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Seaworthy  Stranded  Help  Vhf  Epirb  Flares  Coastguard  Damageavoidance  Boatinsurance  

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Signaling for Help

By badriance - Published September 22, 2009 - Viewed 13078 times


VHF, DSC, EPIRBs, and PLBs -- as Well as Cell Phones and Flares -- Can Save Your Life!

Let’s say you’re out in the (bay, gulf, sound, coastal ocean...) cruising at a fast clip when you strike a (log, rock, reef, submarine...). The engine quits and the boat immediately starts taking on water. You’re a few miles from land -- how do you summon help?


The USCG says that the two most common forms of emergency communication are a VHF radio and a cell phone. More and more skippers have been using cell phones, no doubt because they would rather not broadcast their mistakes to everyone else. But that is exactly why the Coast Guard says that a VHF radio is the preferred means of communication.




According to USCG spokesman Paul Rhynard, the reason the Coast Guard encourages all boats to be VHF-equipped is that when you pick up your microphone and call the USCG for help, you’re also summoning help from any nearby commercial and recreational boats who are monitoring channel 16. Given the number of people on the water these days, even a handheld radio is likely to vastly increase your changes for a quick response.


There is always a chance that you may someday be alone, miles from the Coast Guard or even another boat. Just how far you are able to broadcast will depend on several variables. Like a powerful flashlight beam, radio waves can’t follow the curvature of the earth, so VHF range is generally “line of sight,” though the line gets farther the higher the antennae is. Sailboats, with their tall masts, can often transmit 20-25 miles; powerboats might be limited to 8-10 miles and handheld units around 4-5 miles under good conditions. Fixed-mount units have 25 watts of power versus no more than six watts for handhelds. But more power won’t help you transmit farther any more than a brighter flashlight can be seen over the horizon. What more power does is allow your signal to overcome other weaker signals and make your broadcast easier to hear. The good news is that the USCG has and is building some sky-scraper-sized VHF towers along the coast (see Small Stuff) that can pick up signals from up to 50 miles away.


One thing to keep in mind: You -- your own aging body -- may someday be the reason for the distress call, in which case someone else aboard will be using the VHF. Have you taken the time to make sure others in your crew know which channel to use, how to set the Hi/Lo button, what to say, etc.?


The DSC Revolution

Digital selective calling (DSC)-capable VHF radios are about as closely related to standard VHF radios as the pony express is to email. All new VHF radios have this capability that, among other things, enables them to send a digitally encoded emergency message to all other DSC-equipped radios, including the Coast Guard’s. When interfaced with a GPS or LORAN, the emergency signal sends out a precise position in an instant with no chance of miles-off position miscalculations or garbled transmissions. Your DSC keeps electronically yelping for help until someone responds. In the meantime, you’ll have both hands free to bail, slosh around looking for the leak, etc.


The DSC radios automatically monitor channel 16 after emergency activation so that you can hear someone responding and then give more details about your situation. It’s also possible to carry a handheld DSC-capable radio; with a ser of spare batteries, you’ll always have the means to sending out a local distress signal.


DSC radios need to be registered, which allows the Coast Guard to call whomever you’ve appointed as an emergency contact to verify the signal is not a false alarm (you can register your DSC radio at http://www.boatus.com/mmsi). It’s important to note that DSC has the same range as standard VHF and problems such as low power or a broken antenna will severely affect the signal.


Cell Phones

The great thing about cell phones is that nearly everyone, it seems, has one. They’re inexpensive, have good sound quality and everyone knows how to use one, even in an emergency. In many areas of the country, the USCG even has a special easy-to-remember number for instant help -- *CG (*24). You can also call the Coast Guard directly at 800-982-8813. Aside from being heard by no more than one person -- the person you’re calling -- another downside to relying on cell phones in an emergency is their range. Digital cell phones have only about a half-watt of transmit power, which means they must be near a tower to transmit. According to Paul Rhynard, watch standers are frequently frustrated when an important cell phone call is lost due to the caller being just beyond range or because the battery is low. There are special antenna and power boosters available for cell phones, but they are pricey and demand careful installation.


Cell phones have one other drawback: The Coast Guard can’t home in on a cell phone transmission like it can with a VHF. That can be a BIG difference in an emergency.



Because they’re typically used further off-shore, EPIRBs are a distant third in the hierarchy of emergency communication. Unlike VHF and cell phones, an EPIRB is a one-way call for help. Flipping a switch on a 406-type (some are water-activated) digitally broadcasts your position, within a few miles, to polar orbiting satellites which, in turn, relay it to the Coast Guard. EPIRBs with a GPS interface will send your position, to within a few boat lengths, anywhere on the planet. The Coast Guard will call the contacts you’ve listed when you registered the EPIRB to determine if the call is an actual emergency versus a false alarm, and if the call is legitimate, they’ll launch whatever it takes to get you back home. Though an EPIRB will work in nearly all conditions, there is no way for rescuers to reassure you by letting you know that they got your signal -- you’ll just have to have faith in the system and wait. When rescuers do come, your EPIRB will be sending out a homing signal that makes it even easier to find you. It is important to note that the older 121.5-MHz EPIRBs that were available for about the same price as a VHF radio have been phased out; the Coast Guard is no longer listening for 121.5-MHz signals as of January 2007. The good news is that there is a recently introduced product called a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) that transmits like a 406 EPIRB but costs less and is small enough to carry in your pocket. Though designed for land use (they’re not waterproof and only have enough power to last half as long as an EPIRB), the Coast Guard says it will respond to PLBs on the water, though there could be a small delay. Like DSC radios and cell phones, PLBs are only manually activated.


If there is one flaw in the EPIRB system, it’s nothing. Nothing, as in that’s what the Coast Guard says is the registration information found on 30% of all EPIRBs. Though required by law, many mariners never bother to register their rescue beacons, which only requires filling out a form (and can even be done online at http://www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov).


What About Flares?

If you don’t have an electronic means of communication, how effective are your flares? According to Chief Warrant Officer Craig Sanders of USCG Group Cape Hatteras, less than 10% of the search and rescue missions are initiated by flares. Obviously, flares are only effective if someone can see them, and most of Group Cape Hatteras’ calls for flare sightings are for boats no more than three or four miles off-shore. Sanders says that most are near inlets and are seen by people on the beach or even in their condos just after dusk. Only about 20% of flare sightings are far offshore, and those are usually launched by people near shipping lanes. Sanders stresses that despite their short range, flares become especially important to help locate victims after a search and rescue has already been initiated and the Coast Guard will often ask a distressed boater to fire one when rescuers are close.


USCG Sector San Diego has the same experience. Chief Doug Samp says that only about 5% of their search and rescue calls are due to flare sightings, usually called in by recreational boaters or commercial boats like Vessel Assist. While most flare sightings are from no more than a couple of miles off the coast, Doug says one boater who drove between a tug and its barge and capsized 20 miles offshore was saved when his last flare was spotted by an alert marine Border Patrol unit. Samp says that flares are a good last line of defense, but points to an incident that underscores the importance of having a VHF radio. Last year, a jet skier on his way from Los Angeles to Catalina Island got lost, ran out of gas, and used his handheld radio to call for help. The Coast Guard’s pre-Rescue 21 location equipment triangulated his position 30 miles from the station and sent a boat to rescue the man.


San Diego is currently one of the only stations to monitor DSC distress calls, but Samp says the results have been disappointing, since nearly half of the calls come from radios that are no registered and not interfaced with a GPS. Having a DSC VHF without registering makes the Coast Guard’s job harder and cuts down on the odds of a quick rescue, he says. Anyone who fails to register a DSC radio or an EPIB is making a big mistake and it’s mistake-prone skippers who are most likely to get in trouble.


Contacting TowBoatU.S.

Each year, the BoatU.S. Towing Dispatch Center in Virginia, which services the Great Lakes, Gulf, and East Coast receives nearly all of its calls for assistance via cellular phones. Our California Towing Dispatch Center, which now handles all Pacific Coast calls for BoatU.S. and Vessel Assist, handles dispatching via cellular phone calls and seven VHF High sites. High sites are VHF marine radio towers located several hundred miles away from the Dispatch Center. The transmissions are received at the tower and repeated through a dedicated high-speed phone line to the Dispatch Center in Newport Beach, California. These high sites are strategically located throughout the West Coast to monitor and assist boating traffic in popular boating spots.


When a boat owner is disabled and needs towing assistance, he or she should hail “TowBoatU.S.” (or, on the West Coast, “Vessel Assist”) on VHF channel 16, or call 800-391-4869. Like the Coast Guard, TowBoatU.S. and Vessel Assist strongly encourage boaters to have a VHF radio aboard. If you encounter an emergency, rather than simply needing a tow, contact the Coast Guard on VHF channel 16.



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