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The Importance of Communication in an Emergency

by Wayne Spivak; National Press Corps United States Coast Guard Auxiliary


 “BOSTON (AP) – A disabled fishing vessel that drifted overnight in waters 80 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard during the first major snowstorm to hit New England this season, was being towed to shore Saturday.”

 “WARRENTON, OR – An amazing story of survival, after a 67-year old man gets stuck on a sand bar in the middle of the Columbia River and ends up spending the night there.” – KATU 2 News

 “LONG BEACH, Wash. – The Coast Guard airlifted Tyler McLaughlin, 21, of Tillamook, Ore. from the fishing vessel Grenada yesterday evening.” – US Coast Guard

Three events, seemingly un-related: fishing vessel south of Martha’s Vineyard; man on the Columbia River near Warrenton, Oregon; and another man off Long Beach Washington. Three events that happened in the first week of December 2003.

No, this is not the beginning for a new episode of the Twilight Zone. It’s real life news, events that have happened, and unfortunately will probably happen again.

In New England, the vessel Miss Judith, out of Freeport, NY lost her engines. She was adrift in 60-knot winds and 18-foot seas. What did the Miss Judith do? They called the Coast Guard.

In Warrenton, Oregon, Jerry Hanes was moving his boat from Chinook, located in Washington State to Warrenton. As is common in that area of the country, fog rolled in, but what was uncommon was the density of the fog. Mr. Hanes struck a sand bar and grounded. What did Mr. Hanes do? He called the Coast Guard.

Seven miles off the coast of Long Beach, Washington, Tyler McLaughlin was working the fishing vessel Grenada. While handling deck lines, he suffered a compound wrist facture. What did the Captain of the Grenada do? They called the Coast Guard.

Our stories all center on an emergency and a call to the Coast Guard. In each story, the actions or the Coast Guard differed. From just monitoring the situation, to air dropping supplies, or airlifting the individual out of their situation, the Coast Guard was in contact with the vessels in distress.

The story here is about communications – emergency communications. Each vessel had the proper radio (VHF or SSB) to contact the Coast Guard. Each vessel knew how to contact the Coast Guard, and knew what information they needed at a minimum to provide them in order to aid themselves.

The United States Coast Guard Auxiliary, through its Recreational Boating Safety mission, urges all members of the Boating community to become familiar with not only the operations of their individual VHF/SSB radios, but what steps and information is needed when contacting the Coast Guard in an emergency. “Time is non-renewable,” as, stated in a speech recently given by VADM Thomas Barrett, Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard.

In an emergency, time may be of the essence, and should not be wasted. Every crewmember and guest should be given a briefing on how to use your radio, and what information is needed in case of an emergency (and where to find it).

Here is what the Coast Guard Auxiliary suggests you have in place before next boating season:

1.            Knowledge of where you are at all times (GPS/Loran helps, but a chart is imperative; and electronics can – and often do fail).

2.            How many are on-board: Adults/Children and do they have PFD’s?

3.            What’s wrong? What is the nature of the distress?

4.            Description of your Vessel (Name, Make, Length, Type, Color, Registration numbers/Boat name).

These four simple but extremely important pieces of information may just save your life some day. This is the initial, crucial information the Coast Guard will request when you call for an emergency. To see the actual “Initial SAR Check Sheet” used by the United States Coast Guard go to

While we’re talking emergency communication, we wish to remind people that a MAYDAY call requires that all chatter on the frequency be halted immediately, and that only the parties to the MAYDAY transmit.

Should you hear a MAYDAY, and not hear a response from the Coast Guard, it is possible that the transmission from the vessel in danger did not reach the Coast Guard. It is highly unlikely that you’ll hear the distress call, and the Coast Guard will not (due to the placement of many of the Coast Guard’s antenna installations), but it is possible.

If the Coast Guard does not acknowledge the MAYDAY transmission, it is your duty to act as an intermediary for that vessel and contact the Coast Guard for that distressed vessel. You may be the only chance that the distress vessel has to reach the Coast Guard.

Lastly, only use MAYDAY if there is a grave and imminent danger to life or property. Use Pan Pan, for serious emergencies, that don’t warrant a MAYDAY. Securite is used to warn other boaters of issues that threaten the safety of navigation (a tow underway, a log in the water, etc).

For more information on boating safety, contact your United States Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla by visiting them on the web at or contacting your local Coast Guard unit