“Mayday! Mayday!” If you’re currently uttering those words, chances are good you need this survival story poste-haste. This month, we’ve talked to experts about what to do if you get lost at sea—but more pointedly, about how to prevent that. Michael Cosgrove, author of “Imperfect Passage: A Sailing Story of Vision, Terror, and Redemption,” set out to sail around the world—despite never having been more than 26 miles from land before. As you might guess, he has some wisdom to impart. Lt. Elise Eastman, MH-65C pilot with the Los Angeles U.S. Coast Guard Air Station, has seen what happens firsthand when people need to be rescued. She has wisdom to impart. And avid boater, Art Vasenius, owns Sailing Pro Shop. He has wisdom to impart.
You know how we always say you need to pack your Jeep full of relevant supplies for an outing? Well, pack your boat full of relevant supplies for an outing, too. This ranges from plenty of food and water for everyone on board to sunscreen, reserve fuel, and a medical kit, for starters. Michael suggests “backups for backups.” He’s also a big fan of cookies.
Another necessity? Emergency kit. The watertight bag or container should include things like an emergency raft, a signal mirror, fishing gear, spare batteries, a knife, tools, handy wipes, and a waterproof headlamp. Don’t be afraid to throw in red flares, orange smokes, or sea dye markers; they’ll be used to signal to other boats or aircraft that you’re in distress. Michael packs women s nylons as well. Nope, not for what you’re thinking. And not for that either. “If I were lost at sea, I would use the nylons to gather plankton. I could manage to survive by consuming plankton.”
Your most important must-have items, though? GPS, VHF radio, and emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB). “I cannot stress enough the importance of having an operable marine VHF radio and GPS. Both are inexpensive, easy to operate, and the fastest and most effective ways of communicating distress,” noted Lt. Eastman. “That being said, filing a float plan and having a properly registered EPIRB will increase your chance of being located if you find yourself without either.” And while GPS is convenient and pretty much the norm nowadays, Art added that “part of boating skills in general is to also know how to use a compass.”
OK, you have them and you know how to operate them (that last part is a biggie). Be up to speed on your nautical nomenclature, as in beyond knowing that the pointed end of the boat is the bow and the other side is the stern (hey, anyone else now finally able to properly label the ends?). You also need to know your boat’s mechanicals as well as you know your Jeep’s. “When I headed off to sail around the world, all I wanted to do was go sailing—I didn’t want to change the filters on the damn diesel engine or fix the flapper valve on the toilet. When I was a 1,000 miles from dry land and any help, I was forced to solve the problems on my own.” said Michael. “It’s much better to learn how to fix a problem while sitting still at the dock. There is so much to learn: electrical systems, plumbing, how to repair a diesel engine, becoming familiar with all the survival gear, how to operate and understand the radar, the single-side band radio, how to deploy the life raft, and operate the auto pilot.” Noted Art, “I don’t think people are as much lost as they are helpless.”
Lt. Eastman weighed in with “unfortunately, boaters of all experience levels occasionally run in to problems beyond their abilities, ranging from a disabled boat, sinking boat, medical emergencies, or encountering rapidly deteriorating weather, just to name a few.” And once that happens? “Avoid bad ideas, like swimming to shore. You need to conserve energy and resources,” advised Art. Michael added, “You can see mountains on shore 50 miles out to sea. But even if the shore appears within reach, the water temperature and the currents may be a problem.” For example? Hyporthermia. Sharks.
So, you need help. You’ll want to make the radio call as efficiently as you can, as in do not scream hysterically. “People don’t always think about how to articulate the problem in the shortest amount of time possible. You can’t just call 9-1-1 and just say ‘send help!’ said Art. Lt. Eastman told us the five key pieces of information you’ll need to relay to the Coast Guard via radio: the nature of distress, the position or last known position, the number of persons on board, a description of vessel, and the number of life jackets on board. The Coast Guard initiates a search and rescue response when alerted of any distress or any uncertainty about the nature of the distress.
After the search and rescue team gets the call, what happens next? “Depending on the urgency of the distress we have equipment in the helicopter that we can lower to the boat to help get the situation under control, such as a drop radio or dewatering pump. If there is any danger or imminent danger our first actions are to get the survivors in to a safe environment. From the helicopter, we will hoist them via the rescue basket, but if there is a rescue boat in the vicinity we may elect to transfer them to the boat,” explained Lt. Eastman.
Art said the best boating advice he ever got was: “Think ahead.” And Michael shared his thoughts: “Keep the water on the outside, the people on the inside, and don’t hit anything hard.” You’d be wise to check out the Coast Guard’s website, www.uscgboating.org, for loads of info about safety courses, safety checks, filing float plans, and navigation rules. No recipes for cookies, though.