After his 7-meter rowboat lost its battery in mid-May while trying to circle the globe, Aaron Carotta was at the mercy of the ocean currents that pulled him across the Pacific for more than a month.
When a giant wave knocked his ship upside down, it blew up a leaking life raft and immediately activated a distress satellite beacon. He didn’t have much time to wait for help: the water was at his ankles, he was shivering from hypothermia, and a shark circled nearby.
But a few hours later, a US Coast Guard plane came into view – the first plane Mr Carotta, 45, had seen in more than 80 days – and launched a rescue effort.
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“It was a sight to behold,” Mr. Carotta said Tuesday, a day after a merchant ship that plucked him from the water dropped him off in Hawaii. He had left Panama in February on a mission to circumnavigate the world.
Newer satellite technologies, especially Starlink internet systems operated by the rocket company SpaceX, have drastically increased the chances of finding people lost at sea. In March, for example, a Starlink connection helped rescuers find the crew of a sailboat that had capsized after colliding with a whale in the Pacific Ocean.
But older satellite rescue technologies can still be very effective, as in the case of Mr. Carotta. In 2021 alone, that was almost 2,500 people rescued as a result of maritime reports via the international satellite network Cospas-Sarsat. The network is used by search and rescue authorities around the world and the notifications are automatic and instantaneous.
“That’s the beauty of the system,” said Douglas Samp, who oversees the Pacific Coast Guard’s search and rescue operations.
Mr. Carotta recuperates in a medical facility after being rescued.Credit…Aaron Carotta
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Mr. Carotta’s life as an adventurer began around 2008, when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and quit his job as a real estate appraiser “hoping to find a more purposeful path”, as he later wrote. He beat cancer and spent six years traveling to dozens of countries, doing charity work and supporting himself as a freelance television producer and presenter.
After a series of personal and professional setbacks, Mr. Carotta, who hails from Louisiana, decided to embark on ambitious waterborne expeditions. A wash a 5,000 mile solo canoe trip from Montana to Florida. Another was his planned trip around the world, which he called a spiritual journey that would last three to five years and help realign his life to “seeing level.”
But a few weeks after entering the open ocean, the solar panels that power his onboard battery stopped working. He fixed the problem — enough to upload a final video from his phone to Facebook over a Starlink connection in mid-May — but the battery eventually died. That left him with just an iPhone, a GPS tracker and an emergency satellite beacon.
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He decided not to set off the beacon because he knew it would trigger an international rescue effort and strain Coast Guard resources. So when his other devices lost power, he navigated with just a compass.
The device indicated that he was on his way to drift into French Polynesia a few weeks later, so he continued to drift in silence. He stuck to a daily routine that he described as “eat, pray, fish.”
“I kept rowing,” Mr. Carotta said. “Like, ‘no problem. I’m in a rowboat. I have this.'”
But as the days passed, concern about Mr. Carotta’s silence grew among people following his journey on social media, his girlfriend, Alison Dawn, said. They were concerned in part because Mr Carotta had expressed concern in his Facebook post in May that a “rogue wave” could capsize his rowing boat, Smiles.
At the end of May, another friend, Rachel Palmer, who lives in New Zealand, decided to notify search and rescue authorities.
“As a friend, what are you doing?” she said in an interview on Wednesday. “You have to do something.”
After an initial international search for him was suspended, another began weeks later, when Mr. Carotta activated his emergency satellite beacon on June 15.
A Coast Guard plane, which had been in the area on another rescue mission, flew four hours to Mr. Carotta’s location, about 1,500 miles northeast of Tahiti. the agency said. Around sunset, it dropped survival gear for him, but headed for Honolulu to refuel before conducting a rescue.
The ocean currents prevented Mr. Carotta, who was wearing only swimming trunks, from accessing the equipment, and he didn’t want to risk swimming because of the circling shark. So he spent the night bobbing in rough seas, waterspouts and battling the cold by curling up into a ball on the floor of the life raft.
“The hypothermia was the killer factor,” he said.
The next day, a merchant ship alerted to its position by the Coast Guard pulled up next to his raft. The crew hoisted him on board with a crane.
“While I can’t quote scriptures, preach a sermon in a parish or claim a perfect past,” said Mr Carotta wrote Tuesday on Facebook, from Honolulu: “I hope this story of a simple effort with human power shows a real effort for purposeful living, where others can try themselves in their own life, with their own ocean and boat.”