Adrift on a capsized boat 16 miles offshore, a palm-sized personal locator beacon was their best last chance. By Jeff Moag
The situation went bad in a hurry.
Tan Boriboune joined a group of five friends for a day of spearfishing off Virginia Beach on August 16, 2020. A heavy swell was running that Sunday morning and bad weather was in the forecast, but as they cleared the point at Cape Henry, the conditions looked good enough to continue offshore.
“We were like, the water’s flat right now—let’s do it,” recalled Justin Davis. “We can go out there, load up on fish and get back before the weather rolls in.”
They bee-lined for the Chesapeake Light Tower, an abandoned lighthouse 13 miles off Virginia Beach that’s normally teeming with spadefish, sheepshead and cobia. The crew tied off to the tower and enjoyed a banner day of spearfishing, but as they climbed back aboard the 24-foot Wellcraft it became clear something was wrong.
With its bow tied to the tower the boat wasn’t able to move with the waves, and instead of riding easily over the four-to-six foot swells it took a few over the transom. The bilge pump couldn’t keep pace, and when they came back aboard the weight of six divers and their bounty of spadefish was more than the boat could take. They had to act fast.
Nick Brown swam to the tower to cut the line, while Tyler Jehoich sawed at it from the bow of the Wellcraft.
“We were tied to the tower, so our plan was to cut the line and then gun it to get the water out the back of the boat,” Tyler said. The moment the line parted the boat began to drift. Within seconds it was 30 yards from the tower, and Tyler made the split-second decision to jump. The idea was to lighten the load so that boat owner Kyle McKenzie could more easily clear the bilges once he got underway. But the brand-new Evinrude E-Tec 200 wouldn’t start. Seawater had fouled the electronics.
“I told everybody we’re going down and then ran to the cabin and started throwing out life jackets, the flare kit, anything,” Kyle recalls. He and Adam Howell were still in the cabin when the boat rolled.
Nobody made a Mayday call on the VHF radio. Kyle said there wasn’t time. From the time code on the video captured by his GoPro camera, we know that exactly four minutes and 25 seconds elapsed from the moment he climbed aboard with his last fish until the Wellcraft went belly-up.
Just before the vessel capsized, Tan Boriboune reached for his dive bag. Inside was the bright yellow personal locator beacon, or PLB, he’d purchased and registered a few weeks earlier. After the four spearfishermen clambered atop the overturned hull, he squinted at the instructions printed on the palm-sized device, lifted the safety guard and pressed the button.
Boriboune was familiar with the technology. The U.S. Navy lieutenant had managed similar EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons) devices when he ran the radio shop on his first ship. Still, there was no indication that the beacon’s message had been received. Tan and the others could only take it on faith.
The moment Tan activated the beacon it began broadcasting a radio signal to the Cospas-Sarsat system, a constellation of 47 search and rescue satellites that can pick up signals from anywhere on the globe. This information was then relayed to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Fifth District Command Center, triggering an immediate response. Fifth District watchstanders alerted an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew that was already engaged in a training mission nearby, while Sector Virginia launched a boat crew from Station Little Creek in Norfolk.
To ensure the beacon signal wasn’t a false alarm, the Coast Guard also called the number Tan had given when he registered the device. When Tan didn’t pick up, they called the secondary contact number—his wife Brouk.
“They said, ‘This is the Coast Guard and your husband has activated a life preserving beacon,’” Brouk recalled. “It was the worst and best feeling at the same time, because I know something is terribly wrong if the Coast Guard is calling me, but the first thing they said is, ‘No matter what, we’re going to go there and we’re going to get them. Help is already on the way.’”
The beacon was broadcasting Tan’s approximate position every 50 seconds, but searchers didn’t know whether the drift they were monitoring meant he was on a disabled boat, or swimming in the Atlantic.
“The first time I actually stopped to ask a question I just said, ‘Is my husband in the water?’” Brouk said. The watchstander didn’t know. In fact, rescuers needed Brouk’s help to determine the people and vessel they were searching for.
Tan had joined the trip at the last minute and hadn’t left a float plan with Brouk, meaning all that she and the rescuers knew initially was that Tan’s beacon had been activated about 13 miles offshore. They didn’t know how many people were with Tan. They didn’t know what kind of vessel they were in, or whether they’d abandoned ship. In fact, they had no way to tell whether the fishermen were together, or scattered over several square miles of ocean.
Tan and his friends use a Facebook group to organize their outings, and Brouk was able to gather critical information there, including photos of Kyle’s Wellcraft to pass on to the Coast Guard team. She also contacted wives and girlfriends of some of the other fishermen, who shared what they knew of the crew’s plans. It wasn’t much.
Because the fishermen had not left float plans with friends or family, the Coast Guard didn’t even know how many people they were looking for. Through her Facebook sleuthing, Brouk identified four fishermen. In fact six men were out there, including two on the tower.
After leaping from the boat, Tyler had swum for all he was worth to reach the tower, where he and Nick watched in disbelief as the Wellcraft rolled, dumping their friends in the water. Already, 30 yards had become 100. In the distance Tyler and Nick could see four figures in life jackets, scrambling onto the hull of the overturned boat.
They weren’t concerned for themselves—it was August, and someone would find them on the tower long before they froze or starved—but they felt a desperate responsibility to the others. Tyler and Nick didn’t know about Tan’s beacon, and as they watched the little boat drift toward the horizon it seemed to be slowly sinking.
The two men climbed the 130-foot tower and searched the wide platform at the top. They found signal flags and strung them up on old pool cues they discovered in the abandoned crew quarters. Tyler found a propane torch and got a signal fire going in a burn barrel, feeding it with plastic wire casings and anything else that would make smoke. Two massive cargo vessels were anchored about a mile away, but nothing Nick and Tyler did seemed to gain their attention.
Meanwhile, the sun was sinking lower and the weather was changing for the worse. “We were on the tower looking out towards the east and there was a storm blowing in,” Nick said. “The clouds just came down towards the top of the tower and we couldn’t see nothing.” The Wellcraft had long since drifted out of sight.
On the boat, the four men rigged a lifeline across the overturned hull, and held on as the seas continued to build. Though the water and air temperature were both in the 70s, two hours after the capsize they were beginning to feel chilled. When the sun went down hypothermia would become a real concern.
Late in the afternoon Adam Howell remembers watching a massive loggerhead turtle lumbering by. When the animal cocked its head as if to listen, Adam heard the distant thump of the rotors. Soon the MH-60 Jayhawk rescue chopper hove into view. The helicopter circled the shipwrecked fishermen, then hovered nearby as a rescue swimmer plunged into the water.
“He was just like, who wants to go?” recalled Justin, and the friends insisted Tan be hoisted first. After all, it was his beacon that had saved the day. Kyle, the boat’s owner and captain, went last.
“It was crazy because we’re all good swimmers and we’re just laying there, like ‘Take me away!’” Justin said. “He just wraps his arms around you and drags you to the basket.”
In minutes all four men were safely aboard the chopper and directed the crew back to the Chesapeake Light Tower where Nick and Tyler were waiting. When they saw the helicopter approaching they initially waved it off.
“Nick didn’t know we were in the helicopter, so he’s running around pointing, like ‘Don’t get us, go get them!’” Justin said. Nick and Tyler didn’t realize the others had already been rescued until they spotted them through the open door of the Jayhawk as it circled the tower.
Nick was the last to be hoisted aboard. In the video captured inside the aircraft, he tumbles out of the basket to embrace Tan, then goes down the line offering fist bumps and high fives. By the time the chopper set down at Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., about half an hour later, Brouk’s phone tree had done its work. All six men had loved ones on the way to meet them.
“Tan said immediately it’s the best couple of hundred dollars he ever spent,” Brouk said. “When it came down to it, they bought their second chance at life.”
James Cifers, a civilian watchstander at the Fifth District Command Center, credits the successful rescue to Tan’s PLB. “This case could have turned out quite different if the owner had not bought and registered his device,” he said.
The PLB served its purpose as a last resort, though it shouldn’t have been the only lifeline for Tan and his friends. While Kyle did well to distribute life jackets and the flare kit before the boat turned turtle, the men did not attempt to issue a Mayday call on VHF channel 16 before the boat rolled. A ditch bag including a waterproof handheld VHF would have allowed them to make a distress call (albeit with less range) and potentially establish two-way communications with the Coast Guard. They also admit to pushing the weather window, but the lesson that sticks with Brouk is the need for boaters to share their plans with loved ones.
“It’s really important to say where you’re going and who you’re with, but also when you’re going to be back,” she said. Noting that Tan and his friends regularly fish from sunrise to sunset, if it weren’t for the beacon “we wouldn’t have raised any alarm bells until well after dark.” By that time, it might have been too late.