Saved By The Cell?

By Lenny Rudow
Photos By Kevin Stipe

Here's one way to get the most out of your cellphone as a piece of safety gear. Plus, always file a float plan.

Thanks to strides in boater education, advances in technology, and the professionalism of search-and-rescue personnel, boating fatalities have dropped dramatically through the years. Still, the loss of any life requires close reflection to see if there are ways to learn from the tragedy. In August, when teenage friends Perry Cohen and Austin Stephano went missing during a fishing trip off the coast of Florida, it dominated the headlines. Their abandoned 19-foot boat was found capsized but still afloat. After a two-week search, the teens couldn't be found. More recently, the death of country-music singer Craig Strictland made the headlines. Strictland was duck hunting with his friend Chase Morland on Oklahoma's Kaw Lake in late December. Their boat was found overturned after high winds, rain, sleet, and snow blew through the area. Morland's body was recovered two days later, and Strictland's a full week after that; he'd succumbed to hypothermia shortly after crawling out of the lake.

Also in late December, a 17-foot center-console with five people on board for a duck-hunting trip overturned near Weeki Wachee, Florida. The crew was carrying a waterproof VHF, but it was lost overboard when the boat rolled. Luckily, one cellphone, protected by a LifeProof case, remained in working order. As a result, Kevin Stipe was able to call his father for help. Fortunately, Stipe's father, Jay, is president of MiraTrex, the maker of the Pro Charts marine-navigation app, which turns your cellphone into a chartplotter. Naturally, the younger Stipe had it installed on his phone. The app's Buddies feature, which shows the location of your friends' boats on the chart, allowed the senior Stipe to see his son's exact latitude and longitude. He called the U.S. Coast Guard, gave it the coordinates, and less than two hours later, all five were aboard a Citrus County Fire Rescue boat.

Four Ways To Get Safety From Your Cell

It shouldn't surprise you that the (free) BoatUS App is one of our favorite apps of all time. It allows you to call for a tow at the swipe of a finger, which at the same time automatically gives our TowBoatUS service your boat's exact location along with critical information. It also has a Share Your Location feature, like the Buddies feature on Pro Charts, which attaches latitude/longitude and a Google Maps link to emails and texts.

The U.S. Coast Guard now has its own app, called United States Coast Guard. While the coasties agree with us and state outright that a cellphone should never be your sole form of emergency communications, this app does provide another layer of protection by allowing you to request assistance, report everything from an oil spill to suspicious activity, and file float plans with up to three other parties. It's also available for free at the App Store and at Google Play.

Pro Charts, the app used in the story above, offers a free evaluation version; a subscription is $2.99/month.

Another interesting option is Kitestring, which automatically checks in with you via text in a predetermined time frame. This isn't exactly an app; it's more of a web-based short message service, or SMS. If you fail to respond to the check-in, it sends an SOS text to your designated contacts. Considering the chances of a phone being damaged or lost in a boating accident, this provides a valuable layer of protection that doesn't depend on your phone remaining operational. If you're unable to respond because the phone got soaked or lost as the boat overturned, for example, the SOS still goes through. The downside is a lack of location data, but couple Kitestring with a float plan and it could be a lifesaver. Kitestring basic service (15 trips per month with one emergency contact) is free; unlimited service costs $3 a month.

While we strongly advise against ever depending on a cellphone as your only safety device, this case proves that phones can be life-savers — if they continue working after an incident, and if you can get a signal. We know that Morland had an operational cellphone before the Oklahoma accident because he'd used Twitter to tweet, "In case we don't come back, @BackroadCRAIG and I are going through Winter Storm Goliath to kill ducks in Oklahoma." But we don't know if that phone was lost, damaged in the accident, or whether Morland was simply unable to use it due to hypothermia, which could have set in shortly after their troubles began. In all these cases, having a primary safety device aboard the boat would have been ideal. Having an EPIRB, an inexpensive personal locator beacon (PLB), or a waterproof satellite messenger aboard — especially when leaving the dock in iffy weather or in the cold-water conditions often accompanying waterfowl hunting — could have meant the difference between life and death. Having a cellphone protected by a waterproof case, along with a good nav app, is also an excellent backup. You likely have the smartphone already. You may even have a watertight case. Adding an app that allows you to share your location is both simple and free. 

BoatUS Magazine's electronics and fishing editor, Lenny Rudow, is also senior editor at

— Published: April/May 2016

How & Why To File A Float Plan

A float plan is an outline of your boating itinerary that provides basic information about your boat and crew, which can reduce the response time of authorities, narrow their search area, and potentially save your life. Share your plan, in writing (though not necessarily on paper), with a reliable person who can be depended on to call the authorities should you not return or check in as planned. Choose someone who'll notice if you don't get back to them.

You, as skipper of the boat, should file a float plan, but it can be filed by a crewmember. A float plan can be as simple as a hand-written outline for a day trip, or it can be a more formal document that you create on your computer and forward to a friend. Go to to find a basic one. Be sure you save your most recent one so you can go back and change it for your next trip.

Things To Include In Your Float Plan:

  • An itinerary of travel times, dates, and stopping points
  • The name, age, and experience of those aboard
  • The name and contact information of someone not on the trip
  • A vessel description, including markings
  • The VHF radio's MMSI number or call sign
  • The unique ID numbers for the EPIRB and all PLBs
  • List additional lifesaving equipment
  • Who to call if you fail to check in as planned

Having your plan saved to your smartphone will allow you to share it with just about anyone you choose via text or email. You can also download the free U.S. Coast Guard app to your smartphone, which allows you to create or update a float plan on the fly and send it to your contacts as often as you need. The more info you include in your plan, the better.

Remember: The plan is only good if you follow it. If your plans change, notify the person holding your plan to avoid unnecessary worry and the possible waste of search-and-rescue resources. As a courtesy, notify the person holding your plan of any updates or deviations to the plan. Finally, don't forget to close out your plan by notifying those involved that you've arrived home safely.



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