On the final leg of a search pattern, crews spotted an SOS spelled out on a sandy beach on Pikelot Island, where several mariners were stranded.
"We were toward the end of our search pattern, we turned to avoid some rain showers and that's when we looked down and saw an island, so we decide to check it out and that's when we saw SOS and a boat right next to it on the beach," said Lt. Col. Jason Palmeira-Yen, the pilot for the U.S. Air Force KC-135 aircraft. "From there we called in HMAS Canberra because they had two helicopters nearby that could assist and land on the island."
After discussions between the responding partners, it was decided the safest course of action for both the response agencies' crews and the mariners was to limit exposure to one another due to the COVID-19 pandemic, officials stated. A helicopter crew from the Royal Australian Navy's HMAS Canberra delivered supplies to the stranded mariners, while the Coast Guard Hercules crew airdropped a radio and message block informing them the FSS Independence was en route to bring them home.
At midnight on Monday, the FSS Independence arrived on scene, launched a small boat crew and rescued the mariners.
Responders from the U.S. Coast Guard and Air Force, Royal Australian Navy and Federated States of Micronesia participated in the search, covering 15,780 square miles, Coast Guard officials state. That's larger than the state of Maryland, which is 12,407 square miles.
The mariners had been missing since July 29. The cause of their stranding is unknown at this time, officials said.
Vessel reported overdue
At 12:38 a.m. on July 31, Joint Rescue Sub-Center Guam watchstanders received a report that a 23-foot white-and-blue skiff with three mariners aboard was overdue while transiting from Puluwat Atoll to Pulap Island, Chuuk – a 21 mile voyage – on July 29.
JRSC Guam watchstanders spoke with the Chuuk State Search and Rescue Liaison and confirmed the report while also contacting the commander of the FSM National Police Maritime Wing. The JRSC watchstanders issued a distress broadcast notice to mariners, deployed an Air Station Barbers Point HC-130 Hercules crew from Hawaii, and began querying possible volunteer commercial vessels and partners in the area to assist with the search.
Joint Rescue Coordination Center Honolulu personnel assisted JRSC Guam with coordinating the operation. The Air Force 506th Air Expeditionary Aerial Refueling Squadron from Andersen Air Force Base was contacted and deployed KC-135 Stratotanker crews to search the area. The HMAS Canberra was also in the region and agreed to divert and provide search sorties with embarked helicopters while the FSS Independence departed from Yap to assist.
The mariners have been transported to their home on Pulap. There were no reports of injuries.
Capt. Christopher Chase, commander of Coast Guard Sector Guam, said partnerships are what made the search and rescue a success.
"Through coordination with multiple response organizations, we were able to save three members of our community and bring them back home to their families," he said.
"This case highlights the importance of having a plan, and making sure your family knows when you are expected to return. Timely activation of the Search and Rescue System by the mariners' families allowed us to quickly respond with surface and aviation resources. We greatly appreciate the support of the Air Force, Royal Australian Navy and FSM."