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.
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."
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."
For Real, Or Really A Hoax?
On average, according to records kept over the past decade, the Coast Guard handles 20,000 calls for assistance annually and logs them in four categories: Actual Alerts, False Alerts, Suspected Hoax, and Confirmed Hoax. Although records show an encouraging downward trend in overall calls, suspected and confirmed hoaxes have trended more or less upward, increasing from 76 in 2006 to 161 in 2011. (At press time, records for 2012 were not yet available, but year-to-date numbers appeared consistent with that trend.)
False alerts, Martin says, are calls made in good faith but that later prove unwarranted or easily resolved — the boat's overdue but later found safe — and just plain mistakes, like bumping a DSC-equipped radio's mayday button, or activating an EPIRB accidentally. "On the other hand, hoaxes involve the intent to deceive," Martin explains.
"The most common call is simply a 'mayday,' or one with any other words like 'help,' 'emergency,' 'trouble,' or 'sinking,' but with little or no other information such as position, vessel identification, or details of the emergency," Martin says. "We log these as 'uncorrelated distress broadcasts,' meaning we have reason to believe someone may be in distress but we don't know where. If we can get an RDF [radio direction finder] fix on the signal, we can produce a search plan and send a crew to check it out.
"If all we get is a line of bearing [on the signal], it becomes harder to develop a search pattern but the real challenge is when all we're able to do is just copy the call," he adds. "Then we try to find out who else out there heard it, and from plotting the positions of other vessels, we can develop a [broadcast] range ring to narrow down where the call likely originated."
Martin says the Coast Guard's new advanced communications system, Rescue 21, can zero-in quickly on the source of a distress call from vessels out to 20 miles from shore, and possibly more. But the system also allows Coast Guard responders to make quicker determinations about a call's legitimacy — whether it's a suspected hoax — and narrow down the source. "If we get a fix at sea, we can be pretty confident we have an issue," Martin says. "In some hoax cases, we'll get a fix that's actually inland, and that's when you start talking about a probable hoax. If Rescue 21 plotted the source five miles inland and there's no navigable water near that fix, how could this be anything other than a hoax?"
Most hoax calls come over Channel 16 on a marine band VHF radio, so the perps could be kids playing on a trailer boat in somebody's backyard, and the Coast Guard can enlist local law enforcement to check out the neighborhood. Martin says it's not uncommon to trace a hoax mayday to an adult with similar access to a VHF radio and amplified, as it were, by too much alcohol. But sometimes the source just has a grudge against the Coast Guard. Martin has seen those, too, up close, and tells the story of one particular case he handled while assigned as operations officer at Group Woods Hole, Massachusetts (now Coast Guard Sector Southeastern New England), in July of 2004.
Why Why Not Rang Bells
"The watch called me [at home] at 11 o'clock at night and told me they'd logged a mayday from a fishing boat sinking in Buzzards Bay," Martin recalls. "This guy said all the right things: 'I'm the fishing boat Why Not; there's five of us; we're getting in a life raft, the boat's going down,' so that's a bell ringer for us."
First and foremost, the station launched its 41-foot utility boat while broadcasting an urgent marine radio alert to any vessels in the area that might assist. Next, the watch alerted state and local agencies that could be in a position to assist, as well. In the meantime, Station Menemsha launched its 41-footer while the district command in Boston diverted a Falcon jet on another mission from Air Station Cape Cod as well as an H-60 helicopter. "Basically," says Martin, "we're trying to mobilize everything we can to save lives in that very narrow window of opportunity.
"A little after midnight, I check back with the watch: 'Are we pulling people out of the water?' and the answer is, 'No.' OK, no indication of a vessel in the area, no people in the water, no life rafts, no debris, and we can't explain that," he goes on. "So, we have a discussion about things like whether to leave the aircraft out there to do a first-light search and help figure out why we aren't finding anything. It turns out to be a hoax and we actually had help with this one. Somebody knew the guy who did it and blew him in. But that's a rare occasion. This case was particularly irritating because, not only were we putting that aircrew and the boat crew at risk by sending them out in the middle of the night, the guy knew exactly what to tell us that would get us to jump through hoops."
Fiscal Years 2003-2012
|% Of Total
|Source: U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue Data Fiscal Year 2003 to 2012 (as of August 15, 2012)
Group Woods Hole turned the case over to Coast Guard Investigative Services and, with help from National Marine Fisheries Service enforcement officers, tracked down the perpetrator. They arrested a 20-yearold commercial fishing boat crewman who also confessed to a similar false mayday he'd radioed in two months after the Why Not call. In that case, he reported the F/V Determined, a boat he had once worked aboard, sinking 20 miles off Nantucket. It took investigators and the courts two years, but the double hoax earned him 18 months in prison followed by three years supervised release plus a bill for 11 hours of Coast Guard search time at a cost of $82,000.
The Financial Toll
Hoax mayday calls like the Why Not and Blind Date cases, and the roughly 150 more suspected and confirmed incidents reported during 2012, are costly. While the Coast Guard knows to the penny the hourly price tag to fly a Jayhawk helicopter or push a 45-foot motor lifeboat across the water on an SAR mission, hoax distress calls have costs less easy to calculate. In addition to the expense of diverting personnel from normal duties, when SAR crews are occupied chasing down phantom maydays, they're not on call for real emergencies.
As Pete Martin puts it, "Responding to a hoax mayday means the Coast Guard is not only spending tax dollars unnecessarily and putting personnel in harm's way, we're burning crew time that could be needed at any given moment for genuine, life-threatening emergencies."