We've Got to Know Where You Are

By Admiral James M. Loy, USCG

Admiral James M. Loy, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, made the following remarks at the U.S. Naval Institute's 125th Annual Meeting and Ninth Annapolis Seminar held at the U.S. Naval Academy on 22 April 1999. After urging the younger attendees—including about a dozen Coast Guard Academy cadets who had made the journey from New London—to join the Naval Institute and participate in the forum, he told the audience that he had decided to defer giving the traditional "State of the Coast Guard" address and to concentrate instead on recent Coast Guard search-and-rescue experiences as a lead-in to the Institute's panel on " How Much Is One Life Worth? " He used the loss of the sailboat Morning Dew , near Charleston, S.C., to make his case.

The panel that follows my presentation is focused on an intriguing dimension of the search-and-rescue mission: the worth of life. As advertised, it may tend to focus on the response dimension of the mission. I would like to discuss some lessons we have learned recently that will focus on the prevention dimension.

We are all familiar with recent heroic response stories: The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger . . . the fishing vessel Le Conte case in the Bering Sea last year told so well in a series run in The Washington Post . . . many Coast Guard and Air National Guard cases where magnificent professionals saved lives at sea.

Sadly, we often learn more dramatic lessons when lives are tragically lost. In the midst of such losses, we must take the time to learn lessons and keep the losses from recurring the next time similar circumstances occur.

My remarks will focus on the loss of the sailing vessel Morning Dew near Charleston, South Carolina, the winter before last. My goal is to learn, take stock, and encourage prevention skills for all of us who have parts to play in making going to sea a safer experience.

The week between Christmas of 1997 and New Year's Day of 1998 was supposed to be a pleasant time for the family of 49-year-old Michael Cornett. Mr. Cornett had just bought a used sailboat, a 34-foot Cal sloop, christened the Morning Dew . He had been a recreational sailor for more than 20 years and had owned other sailboats. He accepted delivery of the Morning Dew in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, embarked his two teenaged sons and his teenaged nephew as either crew or passengers, and began a transit to Jacksonville, Florida.

As near as we can reconstruct the voyage, Mr. Cornett's departure from Myrtle Beach on 27 December was delayed by an electrical problem on the boat, which he corrected by buying a new battery at an auto parts store. While he made sure that the battery could hold a charge, he purchased some charts and planned an inland route along the Intracoastal Waterway [ICW].

At 10:00 p.m. on 27 December, the bridge tender at Little River, South Carolina, reported seeing Morning Dew in the ICW. We do not know how far the vessel went on the 27th or where the crew spent the night.

At 2:30 the next afternoon [28 December], the operator of a salvage vessel saw the Morning Dew heading outbound in Winyah Bay, moving toward the open ocean, cruising on engine power with the sails furled on the boom. The operator of the salvage vessel assumed the Morning Dew had missed the turn into the ICW; he hailed the sailboat on VHF-FM radio, but was unable to establish communications. A sport fisherman also saw the Morning Dew heading toward the open ocean, also tried to send a warning, and also failed to make radio contact.

No one knows why Mr. Cornett headed for sea. Perhaps he wanted to find some sea room so he could spread some canvas on his new boat. Perhaps he missed the ICW and decided against retracing his route to regain his intended track. Whatever his thought process, at some point, he knew his boat was pointed away from land and continued out to sea.

There were small craft advisories posted from Little River Inlet, South Carolina, to Savannah, Georgia. Winds were from the east at 25 knots and gusting. Seas were running five to six feet. Areas of rain and embedded thunderstorms reduced visibility to less than one nautical mile. The water temperature was 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

We do not know what happened on board the boat over the next 11 or 12 hours. What we surmise is that sometime around 2:00 in the morning [of 29 December], the Morning Dew struck the north jetty at the entrance to Charleston Harbor, right around low tide. Some time later, the vessel sank on the south side of the jetty, probably after being driven over the rocks by the east wind and the incoming tide. Mr. Cornett, his two sons, and his nephew died.

Here is how the case developed from the Coast Guard's perspective.

Coast Guard Group Charleston, South Carolina, carried out its normal watch routine on 27 and 28 December, unaware that the Morning Dew even existed or was under way within its area of responsibility.

On the night of 28 December, there was one watchstander in the communications center, standing a 12-hour watch from 6:00 in the evening until 6:00 in the morning. A more experienced petty officer had turned in for the night, as authorized by the standing orders, but was immediately available if anything unusual occurred.

At 2:17 a.m. [29 December], the watchstander heard a rapid and broken radio transmission on Channel 16, VHF-FM. He could tell that the caller was yelling, and he interpreted the words he heard as "U.S. Coast Guard. U.S. Coast Guard." He answered the call twice, but heard no return call. A few minutes later he heard the keying of a microphone, and tried to respond again. No communication was established.

The watchstander did not perceive this to be a distress situation. It was not unusual for boaters in open craft to yell into microphones to counter wind or engine noise. Furthermore, atmospheric conditions often cause radio calls from outside the operating area to be audible in the Charleston communications center. It could have been someone seeking a radio check. There was no cause for alarm.

However reassuring these explanations seemed to the watchstander at the time, later analysis and audio enhancements revealed that the call was actually the voice of 13-year old Daniel Cornett yelling, "Mayday! U.S. Coast Guard. Come in!"

Even if the watchstander had understood correctly the call, there was very little information to go on. Without knowing the identity of the vessel, its location, or the nature of its distress, there would not have been enough information to initiate a search. There would have been cause for a heightened state of alertness, and there would have been cause for some detective work to ascertain whether a distress situation did exist somewhere. But we probably would not have launched a boat or helicopter because we would not have known where to send them.

At 6:28 a.m., the same watchstander, who had been relieved by the day watch, but had remained to perform some administrative work, received a phone call from the Charleston Harbor pilot dispatcher, advising him that the boatswain on board an inbound automobile carrier had reported hearing someone screaming for help off the starboard side—the vicinity of the north jetty. The pilot of the inbound ship already had taken it upon himself to direct his pilot boat to search the area.

The watchstander accepted the information and notified his supervisor. Nobody made a connection to the broken call four hours earlier. A little while later, we accepted the pilot boat's judgment in suspending the search.

At 11:15 that morning, two bodies washed up in the surf. The third body was found in the early afternoon. Michael Cornett's body was found about four weeks later.

It was a horrible accident, and one made more horrible by the possibility that the Coast Guard missed the opportunity to rescue one or more of the Morning Dew sailors.

When we encounter a case like this, it is important to focus our efforts on preventing recurrences. With that in mind, I would like to draw lessons from this case for three distinct audiences: the American public, the Coast Guard, and the recreational boating public.

The first lesson to be drawn from Morning Dew is one of public policy, specifically the need for investment in a National Distress Communication System. Most recreational boaters would be alarmed to learn how fragile is this weak link in our search-and-rescue system. As matters now stand, there is a vast disparity between the communications capability that the public thinks we have and the communications system that we do have.

Today, if you dial 911 on your telephone, say the word "Fire!" and run outside, a fire engine will show up at your driveway in a matter of minutes—and you can wait at the neighbor's house if it is cold outside. The Coast Guard, on the other hand, is still working with a distress communications system that is equivalent to what local police and fire departments were using in the 1950s. If you pick up the handset on your VHF-FM radio today, however, shout "Fire! Mayday!" and jump overboard, you could very likely drown or die of hypothermia.

Our operations centers cannot enhance and replay audio signals, and they lack useful direction-finding equipment. Our search-and-rescue communications depend on the ability of people whose lives are in immediate peril to explain calmly their identity, their location, and the nature of their distress. The more urgent the distress, the less likely are boaters to be able to communicate the necessary information and the less likely is their equipment to be functioning properly.

In many cases, we are lucky to get a position report as specific as "off Cape Hatteras," which may or may not narrow our search area to several thousand square miles, depending on what other information we are able to learn. At other times, we initiate searches knowing only that distressed mariners think they are "on the 100-fathom curve." I do not know for sure that it is true, but it did not strain my credulity when I heard about the operator of a disabled vessel who reported his position in these terms: Caller: "I'm right about at the 'C' that is the letter 'C' as in 'Charley' in Campeche." [The caller was referring to the name of a geographical feature written on a chart.]

Coast Guard: "Roger, sir. Would that be the big 'C' at the beginning or the little 'c' near the end?"

We need a communications system that gives our watchstanders the ability to translate calls like Daniel Cornett's desperate "Mayday!" into effective action; a system that allows watchstanders to replay calls, slowing them down and adjusting the quality until the message can be understood; a system that determines and preserves an electronic fix every time a signal is received.

We are pursuing Coast Guard-wide modernization of archiving, playback, and radio direction-finding capabilities as part of the National Distress and Response System. But we do not expect to begin to field this system until 2001, and it is not slated to be fully operational before 2005. In the meantime, mariners must understand that voice distress communications to the Coast Guard may not produce an effective response unless they include the vessel name, position, and nature of distress. Without those three pieces of information, we often are dealing with needle-in-haystack probabilities of success.

We must guard carefully against the possibility that video footage of our dramatic rescues shown on network television may lull some boaters into a false sense of security, may give rise to a misplaced confidence that the Coast Guard can bail them out of whatever peril comes their way. We cannot guarantee that we will be there. The sea remains a dangerous, vast expanse.

Lesson two is for the Coast Guard. I have no basis for speculating whether an earlier search could have made any difference in the Morning Dew case but, for the U.S. Coast guard, the lesson is that operational vigilance must come before all other organizational considerations.

We have heard a lot of dialogue this year about shortfalls in the readiness of all military services. It is apparent to me that we have reached the absolute limit in streamlining our organization. Budget constraints have made us cut and trim everywhere we could. The Morning Dew case tells us that further cuts would degrade public safety if our previous cuts have not already done so. Streamlining may have gone too far.

Our personnel are stretched too thin. Our people are working too hard. We have too little experience in too many crucial positions. A more experienced watchstander might have been able to pick up Daniel Cornett's "Mayday!" I say "might," because I had to hear the tape several times before I could discern the distress word "Mayday," and I had the advantage of knowing precisely what I was listening for.

Even so, a more experienced watchstander who better understood how different the world looks when you are at sea on a stormy December night than it does from a cozy operations center might have been slower to accept non-distress explanations for the two radio calls at 2:00 in the morning; experience might have produced more persistence in seeking additional information; more experience might have caused a more seasoned watchstander to continue mulling over the incident and be more ready to associate it with the phone call from the pilots. More experience might have enabled an immediate recognition that our awareness of volunteer search activities should not normally be a factor in determining a Coast Guard response. I cannot rule out the possibility that our service-wide training and staffing shortages affected our response to this case.

Lesson three concerns the responsibilities of recreational boaters for their own safety. The Morning Dew case should provoke serious self-examination on the part of the general boating public.

It is bad form to speak ill of the dead, and so news reports rarely recount the errors in judgment or seamanship that cause people to perish at sea. This tendency is understandable but regrettable.

We face a moral imperative to learn from the mistakes we observe. To my view, we show the greatest respect for those who have been lost—especially for those who die unnecessarily—when we use the occasion of their deaths to prevent others from sharing their fate. With that in mind, what lessons should recreational boaters learn from the Morning Dew case?

The principal lesson for the recreational boating public has to do with the gulf between legally mandated safety requirements and prudent seamanship. The Morning Dew case presents us with a stark warning that boaters have a responsibility for their safety that extends far beyond legal compliance.

Consider these factors:

  • There is no federal requirement for recreational boaters to carry distress communications devices other than flares and efficient devices for producing noise. As a prudent mariner, however, I would never sail without a properly registered 406 EPIRB [Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon] that would transmit my vessel's name and position in the event that I could not. The Morning Dew had a VHF-FM radio, flares, air horns, and a strobe light, but did not carry an EPIRB. Note the gap between legal compliance and prudent seamanship.
  • There is no federal requirement for recreational boaters to have any protection from hypothermia. As a prudent mariner, however, I would not venture out in 5-6 foot seas in a 34-foot sailboat with a water temperature of 55()() [Fahrenheit] unless I had an antiexposure suit for every person on board. If I did proceed to sea under those conditions, I would require everybody to wear their antiexposure suits at all times when topside, and I would require them to keep them immediately accessible when below decks. The Morning Dew may have had the required personal flotation devices aboard, but she sailed without a life raft for keeping people out of the water or antiexposure gear to keeping them warm in the water if the boat went down. Note the gap between legal compliance and prudent seamanship.
  • There is no federal requirement for recreational boaters to carry particular navigation equipment. As a prudent mariner, however, I would never undertake a coastal passage at night without a compass whose reliability I had personally verified, without some means of electronic navigation, or without the means for terrestrial or celestial navigation in the event that the electronic navigation failed. As near as we can tell, the only navigation equipment on board the Morning Dew was a magnetic compass of undetermined reliability. Note the gap between legal compliance and prudent seamanship.
  • There is no federal requirement for recreational skippers to get any particular amount of rest before or during their voyages. As a prudent mariner, however, I would not think of going to sea for an overnight voyage unless there was someone else aboard who was capable of taking over the helm in the event that I became fatigued or incapacitated. When the Morning Dew went to sea, its skipper was committed to staying on watch all night in heavy weather after having stood watch all through the previous day. Once again, note the gap between legal compliance and prudent seamanship.

In describing this gap, my purpose is not to campaign for more stringent requirements for recreational boaters. I'm aiming higher. My goal cannot be legislated and cannot be regulated. My goal is prudent seamanship on the part of recreational boaters.

Eight hundred lives are lost annually from boating accidents, second only to the highway fatality totals that approach 40,000 annually. Recreational boaters are ultimately responsible for their own safety, and this responsibility chiefly falls into two areas: they must plan to minimize the likelihood of finding themselves in distress situations; and, because the power of the sea can overwhelm even the most careful efforts to avoid danger and dangerous waters, boaters must plan to maximize the likelihood of being rescued if they do encounter distress.

I am absolutely not picking on Mr. Cornett. I am trying desperately to generalize a single case's experience to lessons that we can all take away to ensure that there are not any more tragic Morning Dews .

The Morning Dew case did not have to turn out the way it did. We worked a case in early April that shows what can happen when boaters give the Coast Guard a chance to save their lives.

There is a lot that could be said about this case, which provided a terrific example of every part of the North Atlantic Search and Rescue system working together. But my purpose in mentioning it is to show what mariners can do to take responsibility for their own lives.

The Acapella was a 33-foot sailing trimaran, about the same size as the Morning Dew . She was under way off the coast of Nova Scotia, hundreds of miles farther from search-and-rescue assets than was Morning Dew , sailing in weather far worse than that faced by the Morning Dew —waves variously reported to be between 15- and 35-feet high, waves so high that they capsized this oceangoing vessel and suddenly left her completely turtled . . . upside down with no power. Similar-sized boat, worse weather, greater distance, more sudden disaster, yet her crew survived. What was the difference?

Principally, the difference was the crew's preparation. The Acapella was equipped with a properly registered 406 EPIRB. The trimaran was outfitted with a watertight compartment and an emergency escape hatch on the underside of the hull. The crew had antiexposure suits.

Once disaster struck, the Acapella sailors retreated to their watertight compartment and used the escape hatch to deploy and tether their 406 EPIRB. Then they showed due prudence by staying with their stricken craft in their antiexposure suits until help arrived—which it did. Within minutes of the EPIRB's deployment, the search-and-rescue system was fully alerted, focused on saving their lives, knowing exactly who was in distress and where they were.

If we know people are in trouble, if we know where to look, and if distressed mariners can float and stay warm for a few hours, we have an excellent chance of rescuing them.

I opened my remarks suggesting the imperative of learning from tragic events. The Morning Dew case offers many lessons for those who create public policy, for the Coast Guard, and for the boating public. Every life in danger at sea is an opportunity. Let us all learn—and commit to the investments necessary to preclude the unnecessary loss of any of them.


James Loy Admiral, U.S. Coast Guard (Ret.) completed a 45-year career in public service, retiring in 2005 as Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security. In this capacity, he was involved in all aspects of consolidating 22 separate agencies into one unified Cabinet department as well as managing the agency's day-to-day activities. Prior to the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, Admiral Loy served in the Department of Transportation as Deputy Undersecretary for Security and Chief Operating Officer of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and later as Under Secretary for Security. In these roles, he served as the first administrator of the newly created TSA, which is responsible for protecting the Nation's transportation systems. Admiral Loy retired from the Coast Guard in 2002, having served as its Commandant since May 1998. As head of the 90,000 person service, he restored readiness through workforce development and modernized the Coast Guard's fleet of ships and aircraft. Admiral Loy co-authored the Naval Institute Press book The Architecture of Leadership.

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