Handling distress calls at sea


This article deals with the process of vessels' distress calls to the Coast Guard, and the subsequent Search and Rescue procedures.

Imagine the scenario: you are doing a crossing between the BVI and St Marteen. You are aboard a 46/47 foot sloop, well found in all respects- GPS/chartplotter, autopilot, power everything, you name it, this is a vessel that could take on the Atlantic. It is a beautiful night, the wind is right, and you are making good time. You come off a wave and BOOM! You hit something floating 20 miles offshore! A crew member runs to the cockpit to tell you there is a massive amount of water coming through a gapping hole in the side of the boat. What will you do? You try to put anything you can think of in the hole to stop the rush of water, but it is obvious that you are sinking.

You grab the radio and issue a Mayday. The Coast Guard comes back to you. What will they ask? Are you ready for the answers to the questions and the actions that can save your life and the lives of your crew?

How does this relate to you and me going off on a charter boat? First of all, don't think this stuff does not happen, OK? And second, basically, good seamanship means to be prepared for the unexpected. It would be foolish to think that there is no potential accident danger just because you are sailing the inviting Caribbean waters! Have at least one other person on your boat knowledgeable enough to be able to call for help. (See VHF radio procedures for more info.)

If you are in the Bahamas, BASRA (Bahamas Air Sea Rescue) will come to your aid. In the British Virgin Islands, VISAR (Virgin Islands Search and Rescue) will come to your aid. Those who have seen a VISAR contribution on their charter invoice (in the Virgin Islands) will now know where their money is going. VISAR is a non profit organization. Their coxswains and crew are volunteers like myself here in the States, who volunteer time to help sailors in distress.

The Three "P's"

Following the scenario opening this article, the CG has three basic questions to start with: The "3 P's": Position, Problem and People. If the CG know you called in a Mayday, and you get your position out, they at least know where to go. With your position and your problem, they know where to go and what resource would best serve your problem. With your position, problem and number of people aboard, they know where to find you, what resource to send, and if they can not find you, how many people may be in the water to look for. These are the basics. The rest is gravy.

The next series of questions are called "amplifying information": boat description; any medical emergencies onboard; "on-scene weather"; what emergency supplies are on board; is there: a life raft, EPIRP, flares, lifejackets, food and water. Any of the amplifying information could change the way the CG approach the SAR (Search and Rescue). Why would the CG want to know the weather? If it is calm, and you are too far offshore, maybe they will send a 47 foot rescue vessel. If the weather is bad, maybe a helo or a larger cutter. If a rescue swimmer had to get in the water to get everyone out of a life raft, that swimmer would want to know what to expect. Should they send out a C130 to find you first? If you were far offshore, and the weather was bad, a C130 can drop a pump for your sinking boat before other help arrives.

All and any information you can give the CG produces a better and better plan of action for the SMC (SAR mission coordinator).

The SAR Emergency Phases

The Coast Guard has 3 Emergency Phases to work with. They decide on which phase they are in based on the information given to them. The better the information, the more accurately the CG can decide how best to perform the rescue.

  1. Uncertainty Phase - Described as "A knowledge of a situation that may need to be monitored, or have more information gathered, but does not require dispatching resources." A quick possible scenario is a call to the station from a wife saying their husband should have been back to the dock 3 hours ago. The CG will begin trying to contact the vessel and the marinas, vessels in the area or other agencies that may have knowledge of the location of that vessel.

  2. Alert Phase - Described as "An aircraft, ship, other craft, or persons on board are having difficulty and may need assistance, but are not in immediate danger." At this point, in the example of the wife who called in with a 3 hour overdue boat, she calls back to say that her husband has a heart condition and he forgot his medication. At this point a Search and Rescue Unit may be launched to search the area of last known position of the overdue boat.

  3. Distress Phase - Described as "A reasonable certainty that an aircraft, ship, other craft, or persons onboard are in danger and require immediate assistance." There is no question about the CG launching a vessel or aircraft at this point. With the above example of the overdue boat with a husband needing heart medication, add night falling or bad weather on the way as a example of a phase change.

The more information the Coast Guard receive, the sooner they can make the right decision to save your life or the life of one of your crew members.

Different Situations and Rescues

In the opening scenario, what rescue would you expect? A C130 could find you, and drop a water pump. Or the C130 could simply mark the spot for the helicopter to come out and pick up your crew. Let's say that you have a raft and your boat is going down fast. You abandon ship and get in the raft, then the helicopter arrives.

A rescue swimmer will be dropped to swim to your raft. The swimmer will take everyone one at a time to a spot to put people in the rescue basket. When you get in the basket, keep your arms INSIDE the basket, under your thighs palms up.

The helicopter has to keep a bit of distance from the raft, since the downdraft from the rotor can be up to 100 knots!

Helicopter rescue of an injured person from your vessel

The CG helicopter is going to drop a rescue basket to your boat. Do you know what to do? First, secure every loose item from the deck of your boat. There should not be any cushions, loose lines etc... anything that is not tied down should be put down below. Remember that you will have 100 knots of downdraft from the helo over your head. You will (hopefully) establish communications with the helo before they arrive on scene. When that helo is overhead you will not be able to hear anything from the rotor noise. The usual "thumbs up" will be the signal to the helo crew that it is time to lift the rescue basket from the deck of your boat.

Prior to the helo dropping the rescue basket, if possible, you will need to keep your vessel underway (under power) at about a 35 to 45 degree angle from the wind direction with the wind on your port bow.

The door on the helo is on the starboard side and the helo will keep her nose into the wind, allowing the crewmember in the open door to watch what is going on with the rescue. When they drop the rescue basket, there is a trailing line coming off the bottom of the basket: DON'T TOUCH IT UNTIL IT TOUCHES YOUR VESSEL! There is a static charge on that line due the rotation of the rotor blades. If you reach out and grab the trailing line before it touches your vessel, you will get knocked off your feet by the electrical (static) charge!

Fire at Sea

Fiberglass boats burn nasty fumes! If you cannot control the fire, don lifejackets and get ready to abandon ship. If you can use the fire extinguisher, pull the pin, aim at the base of the fire (from a upwind position), squeeze the trigger and sweep the base of the flame. PASSis the abbreviation for remembering what to do. Pull, Aim, Squeeze, Sweep. If you have to abandon ship, do so off the windward side of the vessel. Remember: if you are on the windward side, the vessel will drift away from you, which is what you want to achieve.

Precautions of Good Seamanship

The Pre-underway check list

In the CG Auxiliary, we perform a pre underway checklist every time we get ready to leave the dock on patrol. Should you do the same on a charter? ABSOLUTELY. The more everyone knows what his or her duties are in the event of an emergency, the less damaging that emergency will be. The more prepared you are, the less of a chance that you will have a emergency because you will be watching to keep problems from happening.
Here is a list of everything we go through.

Locate the following items on each boat, each time you get underway with every person on the boat watching to see where they are:

  • Life Jackets
  • Fire Extinguishers
  • Search Light
  • Spare parts
  • Flares
  • First Aid Kit
  • Flashlights
  • Charts
  • Binoculars
  • VHF radio (and knowledge of how to use it)
  • Depth Finder
  • GPS
  • Bilge pump
  • bucket (for bailing if the bilge pump gives out)
  • Extra dock lines
  • Throw cushion
  • EPIRP (if one is aboard)

Yeah, chances are, you won't have to deal with this on a weeklong trip in the BVI. But if you do, just be ready!