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BoatUS Special Report

 

Hoax Mayday Calls To The Coast Guard

By Ryck Lydecker
Published: December 2012

The U.S. Coast Guard handles more than 25,000 distress calls every year, the vast majority legitimate. But when a few disreputable people say "mayday" on the radio, they're looking for mayhem.

Photo of U.S. Coast Guard rescue helicopter
Photo: Petty Officer 1st Class Timothy Tamargo, USCG
The perpetrators of false distress calls to the Coast Guard risk up to six years in prison and a criminal fine of up to $250,000.

In the annals of U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescu e operations, June 11, 2012, is a date that will live in infamy. And for responsible recreational boaters everywhere, that date will be remembered with emotions ranging from anxiety, to disgust, to outrage. That's the date a distress call over marine radio to Coast Guard Sector New York launched a five-hour-and-40-minute, 638-square-mile search and rescue (SAR) response that turned up absolutely nothing. Nothing, that is, but what is possibly the largest mayday hoax in recent Coast Guard history, one that came with a tab to taxpayers of more than $318,000.

The agency's Vessel Traffic Service center for the port logged the call, over VHF Channel 14, at 1620 hours on a day of perfect weather with good visibility and air and water temperatures in the 60s. A male voice said the motoryacht Blind Date had exploded 17.5 nautical miles off Sandy Hook. "We have 21 souls onboard, 20 in the water right now. I have three deceased onboard, nine injured …" it said. "I'm in three feet of water on the bridge. I'm going to stay by the radio as long as I can before I have to go overboard."

The YouTube above is strictly audio. The picture will be black.


More likely, the caller stayed by his TV set ashore as the call set in motion a Coast Guard response that engaged two boat crews and seven aircraft, including both helicopters and fixed-wing planes, all working a computer-generated search pattern offshore with the aid of several Good Samaritan vessels that happened to be in the area. Ashore, some 200 emergency first responders from four New York and New Jersey agencies set up mass casualty reception areas in Newark, New Jersey, and at Coast Guard Station Sandy Hook. By nightly news time, the fictitious vessel Blind Date had generated national and even international coverage, which, unfortunately, seems to be a common motivation behind hoax mayday broadcasts, according to Captain Peter Martin, chief of the Office of Search and Rescue at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"There are some sick people out there who just want to watch us put on a show for them," Martin explains. "They know that if they push that transmit button, there's going to be a helicopter in the air and a boat with flashing blue lights out there, and they'll sit back and be entertained at public expense.

"The pyromaniac calls 911 because he wants to see the fire trucks roll. But if you call 911, chances are they're going to know who you are, and where you're calling from, whereas you have anonymity on a VHF broadcast, and that's why hoax maydays are such a vexing problem for us. These people can fire and forget, and we can't always trace the call back to them unless there's a witness who blows them in."

For making false distress calls to the Coast Guard as in the Blind Date case, still unsolved at press time, the perpetrator risks up to six years in prison and a criminal fine of up to $250,000 plus a $5,000 civil fine. Under federal law, convicted hoax callers are liable for expenses the Coast Guard incurs during a search. In one 2009 Florida case, it cost the perpetrator $906,036.94. Yet nationwide, the Coast Guard handles, on average, 18 intentional false distress calls annually, and another 121 suspected hoax maydays, and nearly all are made over VHF radio.

"Some people think the term 'mayday' sounds funny, but when we hear the word 'mayday,' it triggers a very definite response," Martin goes on. "For us, this is an internationally recognized distress signal and how we respond to it is not negotiable. We have to treat every distress call as legitimate, until it's proven otherwise."

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Samples Of Successful Hoax
Call Prosecutions

  • United States v. Flores, OH – Defendant pleaded guilty, sentenced to 36 months supervised release, ordered to pay $112,735.70 restitution
  • United States v. Johnson, MI – Defendant pleaded guilty, sentenced to 24 months in prison, ordered to pay $56,958.30 restitution
  • United States v. Baldwin, WA — Defendant pleaded guilty, sentenced to 12 months and one day imprisonment, 36 months supervised release, and ordered to pay $194,587.70 restitution
  • United States v. Feener, MA — Defendant pleaded guilty, sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, 36 months supervised release and ordered to pay $82,004.00 in restitution
  • United States v. D'Addieco, MA — Defendant pleaded guilty, sentenced to three months imprisonment, 24 months supervised release, and ordered to pay $56,459.70 in restitution

 

Were You One In A Million?

The United States Coast Guard has rescued well over 1 million people since established as the Revenue Cutter Service in 1790. To celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2009, the Coast Guard Foundation invited people to submit personal stories and you can read a selection posted online at:
www.coastguardfoundation.org/connect/meet

 

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