After his 23-foot rowboat lost battery power in mid-May as he tried to circle the globe, Aaron Carotta spent more than a month at the mercy of ocean currents that pulled him across the Pacific.
Then, when a giant wave knocked his vessel upside down, he inflated a leaky life raft and immediately activated an emergency satellite beacon. He didn’t have much time to wait for help: Water was pooling at his ankles, he was shivering with hypothermia, and a shark was circling nearby.
But a few hours later, a United States Coast Guard plane came into view — the first aircraft that Mr. Carotta, 45, had seen in more than 80 days — and set a rescue in motion.
“It was a sight for sore eyes,” Mr. Carotta said on Tuesday, a day after a merchant ship that had plucked him out of the water dropped him off in Hawaii. He had set off from Panama in February on a mission to circumnavigate the globe.
Newer satellite technologies, especially Starlink internet systems operated by the rocket company SpaceX, have dramatically improved the odds that people lost at sea will be found. 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.
But older satellite rescue technologies can still be highly effective, as they were in Mr. Carotta’s case. In 2021 alone, nearly 2,500 people were rescued as a result of maritime notifications through the international satellite network known as Cospas-Sarsat. The network is used by search and rescue authorities around the world, and its notifications are automatic and instantaneous.
“That’s the beauty of the system,” said Douglas Samp, who oversees the Coast Guard’s search and rescue operations in the Pacific.
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 “with the hopes of finding a more purposed 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 is from Louisiana, decided to take on ambitious, water-based expeditions. One was a 5,000-mile solo canoe trip from Montana to Florida. Another was his planned circumnavigation of the globe, which he called a spiritual journey that would take three to five years and help to recalibrate his life to “see level.”
But a few weeks after he entered open ocean, the solar panels powering his onboard battery stopped working. He fixed the problem — enough to upload a final video to Facebook from his phone in mid-May, through a Starlink connection — but the battery eventually died. That left him with just an iPhone, a GPS tracker and an emergency satellite beacon.
He decided not to set off the beacon, as he knew it would trigger an international rescue effort and put pressure on the Coast Guard’s resources. So when his other devices lost power, he navigated with only a compass.
The device indicated that he was on track to drift into French Polynesia a few weeks later, so he kept drifting in silence. He stuck to a daily routine that he described as “eat, pray, fish.”
“I just kept rowing,” Mr. Carotta said. “Like, ‘no problem. I’m in a rowboat. I got this.’”
But as days passed, concern over Mr. Carotta’s silence grew among people who were following his journey on social media, said his friend, Alison Dawn. They were worried in part because Mr. Carotta had expressed concern in his May Facebook post that a “rogue” wave might capsize his rowboat, Smiles.
In late May, another friend, Rachel Palmer, who lives in New Zealand, decided to notify search and rescue authorities.
“As a friend, what do you do?” 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, once Mr. Carotta activated his emergency satellite beacon on June 15.
A Coast Guard aircraft, which had been in the area on another rescue mission, flew four hours to Mr. Carotta’s location, about 1,400 miles northeast of Tahiti, the agency said. Around sunset, it dropped survival equipment for him but took off for Honolulu to refuel before conducting a rescue.
Ocean currents prevented Mr. Carotta, who was wearing only swim trunks, from reaching the equipment, and he didn’t want to risk swimming because of the circling shark. So he spent the night bobbing in rough seas, bailing water and battling the cold by curling into a ball on the life raft’s floor.
“The hypothermia was the deadly factor,” he said.
The next day, a merchant ship that had been alerted to his position by the Coast Guard pulled up alongside his raft. Its crew hoisted him aboard with a crane.
“While I can’t quote scripture verses, offer a homily to a parish or claim a perfect past,” Mr. Carotta wrote Tuesday on Facebook, from Honolulu, “I hope this story of a simple effort with human power demonstrates a true effort to a purposed life, one others can try themselves in their own life, with their own ocean and boat.”