Odds are you have never called the Coast Guard for an emergency. Sure, you learned about it when you took a safe boating course and you know what to do. However, chances are you have never done or haven’t done it in a long time. So here, by way of a refresher, is the skinny on what to do when you get into trouble out in the water.
Obviously, you need to be sure, long before you leave the dock that you VHF-FM marine radio is working properly. When you’re getting ready for the season take a moment to do a radio check with other boats in the area and the Coast Guard. The emergency channel is 16. It is intended for contacting other vessels, but mainly for emergencies and should never be used for long conversations. If you really need to chat with a buddy use channel 22 and get them to switch to one of the channels 68, 69, 71, 72 or 78. There will be less traffic and you won’t interfere with emergency calls.
When you’re checking out your VHF-FM consider upgrading to a Digital Selective Calling (DSC) radio that will, once you press the emergency button, automatically contact the Coast Guard and, if it is connected to your GPS, broadcast your exact location. For it to work, you will need to obtain a Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) from Boat US, the Power Squadron or Sea Tow. You can contact the FCC, but that is a more complicated process.
Let’s assume for the moment that you do not have DSC and have to talk to the Coast Guard over channel 16. Obviously, if you are calling the Coast Guard you have a problem and are concerned about the danger, so no one could blame you if you are feeling panicky. Get a grip on yourself and then pick up the microphone and listen to be sure the channel is clear before you press the “transmit” button. If someone is talking, wait until they are finished. Talking over another conversation will probably cause both to be garbled and a waste of time. In an emergency, it could cause serious consequences.
Call the Coast Guard at the first sign of an emergency. Don’t wait for the smoke to get thick or the water in the bilge to get deep. Make sure everyone on the boat knows there is a problem and has put on a flotation device. Several years ago, while cruising up the Hudson River, a boater following my boat radioed, “I have a slight fire on my boat.” There no such thing as a slight fire. A fire will double in size every minute is allowed to burn. Fortunately, he put it out quickly with a fire extinguisher.
Keep your transmission short. Here is what the Coast Guard needs to know:
• The name of your boat. (Example, motor vessel South Wind). Repeat the name of your boat three times.
• Your location, (eg. I am one half mile south of Norton’s point.) Include your GPS latitude and longitude coordinates.
• Description of your boat. (eg. 46 foot sports fisherman, white with blue trim).
• Specify the number of persons on board including yourself and whether they are adults or children.
• The problem. (eg. I have no power or I have no steering. I am taking on water.)
The Coast Guard watchstander, that is the Coastie you will be talking to, needs to know what kind of an emergency you have. Depending on the nature of your problem, the watchstander may request that you switch to channel 22. In serious cases, you may be asked to stay on channel 16. Long winded transmissions are to be avoided. Keep it short. For example, when giving your location, don’t go into unnecessary details like “we were headed out for few hours of fishing and were heading for Brown’s Marina for fuel when I heard a funny noise.” The watchstander does not want to know the intricate details. What he or she wants to know is what kind of danger you are in. Is your boat on fire? Is your boat sinking? Do you have someone onboard who is sick? How many adults and children onboard?
There are three types of emergency call signals that immediately make the watchstander aware of the severity of the emergency.
• MAYDAY is the international distress signal that alerts the watchstander and any other boat in the vicinity that may be listening that you are in serious trouble, in grave danger and need assistance immediately. Use it wisely and only if there is grave danger like fire, sinking or medical emergency.
• PAN-PAN is the signal to use when you have a problem like a dead engine, loss of steering and need immediate help because you are in danger.
• SECURITE is the term used to quickly make the watchstander and other boats aware of a safety problem. This signal would be used when there is a great amount of debris in the water, you notice a boat drifting without power in a busy shipping lane or a barge has broken loose from its mooring.
• SEELONCE-MAYDAY is a signal that may be used by the watchstander or by a vessel transmitting a Mayday signal. It simply means there is a Mayday emergency going on and all others should cease transmissions while the emergency traffic is dealt with. In other words, shut up and listen.
Always try to keep calm in an emergency. Like the infamous unflappable airline pilot, speak slowly and clearly when calling for help. If you use a signal like Mayday, repeat it three times. You need to remember that it will take time for a rescue vessel to reach you. In some cases, a helicopter will be dispatched, but even that takes time. Be patient while you wait. You may be fortunate enough to have a boat nearby hear and respond to your Mayday. Likewise, if you hear a Mayday you should try to help in any way possible.
Remember that channel 16 is the emergency channel. Channel 22 is the channel to use to carry on informal conversations that do not deal with an emergency situation. Be brief on all channels. If you need to have a long conversation about how and where the bluefish are biting, use your cell phone.
If you venture offshore, you should consider an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon or EPIRB. Also, consider a Type I Personal Locator Beacon or PLB and clip it on to your flotation device so rescuers can find you even if you are floating in the water away from your boat. Be sure too that you and your crew know how to active the Man Overboard (MOB) button on your GPS.
It is a good idea to practice how you would use the radio in the event of an emergency. Take the time to demonstrate to your crew and guests just how it should be done. By doing it you will also keep your communication skills up to par. After you show your guests where the flotation devices are stored and how to use them, you might want to take a few moments to demonstrate how to use the VHF-FM radio in case of an emergency. It is especially important to make sure your spouse and other members of your crew are familiar with how to use the radio and how to get the boat back safely home in the event of a medical emergency.