A FRIEND OF MINE is an experienced boater. He owns a sweet 30-foot trawler, a tugboat design, and he’s planning to do some extensive cruising up the Inside Passage to Alaska with his sweetheart. She’s very keen to go, too, but she is not a sailor and she very sensibly worries about what might happen if her skipper became incapacitated while they’re traveling.
To look at him, I wouldn’t say he’s likely to become incapacitated. I mean, he’s not likely to fall down drunk or anything, and his health is good, but I suppose there is always a chance that the unexpected might happen. And I think this is why a lot of boating couples have a problem with cruising without any other crew on board.
When this particular lady mentioned her anxiety she told me that she was trying to learn as much about boating — sailing and powerboating — as she possibly could in the shortest possible time. She hoped to become a competent crew that way. But she still wondered whether she’d be able to handle the boat in an emergency, and, worse still, the navigation. “Lots of islands,” she said with furrowed brow. “Lots of rocks. Strong currents.”
While I applaud her efforts to become a proficient sailor, my feeling is that there is a quicker way to ease her mind, especially when they are cruising in areas not too far from land, or where other vessels are likely to be operating.
I advised her first to concentrate on learning how to broadcast an emergency message on the radio. Forget about trying to handle the boat, unless it appears to be absolutely necessary, I said. Forget about trying to navigate. Easy as it seems to be with a GPS chart plotter, navigation needs knowhow and practice. Don’t assume these responsibilities yet. Learn how to slow the engine, and put her in neutral. Then let the boat drift while you call for help.
Learn to make a proper Mayday call on Channel 16 VHF. This is preferable to using a cell phone, even if you can get service, because a radio signal goes out to every boat in your immediate area and is likely to be picked up by the Coast Guard also. They will co-ordinate your rescue and organize help for your skipper. Modern VHF radios linked to a GPS receiver will automatically broadcast your Mayday and your latitude and longitude.
If the Coast Guard doesn’t pick up your call straight away, there’s a good chance that some vessel in the vicinity will hear you and either come to your aid, or alert the Coast Guard with a more powerful radio than yours.
You can call the Coast Guard on a cell phone, I added, or call 911, and they’ll put you through. You can also use a satellite phone, if you have one, and several other devices that will link you to help. But first concentrate on learning to make a VHF call on Channel 16. That won’t take long.
That should ease your anxiety and make cruising much more pleasant. Oh, and one other thing, possibly. You might also want to learn how to drop the anchor. That shouldn’t take long, either. Just chuck it overboard along with all the line or chain attached to it. Then you make your call and sit back and wait for the gallant White Knights to come charging along to aid the damsel in distress.
All speech, written or spoken, is a dead language, until it finds a willing and prepared hearer.
— R. L. Stevenson, Lay Morals
“Don’t you think he looks like me, nurse?”
“Yes, sir, but don’t let it worry you. All new-born babies look strange for a while.”
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