But the Coast Guard received no such notification from NOAA, nor was it notified of an unidentified distress signal from a 406 EPIRB. In Plant's haste to depart, his friends discovered, he had neglected to register his EPIRB with NOAA. It may have cost him his life.
On Nov. 11, Stevens was finally able to track down Plant's EPIRB identification number from the beacon's manufacturer. Armed with this new information, both NOAA and Canadian Coast Guard officials ran the number through their tracking computers. What they found made Stevens's heart sink. Seventeen days earlier, on the night of Oct. 27, Plant's EPIRB had sent out a brief distress signal—three weak transmission bursts—that had been picked up in Goose Bay, Canada. The next day two transmission bursts were found by NOAA when they reviewed their satellite data. Nothing more was heard from Plant's EPIRB. Because the transmission was so brief, and because the EPIRB number wasn't registered, both American and Canadian control centers failed to respond to the distress signal.
"The family feels," said Tom Plant, "that for NOAA to receive a 406-type EPIRB, which carries an ID number, and then to drop it without making any attempt to contact anyone is unacceptable." The question remained, however: Why had Coyote's EPIRB gone dead? The most likely alternatives were these: Plant had shut it off manually; the device had malfunctioned; or the EPIRB, and the boat, had sunk. Stevens analyzed: "A very short signal from a brand-new Raytheon EPIRB in the middle of the night—that's the signal from a run-over vessel."
But there were other possibilities, equally ominous. Tropical storm Frances may have been in Plant's general vicinity the night of Oct. 27, and it was possible Coyote broke apart in the gale. The boat might have hit a submerged object and capsized. It could have been dismasted, and the broken mast, caught in a network of rigging, slammed like a battering ram against the hull by the raging sea.
Using the three bursts received by the Goose Bay ground station to fix the location, Canada's control center estimated that the EPIRB had been activated some 300 miles due south of Plant's last known location, a site that made little sense to anyone—unless Plant had aborted his crossing and had decided to sail for Bermuda.
Still, that was where the air search began Nov. 13. Four C-130 aircraft from the U.S. Coast Guard, two P-3 aircraft from the U.S. Navy, plus two Canadian C-130s searched the Atlantic for six days, eventually expanding the hunt to include a site 500 miles north of the Azores in the hopes that Plant was proceeding toward France under jury rig. The search was suspended the evening of Nov. 18.
Three days later, working with data provided by Bob Rice of Weather Service Corp. of Bedford, Mass., Plant's family convinced the Coast Guard that their fix on the location had been erroneous and that they were searching in the wrong place. On Nov. 20 the order was made to resume the search, weather permitting, in a location northeast of the Azores. "We know Michael's out there," said Tom Plant. "We're tremendously hopeful. If I were to select anyone to get through this, it would be him. But what are the chances of no one seeing him? I just don't know. That's what's so frustrating."
When the boat was found on Sunday, capsized, it became clear why no one had spotted Coyote for almost a month. Overturned, the hull's black bottom and keel blended perfectly with the waters of the North Atlantic, making it extraordinarily difficult to spot from the air.
"Finding the boat has answered some questions, and has given us a whole new set of questions to puzzle over," said Darryl Davis, 26, the eldest son of Helen Davis, who as of Monday was still waiting in Les Sables d'Olonne. "Nobody here has lost any hope."