January 3, 2012

Lack of communication

THE U. S. COAST GUARD recently used up a lot of taxpayer money trying to find and rescue a sailor who wasn't lost or in trouble. Ira Foreman, 66, of Seattle, didn't ask to be found or rescued but the Coast Guard went after him anyhow. They started a massive four-day search off Hawaii for Foreman, singlehanded on a 36-foot sailboat. The search  covered some 209,000 square miles. Involved in the search were a MH-65 Dolphin helicopter, a HC-130 Hercules airplane, and two Navy P-3 Orion planes. He was right there under all their noses, but they didn't find him.

Foreman eventually sailed into Honokohau Harbor on the Big Island, after two weeks at sea. He apparently was blown off course by strong winds during what was supposed to be a one-day voyage from Kauai to Oahu. When he didn't appear after six days, he was reported missing and the Coasties sprang into action.

Foreman said he encountered strong winds but was never in distress.

Every time this kind of thing happens, the public starts foaming at the mouth about irresponsible yachtsmen. Inevitably, demands are made that the perpetrator of this crime should be made to pay for the rescue effort.

And what it all boils down to is questions of communication and ethics.  If the Coast Guard had known that he wasn't in trouble, they wouldn't have gone looking for him. And if he had had the sense to realize that someone would be sure to report him missing because he was long overdue from a one-day sail, and if he had had a radio to tell everyone he was all right, there wouldn't have been any fuss or bother.

So the question is: Should all sailboats going over the horizon be forced to carry communications equipment and keep a regular listening watch?  Or should they perhaps be forced to carry one of those small satellite radios that record your position daily?

Eric Hiscock, the British circumnavigator, never carried long-distance radio. His philosophy was that if you were a professional seaman on a freighter or a fishing boat you were entitled to be rescued in an emergency, and thus you should carry radio equipment capable of calling for help. But if you were an amateur sailor putting to sea purely for your own pleasure, you had no ethical right to shout for rescue when you got into trouble. You had no right to put other people's lives at risk to save your own. You had to be self-sufficient, and not dependent on the courage of rescuers and the goodwill of taxpayers in your own country, or foreign countries, to bail you out of danger.

This is not a popular view, of course, but I happen to subscribe to it also, and have never carried anything but short-range VHF.

As I said, Foreman didn't ask to be rescued. He did nothing illegal. Sailboats are not required by law to carry radio equipment, and shouldn't be. The ease with which boats can set sail on the High Seas, especially from America, is one of those rare human freedoms that can erode all to easily in the face of official pressure. But the chances of that happening can be reduced with a little common sense.

If you're the kind of person who knows he can take two weeks over a one-day passage, for goodness' sake tell somebody about it before you leave, so the authorities won't be alerted. If you do happen to have long-range communications equipment, let them know ashore that you're OK, just somewhat tardy. And if you're a Hiscock fan, let them know in advance that your upper lip is stiff and you'd rather drown than suffer the ignominy of being rescued by the Coast Guard.

Today's Thought
Where one danger's near,
The more remote, tho' greater, disappear,
So, from the hawk, birds to man's succour flee,
So from fir'd ships man leaps into the sea.
— Abraham Cowley, Davideis

"Waiter, how long have you been working here?"
"It's about a week now, sir."
"Oh, okay — then you can't be the one who took my order."

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


seadog1949 said...

Hellow John,
I'm with you on that. How about the legally blind guy who never asked for rescue but was FORCED to abandon his vessel by the US Coast Guard? The boat and her contents represented everything the man owned. I think he's going to court but don't think he'll have much luck.

Pete Caras Port Angeles

kiwijohn said...

Who's lost here? The USCG is headquartered in that great coastal state of....West Virginia?? Really? It all makes sense to me now.
'Nuff said.