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Suddenly In Command

By Ray McAllister, FSO-PA, 3-6
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary
©Ray McAllister 2002

The Coast Guard used to put out a small booklet called “Suddenly in Command”.  This publication contained a few common sense rules and some brief instructions on how to start the boat, shift it, steer it and stop it. It also instructed you in how to pick up a person in the water, as well as how to call or signal for help! Unfortunately, I do not think it is still available!

I read it a couple of years ago, and did not think much more about it until, one day, I was diving just north of Baker’s Haulover Pier, in Florida. Here’s an instance, where if someone had either taken the time to read this pamphlet, or taken a safe boating course, a life would not have be put to risk.

While boating, I had my hand-held VHF radio on, and heard a woman asking for help. She kept the transmit button depressed while she kept repeating “Help me! My husband has had a heart attack and I don’t know how to run the boat. Help me!”

She never let up on the mike button so I couldn’t respond to get her location. And I knew she had to be close. The VHF radio was only 100 milliwatts, and at the best of times will only carry a signal for  a mile or two over water.

I scanned the horizon for a boat in trouble and could see nothing. Finally I gave up and continued on my course. About an hour later I headed for Baker’s Haulover Inlet and saw a commotion on the beach just north of Haulover Pier.

A boat was grounded there and an ambulance had come to the area with lights flashing. As I came in I could see them carrying a man on a stretcher. I asked a Marine Patrolman what had happened and he told me the man had had a heart attack and the boat, containing the victim and his wife, had drifted onto the beach.

It was the lady on the radio! I hope no one told her that she might have saved him had she known; 1) how to use a marine radio, and 2) how to run the boat if she was “Suddenly in Command”. Too often only one person knows how to start and run the boat. If that person is incapacitated or falls overboard disaster is sure to follow.

I later was told about several similar incidents. The first such incident was near Boca Raton, on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). In that incident the owner who was also the captain had a heart attack. No one knew how to either run the boat or use the radio. By the time they flagged down another boat, the man had died.

In another case a man apparently suffered a heart attack on a ketch in the ICW. The two other persons aboard were not able to handle the ketch, so the gentleman was not able to get medical attention until the sailboat drifted to the bank.

A delay in a case like this could be fatal. On the ocean a boat could drift for days without rescue. The lesson to learn here is: ALWAYS BE SURE SOMEONE ON YOUR VESSEL CAN OPERATE THE BOAT IF YOU ARE INCAPACITATED! Better if everyone aboard can start and run it.

In the event of a mishap, make sure everyone knows how the radio works! Everyone should be told how to contact the Coast Guard. Let your guests and crew know that if they can’t raise the Coast Guard, try to raise anyone else on VHF channel 16.

Teach them these simple procedures: How to turn the radio on (power it up); How to transmit and to remember that they need to RELEASE the microphone button so the Coast Guard can communicate with them.

Make sure they understand and are ready with the type of information that the Coast Guard will request. What is your location? What is the emergency? What type of boat are you in or how can they identify the boat? How many persons are on board?

The Coast Guard recommends that you show everyone what steps to take in an emergency as a matter of prudent boating. I heartily agree. It could save your life or mine! And be sure to tell them how to use a marine radio to call for help.

Remember, if that woman had just released the microphone key, help may have reached her husband in time to save his life.

For more information about safe boating and safe boating courses, contact your local United States Coast Guard unit or your local United States Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla. The Coast Guard is listed in your phone book. You can visit them on the Internet at (USCG) or (USCG Auxiliary).