By PAM SMITH
“MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY!”
It’s the ultimate call for help that U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue crews train for. But, it’s one that invokes an element of dread.
“We get only a few true Mayday calls each year, and they always get our hearts going. We know by the urgency in a person’s voice that they are in real trouble,” says Senior Chief Coxswain Christopher Wright.
Wright, who is officer in charge of USCG Hatteras Search and Rescue Operations, says the crews are trained and certified for rescue missions in up to 30-foot waves. “It can be challenging.”
This winter, his crew faced a daring rescue mission in 20-foot wave conditions. “The wind was howling,” he recalls. “It was a transient boat traveling from New England to a warmer southern port. It was caught in the storm and needed assistance.”
Fortunately for the people on board — and Wright’s crew — the saga ended safely. Many calls are far less dramatic and often involve boaters who get into trouble because they don’t maintain their engines which may break down on open waters. Others are not familiar with local waters and run aground in shallows or shoals, and some fail to check the marine weather forecast and get caught out in weather they can’t handle.
“They could save a lot of heartache by being well prepared before taking a boat offshore,” Wright says.
As the USCG motto says, safe boating comes down to being “Always Prepared.”
The best safety device is knowledge, says Brian Efland, North Carolina Sea Grant marine conservation and enterprise development specialist.
For book knowledge, he suggests starting with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission for information about North Carolina boating laws and for boater safety certification courses. The USCG Auxiliary and U.S. Power Squadron volunteers also conduct boating safety classes at numerous coastal and inland locations.
In North Carolina, anyone under 26 must successfully complete an approved boating course for operating any vessel powered by an engine of 10 horsepower or greater.
Beyond books, Efland recommends learning as much as possible from experienced watermen. “Seamanship is the key to handling boats safely inshore or offshore. It can be especially tricky near and in inlets where shoaling and shallows can shift from day to day, storm to storm,” he explains.
“It’s also important to know your personal ability boundaries. Start conservatively and build your skills,” he adds. “Experience, after all, is the best teacher.”
Moreover, there is always something new to learn, even for experienced boaters. Efland partners with the USCG to present boater safety sessions at fishing tournaments, paddlers’ workshops and recreational fishing clubs’ meetings.
Having a safe vessel also is essential to safe boating. The USCG Auxiliary and Power Squadron volunteers conduct free dockside safety checks on request.
“Knowledge definitely can save lives in unforeseen circumstances. You never know when weather will become a factor or boat problems will spring up. Problems can accumulate quickly, and you have to be prepared to react just as quickly,” Efland says. “Knowing how to respond to an unexpected turn of events out on the open water often is crucial to survival.”
HOW’S THE WEATHER
For boaters, asking about the weather is more than a casual conversation starter. It’s an imperative.
“The orientation of the coast of North Carolina makes for complex weather patterns,” says John Elardo, who heads the team of meteorologists in the National Weather Service, or NWS, Marine Forecasting Program at Newport/Morehead City. The district runs from south of Currituck to Surf City and includes Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout, and Albemarle and Pamlico sounds.
The Newport unit issues marine forecasts for that district’s coastal waters and for both sounds, all of which can vary significantly. The NWS in Wilmington picks up marine forecasting duties for the Cape Fear region from Topsail to beyond the South Carolina line; marine forecasting for areas north of Currituck is handled by the NWS in Wakefield, Va.
The marine forecasters are aware that accuracy counts for recreational and commercial boaters. New observation and analytical tools enable them to pinpoint conditions all along the coast, and update short-term forecasts every three hours to reflect even subtle changes.
What’s more, there are many avenues for boaters to keep abreast of the fickle nature of weather. Internet sites for each of the NWS districts contain an array of marine weather information, including Graphical Marine Forecast Models that show wind speed and wave heights for each body of water. And, radio broadcasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides shortand long-term marine forecasts.
Enhanced marine forecasting continues to improve because of an uptick in research collaboration with university and other government agency scientists, Elardo says. For example, the NWS offices are collaborating with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to improve nearshore wave forecasting. This will enhance forecasting of wave hazards in major inlets and bays, and improve rip current forecasts.
His message to boaters: “Take advantage of NWS’s robust marine forecasting program. Look at the website for a deeper understanding of the weather and how that understanding can keep you safe on the open water.”
LET COMMON SENSE PREVAIL
Jot Owens, a Wrightsville Beach native who operates Jot It Down Fishing Charters, is grateful for the enhanced marine forecasts that keep boaters out of harm’s way.
“Always, always listen to the marine forecast. Get the most recent updates before you leave the dock. And, when there is a small craft advisory, believe it,” Owens advises. “Stay off the ocean. And, being caught out there in a thunderstorm is not a good prospect either.”
Locals know that April, May and June are infamous for late afternoon thunderstorms. “Those are the months that I generally start early and end early — ahead of the usual storm period. A good rule of thumb is that when you see a storm brewing, it’s time to head home. Don’t play around with anyone’s life in lightning. It doesn’t discriminate.”
Fog is another factor in decisions about leaving the dock, Owens says. “I won’t leave the dock until the fog breaks. And, if I’m on the water when a sudden fog bank forms, I slow down — way down — and listen for other boats. I’ll call on my VHF radio to find out what other boats may be nearby.”
The list of things he won’t leave the dock without includes VHF radio and cell phone, flares, fire extinguisher, and accessible life jackets, complete with instructions for each passenger on the right way to wear them.
Children under the age of 13 must wear a life jacket at all times. “Many have their own. If not, I have children’s sizes on board and provide them.”
Owens, who usually stays on inshore waters, makes certain that his navigational lights are in working order for times he may be working evening hours. “Navigating in the dark can be tricky because it affects your depth perception,” he points out. “It’s a good idea to slow down. Speed can kill.”
He has witnessed a lot of unsafe practices in recent years. For one, Owens sees far too many people not wearing life jackets while operating personal watercraft.
“I’d say the top infraction is inattentiveness — they are just oblivious to other boats that are on the water — and speed. And, I see far too much drinking among boaters.”
Owens’ observations closely coincide with the USCG 2010 national report on recreational boating statistics. The report shows that operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, excessive speed and alcohol use rank as the top five contributing factors in boating accidents. Nationally, alcohol use led to the greatest number of deaths — 126 — among them.
Statewide in 2010, North Carolina reported 148 boating accidents, with 24 fatalities and 120 injuries.
WHO YOU GONNA CALL?
Often a boater sends a call for assistance over emergency VHF Channel 16 when it is not necessarily a Mayday or life-threatening situation. Perhaps, a boat has gone aground. Or the engine has cut off and the boat is adrift.
In such cases, USCG Command may enlist TowBoatUS or SeaTow to go to the boater’s aid.
That’s where Capt. Matt Wild and Capt. Brooks Bridges come in. The University of North Carolina Wilmington graduates operate TowBoatUS out of Wrightsville Beach. A franchise under the aegis of the BoatUS Foundation, TowBoatUS operates a lot like AAA for motorists.
“About 90 percent of our day-to-day calls involve some sort of breakdown,” Wild says. “However, even a breakdown can quickly become a safety issue.”
An engine failure near the Masonboro Island Inlet, for example, puts the boater in danger of drifting into one of the jetties.
The shallow water and sand bars in the area of Bald Head Island pose additional boater safety issues. Bridges recalls an incident last year when an experienced yachtsman ran aground abruptly. “He hit his head on the console and suffered a concussion. It’s like hitting a brick wall, with no seat belts or air bags,” he said.
They have seen their share of close calls involving personal watercraft operators who drive recklessly at dangerous speeds in and out of boating channels without regard for other boaters. “They are more prone to serious injury from being ejected from the vessel,” Wild says. “They risk being run over by another boat — or even their own watercraft if its engine is not killed.”
One simple device for boaters and personal watercraft operators to consider employing is the kill switch on a lanyard that is attached to operator’s life jacket. Should the person be ejected, the kill switch automatically shuts the engine down.
“A lot of people complain about life jackets being too uncomfortable or too bulky, but a life jacket is your first — and maybe last — line of defense if you are thrown overboard. There are a lot of new designs that are not cumbersome at all,” Bridges points out.
And, it’s important to have the proper size, especially for children and teens. BoatUS recently announced a program to keep teens safe on the water by offering discounted, veststyle life jackets for $5 to nonprofit summer camps, schools or programs offering on-the-water educational programming for teens.
Also, child-sized life jackets can be rented through TowBoatUS and made available at a number of N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission boat ramps.
“Some crazy things happen out there,” Wild says. “We responded to a call from a man who was having engine trouble and began drifting. We advised him to throw his anchor and we would find him. Well, he threw the anchor only to realize that the line was not attached to his boat. So, it was literally anchors away and the boat went up on the beach.”
COMMON SENSE THE BEST GUIDE
For Efland, who took his first boating safety class when he was a child attending Camp Sea Gull, experience and common sense go a long way in being safe on the water.
While filing a float plan is not required, it is a good idea, especially if you are going offshore. It’s as simple as letting someone you trust know when you are leaving, where you are heading, and what time you will be returning, he explains.
“It just makes sense so that if you get in trouble and don’t come ashore as planned, someone will know where to begin to look,” Efland notes.
Also, before leaving the dock, he advises that boat operators do a safety pre-check. Close non-essential seacock valves, perform a radio check, check bilge pumps, and ensure all other electrical and mechanical systems are in working order.
“Check the weather with NWS marine forecasting unit. You may want to call and speak to a briefer. It’s best to be safe, especially when the weather seems a bit iffy,” he says.
On the day you plan to go out, conduct a safety briefing for passengers on what to do — how to use a VHF emergency radio and how to read GPS coordinates — in case the operator is disabled.
Efland also underscores the importance of the ditch bag, which is a floatable bag in which all vital safety gear is stored. Items include fresh drinking water, flares, hand-held VHF radio and a GPS device. One of the most important items is the Emergency Positioning Indicator Radio Beam, or EPIRB, a distress beacon that automatically sends out a signal that tells rescuers who and where you are, while a strobe light helps guide them to your location.
Efland prefers Type1 life preservers, especially for offshore boating. “This type enables a person, even if he is unconscious, to come to an upright position in the water,” he explains.
And, for winter fishing offshore, his emergency gear includes an immersion, full-body floatation protection suit that protects a person from hypothermia. “Yes, you look like Gumby, but it greatly increases your visibility and chances for survival.”
Boating Safety Resources
» U.S. Coast Guard, Sector North Carolina: www.uscg.mil/d5/sectnorthcarolina/
» N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission: www.ncwildlife.org
» National Weather Service: www.weather.gov
» U.S. Power Squadron: www.usps.org
» National Safe Boating Council: www.safeboatingcouncil.org
This article was published in the Spring 2012 issue of Coastwatch.
For contact information and reprint requests, visit ncseagrant.ncsu.edu/coastwatch/contact/.