Reporting on the recent rescue of eight boaters stranded between the islands of Utila and Roatan in Honduras has so far overlooked the most significant travel-safety aspects of the story. Such media failure to look beyond the drama to the causes of the incident may lull travelers into a false sense of security when visiting developing countries.
The story began on Saturday, June 29 when eight young people left Utila on a rented speedboat for what they thought would be a quick pleasure trip to Roatan and back. The passengers included two Americans (16 and 18 years old), a 16-year-old Canadian, and five Hondurans between the ages of 16 and 28. According to reports from the Utila Search & Rescue Facebook page (quickly created by family members of one of the missing young people), the search began Sunday and was continuing Monday, with the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa having contacted Joint Task Force-Bravo “in the hopes to dispatch rescue planes tomorrow.”
Joint Task Force Bravo is one of three task forces under United States Southern Command . It is headquartered at Soto Cano Air Base, also referred to as Palmerola Air Base, near the Honduran city of Comayagua.
A Coast Guard team was dispatched from Miami Tuesday to join the search. On Wednesday, the boat was spotted 66 miles away from Utila a Blackhawk helicopter from Soto Cano. The total search covered more than 4,500 square miles.
Media Miss the Real Story
Reporting to date has focused on the dramatic rescue – and certainly all who devoted their energies and risked their own safety to search for the missing boat deserve to be recognized. However, the real travel-safety story has been overlooked:
“They rented a speed boat, had no life safety gear (life vests, FLAIRS, etc) no food, no water, no GPS, no VHF radio and not enough fuel,” posted Angelika Lukacsy, organizer of the Utila Search & Rescue Facebook page and aunt of one of the missing young people. “Even in a small vessel around these islands there should always be these items. With a flare and a VHF they would have waited 30 minutes for rescue instead of 4 1/2 days. Also, this boat was not registered and the process of getting the appropriate paperwork and checking in and out with the Port Captains on Utila and Roatan was not completed.”
Ms. Lukacsy’s point is spot on, but it misses two more fundamental issues. In an area whose economy largely depends on water-based recreation and that is known for its treacherous currents:
- Anyone (particularly a group consisting of inexperienced young people) could rent a vessel that does not carry even basic safety gear, and
- Even rudimentary search /rescue infrastructure does not exist.
Seth Escobar, who identifies himself on Facebook as “Captain at Bay Islands College of Diving” points out that “Boats that are under 40ft. by HONDURAN law, are not obligated to verify departure or arrival when navigating from port to port. Which, in my point of view, is RIDICULOUS. Also, the Port Captains who are paid X amount of money to monitor and respond to any call that is received from sea are almost never answered. This is tremendously INSANE and not professional. If there is any boat out there in dire straits, God be with them because we cannot depend on the Port Captains.”
I cannot verify Mr. Escobar’s observations about Honduran law or the responsiveness of the Bay Islands port captains; however, my family’s experience – derived from our having had to improvise our own international search/rescue operation when my brother disappeared off Roatan – illustrates the challenges associated with organizing an air/sea search in the Bay Islands. Our particular frustration grew out of the difficulty getting U.S. assets engaged in a search for U.S. citizens.
Government Help: Too Little Too Late
When Joe Dunsavage was reported missing at sea, we immediately cobbled together a private search and sought the U.S. embassy’s support in getting U.S. resources involved. Our efforts were met with a combination of resistance and indifference that seemed only to dissolve when friends and family all over the U.S. reached out to their senators on my family’s behalf. Some 72 hours after my brother’s disappearance, two Blackhawks from Soto Cano entered the search. Sadly, our story did not end as happily as that of the eight who were rescued. Neither my brother nor the small catamaran he was last seen on were ever recovered.
I cannot say whether earlier involvement of U.S. military assets would have led to a happier ending for my family, but in the case of these missing young people, it clearly would have kept them from having to spend four-and-a-half days adrift, weathering storms, hunger, and dehydration. The United States needs to institute standard operating procedures that place a higher priority on the safety and security of U.S. citizens who live, work, and travel abroad. This is unlikely to happen until the media begin doing a better job of reporting on cases like ours and that of the “Utila 8.”