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An Unsuccessful Coast Guard Rescue

By badriance - Published February 26, 2009 - Viewed 3690 times

An interesting tale from Peter F. Theis:


Sailing solo, I had been tacking for much of the day into a strong northeasterly. The date was July 13, 2005. The almost 50-miles run from Racine, WI to my intended destination for the day, Port Washington, was the first leg of a multi-week trip to the north end of Lake Michigan. I knew early in the day, from the combination of the pounding I was taking from the seas, the brutal bright sun and soaring temperature, that I would only reach Milwaukee, less than half the targeted distance.


Sport fishermen, usually dotting the seascape to the horizon on a sunny summer day, were scarce, likely discouraged by the running seas. My VHF radio, set to scan several frequencies, had been quiet other than for an occasional routine call from the Coast Guard.


Late in the afternoon, breaking that silence, came a request for help to Coast Guard Station Milwaukee. The skipper of the hailing vessel related that he had just overheard a weak, somewhat garbled, radio request for assistance indicating that the caller’s boat was taking on water and sinking. I switched from Channel 16, the emergency hailing channel, to Channel 22, the Coast Guard frequency, to follow the unfolding events.


The Coast Guard, not being able to hear the source of the distress call, asked the relaying vessel for the frequency or channel of the distress call, and the name of the boat relaying the message. The relaying boat, the Big Red, said it was east of Port Washington in over two hundred feet of water.


The Coast Guard, with its tall antenna, still could not pick up the distress signal directly, and repeated its request to Big Red for the frequency of the distress signal. 


The answer from Big Red was Channel 2. After a lengthy pause, the Coast Guard commented that they could not monitor Channel 2 on the VHF (it is a radiotelephone frequency that does not appear in the marine VHF spectrum), and asked further questions to obtain the frequency of the transmission of the vessel in distress. In particular, they thought that what was marked on Big Red’s radio as Channel 2 could be misleadingly marked as the second channel of a sequence of frequencies, rather than as a named channel.


Big Red communicated again with the distressed vessel for more information. The signal received, it reported to the Coast Guard, had become significantly weaker and more garbled. The skipper of the sinking vessel reported that batteries were beginning to be flooded and he didn’t know how much longer he would be able to transmit. No location information was received.


To its credit, the Coast Guard immediately dispatched a helicopter to the area, while maintaining the dialogue with Big Red. It was clear that no one had any idea of where the distressed vessel was located, other than being within radio range of Big Red but outside the range of the Coast Guard. Big Red was continuing to switch between the Coast Guard and the stricken vessel trying to maintain contact with the stricken vessel and obtain further information.


The helicopter, searching for Big Red, also heard the voice of the stricken vessel’s skipper, and picked up the frequency. Both the helicopter pilot and Big Red reported that the conversations with the distressed vessel were barely audible and so garbled that nothing could be understood.


Shortly afterward, the helicopter spotted Big Red, the pilot noting for the record that en route he had observed an oil slick on the water surface. The radio transmissions from the stricken vessel were no longer being heard.


Following a discussion between Coast Guard Milwaukee and the helicopter pilot setting up a vector search pattern, the land-based station directed the helicopter to return to the area where the oil slick had been spotted. A nearby vessel gave assistance sizing the slick and its consistency. A search for debris appeared to confirm that a vessel could have sunk near the location of the slick, although the radio transmissions I overheard were not clear on this point. The helicopter, running low on fuel, made a couple of additional passes in the area before returning to base for refueling.


The efforts of the Coast Guard continued, to the best of my knowledge, including a general call to all vessels in the area to be on the lookout for the stricken vessel. About 7:30, exhausted after my rough day, I tied up a Milwaukee’s South Shore Yacht Club, turned off the radio and went for dinner. I did not know how events had subsequently transpired, although it would be fair to conclude at the time that as least one man, in a small boat, had drowned when his boat sank.


There are several lessons to be learned, however, some of which even experienced navigators need to be reminded of or may not know.


1)      When issuing a distress call, give all information as soon as possible at the onset --  location, vessel size, number of people on board, the boat name, skipper name, and the problem being experienced. There might not be a second opportunity.


2)      Have life jackets with at least 20 lbs. of flotation for every adult on board (over 30 lbs. is best). At the first sign of distress, put them on. With cheap Type II jackets, heads of people in the water and reflectors on the jackets might not be high enough above the water to be seen. Worse, people in the water, surrounded by turbulent seas, might not be held high enough to avoid drowning. In this case, the water had been about 70 degrees and people would have survived throughout the night if they had had adequate flotation.


3)      Wear something with your life jacket that causes you to be visible from the air -- a strobe, a handheld VHF radio, reflectors (SOLAS rated) on your life jacket AND foul weather gear. Searches are not terminated with nightfall, and a distress situation can easily extend into the nighttime hours, even though you may have anticipated being in port for cocktails before dinner.


There were also a couple of lessons about the Coast Guard procedures that were informative.


1)      They acted very promptly in dispatching helicopter assistance based only on a reasonable perception that a vessel had been in distress. They did not wait until they were certain. They reacted much more deliberately than just asking nearby vessels to keep a sharp eye out.


2)      Although their search techniques are very methodical, the best judgment of those on the scene preempted adherence to a fixed routine.


3)      The big surprise, and disappointment, was that neither the Coast Guard nor the helicopter had electronic equipment to instantly locate the position of the radio transmission. The location of the broadcast from the Big Red was continuous and should have been easy to obtain. The transmission from the stricken vessel heard by the helicopter pilot, although brief, should have pinpointed the transmission location.


I have subsequently been told that the Coast Guard does not currently have transmission locator capability, but is implementing such a system, the justification not being to locate stricken vessels, but to locate VHF users that abuse Channel 16, or leave their microphones open. Of course, the same system can also identify the location of distress transmissions.


Returning down the Lake to Racine several weeks later, I harbored for the night at Port Washington. Curious about what had finally happened, I inquired about the outcome. The personnel at the harbormaster’s office recalled the search, and that it had continued through the night before being ultimately called off. The subsequent conclusion of the authorities, according to what I was told, was that the request for assistance had been a hoax because no one had been reported missing and no boat trailer or car been left unclaimed. Could such a complex hoax have been so expertly perpetrated? I think that is not likely.


Peter still feels strongly that the distress call was legitimate. As for the Coast Guard, stations in the area still do not have the updated Rescue 21 equipment that will enhance incoming signals and home in on their location. Jerry Popiel, the Chief of Command Center in Cleveland, has said that the Rescue 21 has been pushed back several times and is now scheduled to be installed on the Great Lakes near the end of the decade. Popiel said the Coast Guard averages about 5,000 distress call each year on the Great Lakes, with only 150-200 that are officially classified as “Uncorrelated Maydays.” The official term “Probably Hoax” is not used only in rare situations where the caller was clearly not in distress. An example would be a call from giggling children who announce on the VHF that a shark is eating their boat.


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