caldwell removed it he found an acute infection. Later, on the hour-and-a-half return trip to Palmyra, the sailor stopped breathing twice. “He looked like he was dead,” said Caldwell. “We had to roll him over and drain his air passages to revive him.”
Back on Palmyra, Caldwell worked with atoll staff to stabilize the sailor, who was evacuated on an emergency Coast Guard C-130 flight to Honolulu that afternoon. He has since recovered and returned to his family on the mainland.
Mark Tercek, president of The Nature Conservancy, sent Caldwell a letter of commendation for his role in the rescue. The recognition was well deserved, but Caldwell wanted to share it. “I was the primary responder,” he said, “but what was impressive was the response of the entire Palmyra community. Everyone from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Atoll staff and researchers made a huge effort to save this individual. That, to me, was truly inspiring.”
Another letter came from the sailor’s wife, who profoundly thanked everyone involved and noted, “Without you…we would not be having a holiday season this year.”
As it turned out, the wife also helped save her husband’s life. As he was leaving on his trip—walking out the front door—she gave him a personal EPIRB, or Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon.
"It was that instrument that allowed him to send the distress signal that led to his recovery," said Caldwell.
Without it, he might still be lost at sea.