May 29, 2011

Can you be found?

 SOMETIMES, when I see a young family heading out for a day’s sailing with the dog barking excitedly and the kids running up and down the sidedecks, I wonder how many people on board would be capable of calling for help in an emergency.

By that, I mean specifically: if the skipper had a heart attack, who on board would be able to tell the Coast Guard where to find the boat? I presume, of course, that someone would be able to figure out how to work the VHF radio and find Channel 16. But what the Coasties want to know first and foremost is: Where are you, exactly?

That question very seldom occurs to us when we’re out sailing. We kind of know we’re out in the bay and it should be pretty easy to find us. But when the whitecaps are breaking all around, and your boat, like most, is white, it can take a long time to find you if you can’t give an exact position.

It’s the navigator’s job to keep tabs on where you are, but few family yachts have dedicated navigators, and not many of us can say with any veracity on the spur of the moment that we are 2.75 miles south-south-east of buoy E16. Mostly, the best we can do is: “Uh, I think we’re about three miles offshore and, um, I can see a horse running on the beach.”

It would make the Coasties’ life a lot easier if someone could give them the exact chart coordinates from a GPS receiver or a fancy phone with a GPS application. Pressing the button on an EPIRB would have the same effect, even if the family dog did it accidentally in his excitement, but once again, how many family yachts carry EPIRBs?

The clever thing about digital selective calling (DSC) VHF radios is that they will send out a Mayday at the push of a button, but that’s not much use unless you tie your DSC in with a GPS receiver, so that the message also contains your position — and that can get a bit complicated because not all electronics are on good speaking terms. As a result, most DSC radios on small yachts don’t broadcast their positions, which is what they were designed for in the first place.

There are other ways to call for help. You can use a cell phone to call the Coast Guard if you’re within range, and they may be able to triangulate your position roughly, and you can buy the Spot service, which acts like an EPIRB; but on the whole it’s a very rare Mayday call that contains the information your potential rescuers want most to hear. As with house sales, it’s position, position, position that counts.

Today’s Thought
After the verb “To Love,” “To Help” is the most beautiful verb in the world.
— Baroness von Suttner, Ground Arms.

Boat-launch blues
HERE’S SOMETHING a reader called Steve wants to get off his chest:

These are two of the many tips I gathered from observing expert boaters launch their trailerables:

1. Many of the experts seem to agree that the popular “quick-brake-to-jettison-the-vessel-from-its-trailer” technique is most effectively executed when their under-6-year-old children are standing hands-free on the coaming.

2. Apparently the most efficient way of preparing for the launch is to wait to take care of all the details, such as deploying mooring lines and fenders, until it is your turn to launch. I guess this is more prudent than doing all that during the 50 minutes you are waiting in line for your turn, as it gives you more opportunity get drunk and belligerent.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #205
A storm trysail is a very handy thing to have if you’re planning offshore work because is brings the sailplan’s center of effort farther aft than a reefed mainsail can — which helps to keep the bow into the wind when hove-to without a foresail. The old rule is that the area of a trysail should be slightly less than that of the close-reefed mainsail.

“My uncle had an accident the other day and now he’s got a wooden leg.”
“That’s nothing. My sister got engaged the other day and now she’s got a cedar chest.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

On a recent powerboat cruise our engine stalled 100 -150 yards outside of Ashtabula Harbor - Lake Erie. The skipper did not call the coasties, as we had tow insurance and there was no immediate danger, but we raised the standard 36 distress flag on our antenna.

The coasties where within 100-200 yards and did not respond. The only explanation is that they did not see us - waving our arms in mayday fashion may have helped had it been an emergency.

Moral of the story - I am looking for a larger flag and devising a way to mount it at least 4 feet above the tallest part of the vessel.