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Know-how signaling for help

A recognized signal for help is to repeatedly raise your arms out from your sides. I once saw this technique used outside the Long BeachHarbor breakwater in California. We were sailing a 38-foot schooner, and I happened to spot a lovely young woman in a shocking pink bikini aboard a runabout signaling distress. It certainly caught my attention.

There are various means to signal for help — electronic, pyrotechnic, audible, visual. The Coast Guard Navigation Rules summarize in Rule 36 (Inland) and Rule 37 (Inland and International) a list of distress signals, with descriptions in greater detail in Appendix IV. In an emergency, however, a skipper can and should use any means to summon help.

1. Someone always suggests cell phones when the subject of distress signals is raised. Bad idea. A cell phone should not be the primary means of distress signaling for several reasons: obtaining and keeping a reliable signal offshore can be problematic; most cell phones aren’t water resistant; 911 isn’t really geared to handle emergencies at sea; and communications are person to person, unlike a VHF radio. Cell phones should be considered a backup for a VHF radio.

2. A VHF radio should be your primary means of communicating from on board, and channel 16 is the distress, safety and calling frequency. Unlike a cell phone, VHF is an open signal that can be heard by all vessels in your vicinity. Learn when and how to use mayday and pan-pan, as well as securitee, though this isn’t a distress signal.

If you’re smart, you’ve already upgraded to a VHF with digital selective calling, or DSC. These radios send a digital distress signal with the press of a button that will be received by all commercial vessels within your range, the Coast Guard, and pleasure boats with DSC radios within range. If connected to a GPS, your position also is automatically transmitted. To use DSC you must obtain a Maritime Mobile Service Identity number, or MMSI. You can get it through BoatU.S. or Sea Tow.

3. Emergency position indicating radio beacons are your best device of last resort. Older Class A and B EPIRBs, operating at 121.5/243 MHz, have been obsolete since January 2007. New EPIRBs transmit on the 406 MHz frequency and use the 121.5 frequency to help rescuers home in when they get close. The 406 MHz signals are received by SARSAT and COSPAS satellites and are stored until broadcast to an onshore receiving station. Accuracy is around two nautical miles.

Combination GPS/EPIRBs increase the accuracy of your location to about 30 meters. These units communicate with fixed GEOSTAR satellites as well as SARSAT and COSPAS, and may reduce response time for notification from one hour to about five minutes. If you will be more than 20 miles offshore, get a Class II GPS/EPIRB. They cost around $1,100. Smaller personal locator beacons (PLBs) with GPS cost around $600.

Registering your 406 EPIRB is mandated by the Federal Communications Commission. Without registration, there can be a significant delay in launching rescue efforts while the Coast Guard verifies the distress situation.

The following are some of the officially recognized signals commonly used by recreational boaters. Remember, pyrotechnic distress signaling equipment should be kept in protective, waterproof containers; stored where it can be readily accessed in the event of an emergency; and periodically inspected (flares carry expiration dates).

4. Continuously sounding a foghorn or the repetitive sounding of any noisemaker — a loud whistle comes to mind.

5.Displaying an orange flag with a black ball and square (for identification from the air).

6. Signaling SOS by any method. There are lanterns that automatically flash Morse code for SOS (. . .- - -. . .).

7. Red parachute, meteor or hand-held flares. Some flares are virtually invisible in daylight. Spend the extra money for SOLAS flares.

8. Dye marker (any color).

9. Orange smoke signals (in daylight).

10. A white strobe flashing 50 to 70 times per minute (Inland Rules only).

11.A mirror aimed to reflect light at vessels or aircraft.