January 6, 2013

Life-saving reflections

NOTHING AROUSES OUR CURIOSITY quicker than a bright light flashing insistently on the far horizon. That’s why a signal mirror is one of the best safety devices a boat can carry.

John Butler, a former Coast Guard search-and-rescue pilot, says he and his crew have seen mirror signals from 43 miles away and Coast Guard records mention that rescue aircraft have seen them from as much as 100 miles distant.

Almost any highly reflective flat surface can be used in an emergency. The shiny side of a compact disk works well. Even a credit card can work. In 1991, four castaways used a credit card to attract attention when they were drifting 100 miles out in the Gulf Stream, where their plane crash landed. There must be sunshine, of course, and you have to aim the sun’s reflection by extending your arm, holding up your fingers in a V that embraces the target, and shooting through the V.

But the best reflector is a dedicated glass signaling mirror with a central device about an inch in diameter that produces a fireball or bright spot for precision aiming. Karen Larson and Jerry Powlas, founders of Good Old Boat magazine, made me a gift of one when I was still working for them. It was fascinating to play with it at home and on the boat, but luckily I never had to use it in earnest. I did startle a cat or two, and a neighbor was convinced I was spying on her, but no lasting harm resulted.

While there are several excellent glass and plastic mirrors on the market, the standard to beat is still the old standard GI-issue 3-inch by 5-inch glass mirror. It’s the simplest and most reliable safety device you can imagine, and like my old depth meter, which consists of a small rock on a light Dacron line, it will never break down through corrosion, electronic incompetence, or battery failure.

Today’s Thought
A soul without reflection, like a pile
Without inhabitant, to ruin runs.
— Young, Night Thoughts

Two salesmen were comparing notes on the plane.
“Does your wife miss you much?” asked one.
“No, she throws pretty straight for a woman,” said the other.

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


Anonymous said...

I wonder if a laser pointer is safe for signalling in distress situations ? Of course it won't be much help if you blind or piss off the potential rescuers ...

jrraines said...

not a comment on this column but a news item I know you will want to see (one of your favorite topics):


John Vigor said...

Anon: As long as you don't blind a potential rescuer, there seems to be no reason why you shouldn't use a laser. International Rule 36 says:
"If necessary to attract the attention of another vessel, any vessel may make light or sound signals that cannot be mistaken for any signals authorized elsewhere in these Rules, or may direct the beam of her searchlight in the direction of the danger, in such a way as not to embarrass any vessel. Any light to attract the attention of another vessel shall be such that it cannot be mistaken for any aid to navigation. For the purpose of this Rule, the use of high intensity intermittent or revolving lights, such as strobe lights, shall be avoided."

John Vigor said...

jrraines: You sure know how to keep a man awake all night. I don't think I'll ever be able to sleep at sea again in my life.

John V.