Getting Yourself Safely Home: Using the Radio to Get Help
If you are not often the primary operator of your boat, are you prepared to take control in an emergency? Any skipper can be incapacitated by sudden illness ranging from poisoning to heart attack.
Unconsciousness could result from illness or accident, and even a relatively minor accident could render the primary skipper unable to continue operating the boat. If that happens, someone else on the boat needs to know enough to deal with the emergency.
A BoatU.S. member recently thought about the prospect of having to take over in an emergency and asked Seaworthy, the BoatU.S. Marine Insurance journal, for an article expressly for "women who leave the maintenance to the men, but who are concerned for the safety of all aboard in the event of mishap."
There is no short course to learn all the points of proper boat operation. But in an emergency, keeping calm and knowing a few basics could save the day — and maybe a life.
Here is a look at how an inexperienced person who suddenly is in charge, i.e. can use the boat’s radio to get help. (Experienced skippers can turn this article over to your second in command and tackle some overdue chore.)
Help is available from other boaters, acting as Good Samaritans, and from professional like the local marine police, U.S. Coast Guard, Coast Guard Auxiliary, and TowBoatU.S. towers.
If you can see people on other boats or on shore, simply waving your outstretched arms or a towel, etc., could bring help. There are other recognized ways of attracting attention such as flying a flag upside-down, five or more rapid blasts on a horn, and lighting a flare. (You should know where they are and how to use them.)
Today, the most common means of getting help is by using the VHF marine radio. You probably hear the radio chatter more than you care to, so you know many people are listening. You can talk to anyone who answers and your emergency message will be forwarded to the Coast Guard or other appropriate rescue service.
But remember, the person on the radio doesn’t have a clue who you are or where your boat is. You need to give them enough information to be able to find you. Practice using the radio and how to describe your boat. If you aren’t sure, have the skipper write it down and post it at the radio. Nothing can frustrate a rescuer more, and delay your being helped, than looking for "a white boat" somewhere "out-side the inlet."
A simple process is used: Push and hold the button. Talk. Release the button and listen. Many beginners forget to release the button and wonder why no one seems to be answering. Unlike a telephone, a radio does not permit talking and listening at the same time.
Make contact, and say: "Coast Guard…" (with the name of the nearest station if you know it) three times, followed by "This is (name of your boat)" three times.
Speak slower than normally, but normal volume, with the microphone a few inches from your mouth. Loud or fast speech becomes distorted over the radio.
Many people are familiar with the word "Mayday." Use it ONLY in grave emergencies such as fire or imminent sinking. The word "Pan" (rhymes with "on") can be used to attract attention and let rescuers know that you have an URGENT call involving safety. For example: "Pan! Pan! Pan! This is the vessel Happy with a medical emergency requesting assistance, over."
Wait a few moments and you may hear several people answer. If the Coast Guard or marine police answer and you can hear them clearly, direct your call to them. If the communication is weak or unclear, it may be better to talk to a nearby skipper who will relay your information to authorities.
After contact has been made, the problem is stated something like: "This is the Happy. The captain fell and is unconscious and I don’t know how to operate the boat to get home, over."
The rescuers will ask for information, the most important being your location and a description of the boat (so someone can find you out there among all the other boats that look similar). Think about what makes your boat look unique: The exact make and model, trim color, a raft on the roof, a BoatU.S. pennant on the bow, etc. You can make the boat unique by tying or taping a brightly colored shirt or towel to an antenna or railing.
If you don’t have or can’t read navigation instruments to get your boat’s position in latitude/longitude, try to give the boat’s location in relation to nearby objects such as bridges, towers, lighthouses islands or shoals. "We’re on the bay" doesn’t mean much, but you probably would be found without too much trouble if you said "on the bay, 30 minutes cruising from the city marina. We passed buoy #12 about five minutes ago and there is a green ship going by."
Rescuers also might want to know how many people are on board, whether you are in immediate danger, and more details on the nature of the problem. Medical advice may be available if you can provide details about the injured or sick person. And the Coast Guard will want to check back with you from time to time to keep track of what is happening.
The modern VHF marine radio is, perhaps, the most important single piece of safety gear aboard. Everyone who is frequently aboard should be familiar with proper radio procedure and comfortable with using the equipment. And there are other fine points of official radio procedure for those who want to know it "by-the-book". In a related story, we will look at getting home when the skipper is disabled and there is no answer on the radio.