When Jenell Webster or any of her fellow command duty officers receive a call about a boater in distress, they fill out a quick reference card. Their goal: to collect information they need for input into the U.S. Coast Guard’s data-analysis program, and to have rescue teams searching for the boater within 30 minutes.
“Our clock starts when we hang up the phone,” says Webster, a senior chief petty officer with the 5th District Command Center in Portsmouth, Virginia. “The more detail somebody knows, the more we can put into our program and find the optimal place to search.” The idea is to move swiftly and deliberately to the rescue phase of search and rescue, instead of getting stuck on search—an unfortunate reality that happened this past November, in a case that provides insights into how the Coast Guard conducts searches and what boaters can do to help the agency succeed in rescues.
In the November case, the 5th District received a call about 82-year-old Hugh Blankenship of Florida, who was trying to sail home from Maryland aboard the 29-foot Catalina/Morgan Marta. According to multiple news reports, Blankenship had been a seaman all his life and had been checking in regularly with his family, but had not been heard from in a while. He had last been seen in Virginia. He was out on the water with minimal instrumentation, with only a handheld VHF radio, a cellphone and paper charts. After 11 days of searching more than 350,000 square nautical miles with 15 Coast Guard aircraft and 12 Navy assets, the search for Blankenship was called off.
The Coast Guard never places blame for an accident on a boater, but Webster and others acknowledge that when the initial distress call is light on details, rescue teams can sense that the odds of success are likely to be longer—along with the time devoted to search instead of to rescue. “We’ll have some that we think we’re going to do really well,” she says, “and then we have cases where we’re asking, ‘What are we looking for? Where are we looking?’”
Every case is different, Webster says, but after the search for Blankenship was called off, the Coast Guard issued a statement that offered suggestions to all boaters. It read, in part: “We also want to remind mariners of the importance of filing a float plan and equipping their vessels with multiple communication devices, especially a fixed VHF-FM marine radio. Additionally, we strongly encourage mariners to carry cellphones and emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRB) that have been properly registered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.”
Having the type of information the Coast Guard will need starts long before setting off from the dock. The first step, Webster says, is creating a float plan—not just a “here’s where I’m going boating today” plan, but instead a detailed document that includes specifics about the boat. With that information, the Coast Guard has far better odds of success. “If we know where they were going, we have somewhere to start searching,” Webster says. “We can do a voyage scenario. This is why it’s important for people to know the make and specs of their boat, how much fuel it holds, how fast it is.”
A good float plan also should include what the boater will be doing, and who the designated contact is back on shore. “That’s a very basic float plan,” she says. “If you’re trying to stay in contact with somebody, how often are you checking in with them? If you’ve missed your call-in after two hours, then we know where to start searching, because two hours ago, we knew where you were, and we know that in that two-hour window, something went wrong. It shortens the search area for us.”
Other information that should be part of a float plan—and that could make all the difference in a search—is where the boater usually stops to grab a meal or to refuel. For fishermen, where are the grounds that the boater usually frequents? “We will start making call-outs over the radio,” she says. “We’ll look to talk to other boats in the area to find out if anybody has seen this guy. He’s supposed to be in this fishing ground. A lot of times, we can resolve it via the radio if the person just missed his call-in.”
Beyond having and following a solid float plan is having the right equipment on board. According to Webster, a fixed-mount VHF radio trumps a handheld. “If you have a fixed VHF, your antenna is higher up on the boat and you have a longer range. A handheld VHF radio is not long-range at all. If it’s fixed, it’ll be good—and it depends on how far offshore you are. Our towers might not be able to reach it, but another boater could and then relay it to us.”
Cellphones are useful for near-shore boating, Webster says, but if you have a problem, don’t call the Coast Guard. Dial 911 instead. The 911 dispatchers can get your location from your phone. The Coast Guard can’t. “We can request it from the cellphone companies, but it comes right up on their screens,” she says. “We give them a lot of our paperwork, so they can fill it out and send it to us immediately.”
Other key safety equipment includes flares, but don’t fire them all at once. “If we get a flare report, we’re going to send somebody out there, because we’re trying to draw out another flare,” she says. “If you have a pack of six flares, shoot one off and give it some time. I can’t give an exact time, but not every five minutes. Give us some time to get a report of the sighting and get out there, and if you see a helicopter or boat coming toward you, that’s when you set off another one. They’re looking for another flare.”
And, Webster says, have an EPIRB—specifically, a 406 MHz version that is registered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as opposed to a personal locator beacon.
“Personal beacons, people usually have strapped to themselves,” Webster says. “But a 406 MHz [EPIRB] is registered [to the boat]. And it’s satellite-based, so it’s pretty accurate for position as long as it has a clear view to the satellite. It will have the owner-operator’s name, the emergency contact—make sure you put the name of a person who will not be on the boat, and file your float plan with them. Having everything in order doesn’t guarantee a successful search, but, it improves the odds of getting to the rescue phase. Says Webster, “There is a chance that we can find these guys.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue.