Dad's eye in the sky saves sailor son

In the 1970s, an aerospace engineer was perplexed by a cubic foot of electronic wizardry that had to be fitted to a satellite weather station to be launched by the U.S. government. The payload was a late addition to a carefully designed package, and was almost impossible to place so that its antenna would deploy properly.

The engineer was Gene Ganssle, the box of electronic wizardry was the beginning of SARSAT, a satellite search and rescue system, and last summer an antenna in orbit picked up a signal that eventually saved the life of Ganssle's son.


"He [Gene Ganssle] was doing mechanical design at the time and was complaining bitterly because the package just wouldn't fit," Jack Ganssle said yesterday, recalling his father's struggles with the first SARSAT package. "It is just kind of funny that a dozen or 15 years later, it rescued me."

How did Jack Ganssle, owner of Softaid Inc., an electronics firm in Columbia, a member of the board of directors of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, married and the father of two young children, come into danger?


He was sailing across the North Atlantic in the Europe I Single-handed Transatlantic Race, which started June 6.

Twenty-nine days out of Plymouth, England, and 500 miles from Newport, R.I., the backstay on Ganssle's 35-foot sloop parted, the mast leaned forward, a lower shroud gave way and the mast went overboard.

At the time, winds were westerly at 25 knots, and Ganssle believes that accumulated stress from eight days of continuous storm caused the rigging failure.

Rather than cut away the wooden mast, Ganssle said, he was determined to salvage it, even though it weighed 500 pounds. And the effort almost cost him his life.

"I was worried about the mast holing the boat, because there was about an eight-foot sea running," Ganssle said. "But the mast was alongside the boat and the first thing I did was lash it fore and aft so it would stay alongside."

With the mast secured, Ganssle was able to cut away the mainsail and unthread and recover the genoa. But in the process, he went overboard, without life jacket or safety harness.

"I have always -- and I have been single-handing for more than 20 years -- been terrified of falling overboard, and I always wear a safety harness. Even when I sleep I am in a safety harness," Ganssle said.

"This was the first time in a month at sea that I had taken it off -- because when the mast came down it smashed up all the fittings that I had attached to -- and, bam, over the side. Unbelievable."


Ganssle was able to climb back aboard and spent many hours using the boom and spinnaker pole and blocks and tackles to get the mast on deck. Later, he stepped the boom as a mast.

"Got it up with a radar reflector on top and everything and rigged some sails, but the set was pretty awful," Ganssle said. "This was on the next day and it was blowing 15 knots or less and the boat -- 16,000 pounds with a full keel and a lot of wetted surface -- just didn't go anywhere. Made like half a knot. I was appalled."

At the time, Ganssle and Amber II, an all-teak Cheoy Lee Lion built in Hong Kong in 1961, were well south of Halifax, the wind was holding westerly and the only sailing option was Nova Scotia.

Instead, Ganssle started up the diesel inboard he had installed in Amber II and made some 150 miles west toward Newport.

It is at this point that Gene Ganssle's perseverance and Jack Ganssle's preparation came together.

Running out of fuel, Jack Ganssle turned on the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon he had purchased for the race and properly registered. A signal was transmitted, an orbitting satellite picked up the signal and the Canadian Coast Guard dispatched a search plane.


Four hours later, Ganssle said, the plane had found him, radio communications had been made and a Russian tanker was diverted to his location and supplied him with 50 gallons of fuel.

"Think about it. It is fantastic," Ganssle said. "I am 350 miles offshore, I turn on the beacon and four hours later there is a plane circling overhead. That is just mind-boggling.

"Not only does [the system] reliably pick you up, but they get to figure out where you are pretty accurately -- they say within about three miles -- and they dispatch a rescue craft immediately."

In fact, the system worked twice for Ganssle.

The diesel fuel Ganssle received from the Russian tanker clogged the filters aboard Amber II and soon shut down the engine. The EPIRB was activated again and this time a German container ship was diverted and took Ganssle aboard.

Ganssle was forced to scuttle Amber II, which he had bought as a family boat in 1984, but the SARSAT system had worked perfectly.


"It was very interesting to me that in November they had the 10th anniversary of the first rescue with the SARSAT system. . . ," Ganssle said. "They have rescued something like 2,700 people with the system now -- sailors and fliers."

But recently the system failed with solo sailor Mike Plant, who is missing at sea and presumed dead since late last year.

"Let's face it," Ganssle said, "in Mike Plant's case, the EPIRB was not registered, the system wasn't being used correctly.

"It is not magic, you have to obey the rules."