#FindOurSailors: This is not the same as Flight MH370 or the missing Nigerian schoolgirls

At some point a publicly funded search has to stop. That time is now


It’s now nearly a week since anything was heard from four British sailors on board their yacht in the Atlantic. Paul Goslin, Andrew Bridge, Steve Warren, and James Male were last in communication with the outside world when the 40-foot Cheeki Rafiki was 620 miles off the Massachussets coast, facing 15-foot waves and 50 miles per hour wind. The sailors were making their way back to the UK having competed in a regatta in the West Indies.

A major search has been in operation, and now some debris has been found which may or may not be connected to the disappearance. A tragedy has unfolded and as long as there is hope that the men may still be alive, floating on a life raft in the vast ocean, their families will want the authorities to keep looking.

But at some point – harsh as this may sound - a publicly funded search has to stop. The US Coast Guard estimated that from the time when their distress signal went up, the men would only be able to survive for around 20 hours. The Americans searched over 4,000 square miles for 53 hours - twice as long as their standard procedure and with three aircrafts - but found no sight of the yacht, or the men. They stopped looking.

Then with distasteful echoes of two other recent search operations – for Flight MH370 and the missing schoolgirls in Nigeria – the families of the crew launched a hashtag, #FindOurSailors, and started an online petition. The UK government, Ben Fogle and Richard Branson waded in, and two days after the US Coast Guard stopped their search, they restarted it - 96 long hours after the boat was last heard from. Now there are four military planes, five merchant ships and numerous yachts involved.

It’s true that there are tales of exceptional survival on life rafts. In 1972 the Robertson family were found after 38 days, and the record is held by Poon Lim, who spent 133 days adrift in 1942. But stories like these are the rare exceptions, and they all took place near the equator, where the water is far warmer than the area in which the Cheeki Rafiki has been lost. And this is presuming that they even made it onto the raft, which hasn’t yet been sighted. No one is likely to survive more than six hours if they are in 15C water.

There comes a point when the chance of a positive outcome becomes so infinitesimal that it is no longer justifiable to carry on.  It’s a hideous decision, which is precisely why it needs to be taken by someone in an objective position, and not by the family. 

The experts in the case of the Cheeki Rafiki concur: it’s time to stop. Keith Oliver, head of Maritime Operations with HM Coastguard, said "We believe that the US Coast Guard has done all they can to locate the stricken yacht and her crew.”  University of Southampton oceanographer Simon Boxall agrees "It is highly unlikely, beyond reasonable doubt, that they would have missed a life raft; they are bright red or bright orange. And if the people were in a life raft and were aware there were rescue aircraft, they would have had distress flares and beacons on board and they would have deployed them." Admiral Richard G Gurnon believes the search never should have been restarted: “The weather is nasty, rarely is it calm and flat” he says. “It’s extremely difficult”.

The US Coast Guard have now said that they will continue to search as if they are "looking for a member of our own family”. But the point is, they’re not.

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