Gliding through the Graveyard

photo by Lisa Suhay

photo by Lisa Suhay

After Robert Suhay, 52, of Norfolk, Virginia, set a world record in July 2014 for the longest single-handed distance sailed in a dinghy, he realized there were things he should have done differently to better prepare himself and those who loved him for that journey. Less than 24 hours into the record-setting voyage from Virginia to Maryland, his cell phone sustained water damage, cutting off his only means of communication with the rest of the world and leaving his wife Lisa wrought with worry back on shore. With Hurricane Arthur approaching the Mid-Atlantic and inclement weather where Robert last called home, Lisa reached out to the Coast Guard that day out of fear for Robert’s life.

The Coast Guard soon located Robert, who insisted he didn’t need help. He continued on with his plan and broke the previous record by about a mile and a half.

Though Lisa initially reached out to the Coast Guard for search and rescue assistance, she later learned the seagoing service was every bit as interested in preventing search and rescue (SAR) cases as they were searching and rescuing.

After Robert broke the record, Coast Guard 5th District command personnel in Portsmouth invited Robert and Lisa to meet and discuss specific concerns the Coast Guard had for Robert’s safety during his voyage, as well as recommendations for future sailing trips. They urged Robert to attach a personal locator beacon (PLB) and a VHF-FM marine radio, as well as other critical safety items, to his PFD.

“In addition to the PLB and marine radio attached to the life vest Robert would wear for the entire trip, we wanted to make sure he had a mirror, flares, a whistle and a strobe light that would attach to his vest or fit in its pockets as well,” said Cmdr. Tim Eason, Coast Guard helicopter pilot, SAR mission coordinator and aviation resource manager for the 5th District.

“I can’t stress enough how important all these items are for a person stranded at sea,” said Eason. “More importantly though, these items must be attached to, or fit into zipped pockets of a person’s life vest. If someone ends up in the water with all this critical gear left in the boat, it won’t do them any good. The strobe light alone can mean the difference between us being able to locate a person using our night vision equipment and not seeing that person at all.”

“My meetings with the Coast Guard were a crucial part of planning the trip and vastly improved our safety gear and knowledge,” said Suhay. “The inclusion of PLBs, a strobe light and a flare were a result of our consultation. Lisa and I can’t thank the Coast Guard enough for the care and concern they showed for our project.”

Robert credits Lisa with being his shore crew, demonstrating his understanding of how important it is for her to know his plan before heading out on the water. Otherwise known as a float plan, any boater heading out for an hour or a month should send friends and loved ones detailed float plans, via email or another form of documentation. Float plans outline the details of the planned trip and are invaluable if the Coast Guard needs to conduct a search.

When Robert and Lisa approached the Coast Guard with Robert’s plan to break his record a year later, the Coast Guard attempted to dissuade him. The decision to sail solo, in the ocean, in a 14-foot Laser sailboat for several days straight is not one the Coast Guard will likely ever endorse. Suhay, however, persisted with his record attempt, sailing from Morehead City, North Carolina, June 30 and arriving in Annapolis, Maryland, July 4, covering a total distance of 346.1 nautical miles.

Robert grew up in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, sailing small boats from a young age.

“My Dad built me an 8-foot prim when I was about nine,” said Suhay. “He would take me to the water on his way to work and shove me off. I would spend eight or more hours a day on the water, and he’d pick me up on his way home. My record attempts were an extension of what I’ve been doing since I was a kid.”

Robert said despite a lifetime of experience sailing small boats, sailing such long distances required serious preparation. He first sailed a long distance on a 14–foot sailboat four years ago – and took two long-distance trips before his first record voyage.

While the distances Robert covered during his record voyages and practice trips in previous years are anything but typical, the challenges he encountered are realities any self-propelled watercraft operators can encounter on the water. Whether sailing 350 miles on a small sailboat or heading out for a half-hour kayak paddle on a lunch break, self-propelled watercraft operators must be prepared for those challenges.

“I think it’s more dangerous operating close to shore than on the open ocean,” said Suhay. “You need to be able to maneuver comfortably because large motor vessels are not able to. Staying out of the shipping channels is crucial. I do my best to wait until there are no ships in sight before crossing channels. It’s important even for kayakers to understand the rules of the road. Boating can go from the most fun you’ve ever had to the scariest moments of your life in an instant. A sudden weather change, a gear failure – or another unforeseen circumstance can have grave consequences. The water can be a lot of fun, but it’s an inherently dangerous environment.”

Suhay doesn’t claim to be a perfect mariner. Though he carried a VHF handheld radio during his 2015 voyage and relied on it for weather information, he didn’t have a way to recharge the battery. He also carried a cell phone and a solar charger, but said in critical moments, he was out of cell phone range.

Though Suhay isn’t perfect, he’s consistent, and he’s improving.

“I always wear my life jacket, I carry a whistle and I always carry a light,” said Suhay. These items are legally required for self-propelled craft operators in most states.

On his 2015 record voyage, Robert brought two different types of personal locator beacons. One would transmit a signal to alert search and rescue professionals of his position in case of an emergency while the other would transmit to commercial traffic. PLBs

Robert learned from mistakes, and his first long-distance trip taught him well. He left in September that year and learned despite the favorable winds, it got dark too early and was too cold. He learned any loss of body temperature equaled a drain on body energy that was very difficult to replace.

He also learned equipment fails. Having bought a clamp-on, battery-powered marine light, by morning the batteries were dead.

He also didn’t carry enough food and water, and he saw firsthand the impact of currents.

“I wasn’t aware of currents pushing me west across Chesapeake Bay, but the next morning I realized I was way off course,” said Robert.

He realized the navigational challenges; plotting with a compass while steering a small sailboat alone was nearly impossible.

The second year Robert made it to Annapolis, this time using a handheld GPS.

“I came to realize how valuable this tool was, while recognizing its limitations. You can’t safely sail while at the same time staring at a handheld GPS screen.”

Despite improvements in navigation, Robert said there are some inevitable outcomes due to the limitations of small boats.

“With small sailboats and other self-propelled watercraft, it’s not if but when the boat will capsize,” said Robert. “On these long trips, I know I’m going in the water at some point. The boat will flip over. Wearing a life jacket that has compartments for critical items is important. Anything not attached to you or the boat will probably be lost. You need to be able to deal with a flipped small craft comfortable and calmly. It’s part of standard operating procedures for small craft.”

Though Robert set sail from North Carolina in 2015 through an area known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, it wasn’t with a light heart nor lack of respect for the harsh maritime environment he was entering.

“Hatteras was not beautiful to me,” he said. “It was not romantic. It was not inviting. It was not relaxing. It was scary. The lighthouse there was not a beacon of romanticism, rather it was an ugly fang, just waiting to chomp on me. I could see how dangerous that place could get in just an instant. If you’re off Cape Hatteras and don’t get at least a little afraid, you don’t know what you’re looking at.”

Perhaps Robert’s lack of complacency and his determination to improve stem from knowing he isn’t the only person with something at stake when he heads out on the water.

“I’ve seen both sides of the coin when it comes to my husband’s record attempts,” said Lisa. “My favorite side has a bright, shiny Coast Guard insignia on it.”

photo by Lisa Suhay

photo by Lisa Suhay