A 45-foot Response Boat-Medium like this one responded to the sailboat in distress. USCG file photo.

4 People Rescued from Sailboat after Autopilot Failure

Four people aboard a 48-foot sailboat narrowly avoided disaster at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, as their boat sailed in and out of shipping traffic in the middle of the night with what appeared to be no one at the helm. They ultimately had to be rescued by the Coast Guard.

Coast Guard Sector Virginia says a good Samaritan reported around 2 a.m. Monday that the sailing vessel Irish Tango was “sailing erratically and impeding oncoming traffic” in Thimble Shoal Channel, two miles east of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. The good Samaritan also said the sailboat was crossing back and forth across the bow of an approaching container ship.

The container ship, the Coast Guard, and Virginia pilots all attempted to reach the people aboard Irish Tango, but there was no response.

The boat owner and three other sailors told the Coast Guard they had been at sea for 48 hours in harsh weather and were set off track. Their engine was functioning properly, but the autopilot was down.

Ultimately, a USCG 45-foot Response Boat-Medium from Station Little Creek responded and towed the sailboat to Little Creek.

The four people aboard were taken ashore at Cobbs Marina, where EMS crews checked them out as a precaution, but no one was injured. The Coast Guard blamed the sailors’ fatigue for having put Irish Tango in such a risky situation.

“This crew was lucky,” said Petty Officer 1st class Michael Anderson, Station Little Creek coxswain on duty. “Fatigue can be just as dangerous as any storm or hazard to navigation. On the water things don’t often go like you planned, so always have a back-up plan.”  

According to, S/V Irish Tango was back underway and leaving Little Creek as of Monday afternoon.

-Meg Walburn Viviano