San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Lost at sea? Call The Tico Times

From the print edition

The phones generally ring non-stop in the front office at The Tico Times, and staffers help callers with a range of issues from subscription renewals to tracking down a reporter with a hot tip for a story. 

Some of the calls are a bit off-the-wall, but the one that came in early Friday morning on July 20 was a first. Twelve-year staff member Martha Gamboa answered the phone.

Caller: “Is this The Tico Times?”

Gamboa: “Yes.”

Caller: “There’s a Costa Rican boat drifting at sea and they can’t get back. Can you help?”

The caller turned out to be from the Golden Odyssey, a yacht operating out of Panama. The boat drifting at sea with three crewmen aboard was the Costa Rican fishing vessel María Cristina II. A language barrier  made communication difficult between the crew of the two ships, so they called The Tico Times.

Gamboa phoned the Costa Rican Coast Guard in Puntarenas, who told her the María Cristina II and her crew indeed had been reported missing. They now were found, thanks to the Golden Odyssey crew. 

“It was incredible,” Gamboa said. “People call here for everything.”

The Golden Odyssey, sailing 550 nautical miles off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica on a journey from Panamá to Tahiti, discovered the 40-foot Costa Rican fishing vessel disabled and in trouble, hundreds of miles from port. 

“At just gone midnight, the OOW [officer on watch] spotted a small target on the radar six miles ahead and just off the course line,” Golden Odyssey Captain Patrick Walsh recalled in an email. “As Golden Odyssey drew closer, a small vessel switched on all its lights and started hailing us on the VHF, ‘Amigo, amigo.’”

But the María Cristina II’s captain, Alexander Badilla, radioed in Spanish, a language no one on the deck of the Golden Odyssey understood, except for three words: “please help” and “problem.”

Capt. Walsh brought the yacht head to wind, with speed reduced to idle to approach the stranded vessel. The yacht’s crew identified the Tico vessel and sounded the alarm for all hands on deck. 

Chief Engineer James MacDonald and two deckhands approached the María Cristina II in a small rescue boat. Aboard the Tico vessel, MacDonald discovered the boat’s fuel injectors had been damaged beyond repair.

The three Costa Rican fishermen had been adrift for eight days, but were in reasonable health, Walsh said. But they had run out of food and fresh water a day earlier. 

Golden Odyssey Radio Officer Plamen Petrov called the Costa Rican and Galapagos coast guards, but again encountered a language barrier and was unable to communicate to the officers the disabled boat’s location. 

Chief Officer Guy Bennett-Pearce contacted the yacht’s 24-hour emergency call center, which then contacted the Bermudan Rescue Coordination Center. Meanwhile, Petrov had an idea: Why not call The Tico Times via satellite phone, communicate the location of the disabled ship, and ask the newspaper to contact the Costa Rican Coast Guard.

But language got in the way again when the Costa Rican Coast Guard established contact with the Golden Odyssey crew. 

Meanwhile, Capt. Walsh brought the fishing vessel’s captain aboard, and with help from online service Google Translate, devised a plan to tow the disabled boat to Cocos Island, a nine-hour journey at 4-5 knots of speed. 

“Weather conditions were challenging at this time, with a 3-meter total wave height and 15-20 knots of wind,” Walsh wrote. 

The Costa Rican Coast Guard and Cocos Island National Park rangers stood by, ready to assist the disabled ship and its crew. Three miles from the island, the Golden Odyssey was met by park rangers, who “towed the stricken fishing vessel and its very happy crew to safe anchorage,” Walsh wrote. 

The Golden Odyssey continued its journey to Tahiti. Two days later, the yacht’s crew received an email from Bermuda Operations Center: “Please extend our gratitude and thanks to the captain and crew onboard the m/y Golden Odyssey for helping to save the lives of these 3 fishermen,” the email stated. “I am sure we are all aware if it had not been for the vigilance of the crew on the Golden Odyssey, this incident could easily have had a different ending.”

The Tico Times’ Gamboa said she’s grateful for a happy ending. But it’s not the strangest phone call she’s received.

“Once someone called to place an ad looking for a lost unicorn,” she said.

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