Encino Rescue at Sea

Around midnight on March 18th, the crew of the sailboat Cambria felt a jarring crash. They had run aground on Alice Shoals in the Caribbean, about 150 miles southwest of Jamaica. As the ship wallowed into deep water, it began to sink, listing forty degrees. The ocean was ink black and a storm was moving in. The Cambria was a hundred miles from help.

Bob Karon, 46, of Encino, California had spent the evening working on his vintage amateur radio station. He was checking out his repairs and modifications with two “ham” radio operators in Naples, Florida.

The Captain of the Cambria had often enjoyed listening in on ham conversations from around the world, but tonight he picked up the microphone, and in a choked, strident voice called “Mayday.”

The level of water in the cabin, the listing angle of the sailboat, with the antenna nearly touching the water and poor radio conditions in general made almost all communication impossible. The Captain could make out only one voice: Callsign, “AA6RK”, Bob Karon.

“The signal was weak and fading,” Karon said, “I had to hold my breath sometimes to hear it. The Collins receiver was built the 1960's.” When he discerned the Cambria's position, he telephoned the Coast Guard.

“The Coast Guard asked me to transmit so that they could find the frequency, but they couldn't hear the Cambria's weak signals. They told me it would take two and a half hours for a rescue helicopter to reach them,” Karon said. “The Coast Guard contacted the merchant vessel, Nord-Jahre President, 25 nautical miles from the Cambria. They immediately changed course and would be there in ninety minutes. The Captain was alarmed. He told me that he estimated the Cambria would sink within the hour.”

Bob Karon has been a licensed amateur radio operator since his teenage years. He is a freelance musician and a volunteer at Encino Elementary school, where he has not only created programs in amateur radio, but in music and rocketry as well. “My experience with elementary school programs has taught me to be calm and placid in emergency situations,” he added.

Bob Karon stayed on the air for the next three hours, the only connection between the Nord-Jahre and the Cambria. “I reassured the panicky crew that help was on the way and relayed instructions from the Coast Guard and the rescue ship.”

At two-thirty in the morning, the big merchant vessel was in the vicinity of the Cambria. “They were unable to come close because of the knife-like shoals. They dispatched one of their lifeboats and threaded the way to the foundering Cambria. All four crew members were rescued and taken to Aruba, the Nord-Jahre's next port of call.”

A week after the emergency, Karon received a commendation from Captain Robert C. Gravino, Chief, Search and Rescue Branch, U. S. Coast Guard, citing him for “…professional and humanitarian actions assisting mariners in distress. A job well done.”

Of his experience, Karon said: “I was tense the whole time,” but he wasn't thinking of himself, “those guys must have been scared, sinking in the dark.”


(©1996, Harvey Laidman)

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