It’s more common than some might think, but a simple paddleboarding excursion can often turn into drama. In this case, the fate of a lost paddleboarder turned into an interagency rescue mission – one with a positive outcome.
On August 5, 2021, about an hour after sunset, the daughter of a paddleboarder contacted emergency services while her mother was late off Maui, Hawaii. It was around 2000 and the call went to Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point on the island of Oahu, some 85 nautical miles to the west. Within minutes, a multi-pronged Search and Rescue (SAR) effort was launched, as the Coast Guard searched for a 51-year-old woman wearing a blue personal flotation device on a white paddleboard.
The moon was at about its darkest peak that night, making visibility over the sea surface extremely difficult. An hour after the start of the mission, the Coast Guard Air Base alerted a Coast Guard Auxiliary Team to prepare for a first-rate SAR mission; this is standard practice for searches at night and with reduced visibility. In the lead-up to sunrise, the Coast Guard maintains a surface search unit in the area to give the survivor confidence and let them know not to give up hope and indicate that they are actively looking for it – reality is that it is hoped that it will strengthen their will to live while they are in such dangerous circumstances.
Coast Guard auxiliary pilot Robert Emami and crew member Eduardo Vitorino (both volunteers) were briefed that night. They quickly planned their mission and at 5:30 a.m. they began to participate in the search. Their equipment was a Piper PA-32-300 Cherokee Six, a certified USCG auxiliary installation, which had received the tactical call sign AUXAIR5. The men obtained the most recent research model coordinates from the Sector Honolulu Command Center (SCC) and uploaded them to the ForeFlight app on the cockpit iPad. They did a pre-mission briefing, risk management assessment, and then departed Honolulu International Airport (PHNL) at 6:25 am Their flight took them from Oahu to the southeast about 80 miles, to the west coast of Maui.
At 6:50 a.m., the on-scene commander (OSC), an HC-130H coast guard using the RESCUE 1720 call sign, radioed to AUXAIR5, held a safety briefing, and issued altitude assignments. AUXAIR5 has been ordered to maintain 1000 feet and RESCUE 1720 is expected to maintain 500 feet. The OSC advised AUXAIR5 to closely monitor air traffic, as additional air assets were also located in the area of interest.
At 0710, AUXAIR5 arrived at the start of the assigned search circuit and encountered moderate to severe turbulence. Although the search area was on the leeward side of the West Maui Mountains, the turbulence at 1000 feet was significant. At the time, they could see that the surface of the sea was choppy with white hats. As they returned to the second leg, the air turbulence and sea conditions improved, and in just a few minutes air crew Eduardo Vitorino observed a paddleboarder, so AUXAIR5 had investigated further. A positive identification was made and Eduardo marked the location on the aircraft’s navigation system. The flight crew contacted the Honolulu Sector Command Center via Marine Band VHF and reported the location of a paddleboarder matching the description of the missing individual. AUXAIR5 started to spin overhead, grateful and confident the paddleboarder would be rescued. They stayed behind and supervised the arrival of the HC-130, an MD520-N fire and public safety helicopter from Maui County (Maui Air One) and a 45-foot Coast Guard response boat. from Maui station.
AUXAIR5 remained at 1000 feet while the HC-130 turned at 500 feet. Below them, at 7:17 a.m., Maui Air One arrived at the scene and quickly deployed a rescue swimmer. The swimmer contacted the paddleboarder and a rescue basket was deployed. At 7:19 a.m., Maui Air One hoisted the victim and the swimmer, delivering them to emergency medical services that had been set up on the shore.
At approximately 7:25 a.m., AUXAIR5 guided the Coast Guard response boat to the location to retrieve the paddle board and paddle. At 7:30 a.m., AUXAIR5 and RESCUE 1720 left the scene. AUXAIR5 landed at PHNL at 0821, secured the aircraft and prepared a post-mission report. This joint interagency response demonstrated the best America has to offer. It included military resources, county firefighters, and volunteers – both people and equipment. More importantly, the simple “float plane” left with the woman’s daughter contained vital information about the paddleboarder, what she was wearing, the color of the paddleboard and the geographic area she was in. This vital information undoubtedly helped save his life.
For more information contact: Larry Fletcher – Chief of Aviation, Coast Guard Auxiliary Division at [email protected]