Radio Operator Celebrated for Helping Save Sailor

10:00 PM PST on Tuesday, January 9, 2007
By JOAN OSTERWALDER
The Press-Enterprise

A Riverside ham radio operator was hailed as a hero by the family of an American sailor who was rescued in the South American sea and arrived safely back in the United States on Tuesday.

Michael Morales, 55, was a lifeline to the family of Ken Barnes, who was adrift for three days more than 500 miles from the Chilean coast after a storm disabled his yacht.

Barnes, 47, of Newport Beach, attempted to become the first solo sailor to circle the globe from the West Coast. He left Long Beach on Oct. 28 and ran into a fierce storm that damaged his 44-foot ketch. Barnes called for help Jan. 2 and was picked up Friday by the fishing trawler Polar Pesca 1, backed by Chilean navy aircraft.

Morales said he saw a news clip about Barnes’ distress and called the man’s family to let them know he could speak Spanish and was in touch with ham radio operators in Chile.

The retired customs officer said he relayed information to the U.S. Coast Guard and kept Barnes’ family abreast of rescue efforts. The family had only brief cell-phone conversations with the sailor.

Barnes didn’t know about Morales. But during a news conference at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, his father, Kenneth Barnes Sr., 70, of Laguna Beach, said Morales played “a tremendous part of the hero of this whole rescue.”

Morales said he lived in Chile as a boy and is a member of the Radio Club of Chile.

After a tearful reunion with his family, Barnes recounted how a gust of wind and the wrong angle to a 25-foot breaking wave spelled the end of his voyage. Still, he said, he had no regrets.

“You got to live life,” he said. “There’s consequences to any action, but we all have dreams.”

Barnes thanked Morales for his concern and help. Morales told Barnes that he’d help him again, but he asked him not to do it again.

“We were praying, we were crying, we feel the emotional pain of your family, and I became an extension to your lovely family,” Morales said as they hugged.

Morales, a ham radio operator since the 1970s, said at his home Monday that he previously had relayed information about earthquakes and hurricanes in Mexico and Central America, but he became emotionally attached to Barnes.

“I really felt connected with Ken to the point I was treating him like my younger brother being in distress,” he said, sitting at his radio station on a desk in his living room.

He said he sneaked in 15-minute naps as he manned the radios, which had the best contact with the other side of the world in the morning and during the night. He asked two other ham radio operators to help him and enlisted three friends to bring food and to brew tea and coffee.

“This is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Morales said.

Other people came over to witness the power of a basic communications tool.

Morales said he doesn’t seek the spotlight and was surprised by all the attention his ham radio operations got.

“We’re here to provide a voluntary service to the community,” he said.

Riverside Councilman Art Gage said he was going to give Morales a proclamation.

“That was really quite a nice thing he did,” Gage said. “He was up for three or four days.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Joan Osterwalder at 951-368-9645 or josterwalder@PE.com