"This is the Splendour moored at the Isthmus. Seeking Coast Guard and surrounding help immedately to assist in locating Natalie Wood, missing from Splendour. Dinghy, Valiant, also missing. Repeat: Natalie Wood missing from Splendour in Two Harbors mooring area at Isthmus."
The above "call" is an example of the simple words that very likely could have spared Natalie Wood's tragic drowning. But such a call was never made.
A woman's cries for help from drowning were heard by a couple from a neighboring Splendour boat, the Capricorn, between approximately 11:06 and 11:26. Marilyn Wayne and John Payne and Wayne's young son, aboard the Capricorn crew, heard the cries. They placed two calls, one that got through to Avalon, 12 miles across the coast of Catalina. They could see nothing in the ocean due to the drizzly atmosphere. Their rubber dinghy had been deflated and they could only hope help would arrive. They heard music playing and cries for help for at up to 20 minutes. They are three witnesses who can place Natalie Wood in the ocean at 11:06 PM. They were never interviewed by authorities.
At 11:06 PM, another witness, Splendour boat skipper, Dennis Davern, turned up radio music while on Splendour's bridge in hopes the high volume would muffle the loud arguing taking place on the back deck below him where married couple Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner were furiously exchanging words. Dennis could see activity on the back deck through the isinglass window, but the loud arguing had subsided for about 10 minutes. Near 11:25, Dennis turned off the music and went directly to the back deck where Robert Wagner told him Natalie and their dinghy were missing.
Dennis wanted to immediately call for help but Wagner insisted Dennis search the entire boat for Natalie.
None of this made sense to Davern but he did as told. A few minutes later in the wheelhouse, Dennis wanted to radio a call for help and turn on the searchlight, or gun the engines and use Splendour to search for Natalie. Wagner insisted they wait to see if she would return.
Natalie was never in the habit of using the dinghy alone. She did not know how to operate it. The dinghy engine had never been started or Dennis would have heard its loud engine. Dennis believed Natalie was in the dinghy but also understood she could be adrift in it and carried out to sea unless Natalie would think to grab onto a mooring can. Several scenarios he ran through his mind still convinced him it was imperative to call for help. But Wagner insisted they wait for Natalie to return. He told Davern that his image was the priority, and he wanted no attention drawn to the situation. Wagner poured himself and his captain a drink.
(The calls finally made are verified and on record)
At 2:30 AM, over two hours after Natalie was no longer aboard Splendour, Wagner placed a low frequency radio call saying, "Someone is missing from our boat." The terribly vague statement proves a vain attempt for help: it covers that a call was made, but certainly was no ardent plea for assistance.
But, Island people and area boaters who picked up on the call responded immediately, the way most people in the marine world know to do when someone is missing from a boat. Unfortunately, the count was low, a handful of people.
A boat search started in the immediate area by three Island workers, a cook, a restaurant manger, and a groundskeeper. The Coast Guard with trained, professional lifeguards minutes away, was still left out of the mix, although the Harbor Master continued to plead with Wagner to have the Coast Guard brought in.
A drunken Wagner told the Harbor Master Natalie was wearing her nightgown and pleaded to not have to call the Coast Guard. He felt there was already too much attention drawn to the fact his famous wife was missing--at sea.
At 3:25 (on record), the Coast Guard was notified and became involved in the search. It wasn't until daybreak, however, that air help could assist in the search. The lament of the Coast Guard Captain is that he was not notified immediately. His rescue boat with proper searchlights and equipment was moored right near the Splendour. Although he too would have needed to wait until daybreak for air assistance, he believes, with his knowledge of the sea currents, the area, and the proper way to search, that he may have been able to rescue Natalie before daybreak. He was so angry he hadn't been called, but more angered by Wagner's explanation that he thought his wife was "off screwing around on other boats" and that's why he didn't want the Coast Guard involved. (Started to get confusing. Screwing around in her nightgown?)
It had taken more than FOUR HOURS for the Coast Guard to be alerted of Natalie's disappearance.
Even a Harbor Master had deferred to Wagner's wishes for a low-profile search.