Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Don’t Do What He Did!

October 1, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

A commercial fisherman nearly lost his life this past summer, enduring the scare of a lifetime and a sharp learning curve about safety at sea. A U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) helicopter plucked him from the Atlantic Ocean after spending 12 agonizing hours bobbing in heavy swells 43 miles from shore.

The man said that he had stumbled and fallen off his boat when the handle of a piece of equipment gave way. The other crew member on the vessel had gone off duty and was asleep belowdecks, hearing and seeing nothing. The man who fell overboard was not wearing a life jacket, but after treading water for a while, he had the presence of mind to remove his sea boots, empty them of water, and position them upside-down under his arms as a makeshift life jacket.

It helped him that the water was warm, but still, he was lucky to survive for half a day.  Recalling his experience and his rescue by the USCG, he said, “Seeing the helicopter was a sigh of relief. It was the best feeling in the world.”

helicopter courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

What can boaters learn from this harrowing experience?  Of course, wearing a life jacket can spell the difference between survival and death, particularly at night, when visibility and lack of passing boats means the wait for a rescue may be a long one. The newer vest-type jackets are comfortable and do not impede the wearer, so there’s no excuse not to wear one.

Two other pieces of equipment should also be part of every boater’s safety inventory. A water-activated strobe light guides rescuers, and is useful day and night. Better yet is an EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon), an electronic “man overboard” system that automatically activates when it hits the water, transmitting your GPS position as it flashes locator lights (some models also emit a loud siren upon impact). This is critical for a night voyager who may fall overboard and be a distance away before the helmsman realizes what happens and turns around to start the search. A bobbing head is difficult to spot even in the best of conditions, and night is far from the optimum time for visual identification.

In the case of the fisherman, rescuers had only a general idea of his location, and were forced to patrol 600 square miles of sea. Every hour of fruitless scanning of the waves ups the ante that the victim will never be found. (Again, if it had been winter, that man would likely have been dead.) The USCG and its Auxiliary are in the business of saving lives, but the longer a crew has to search, the greater the chance that deteriorating flying conditions  will endanger that crew. One other concern for eastern boaters heading offshore is that there are great white sharks in the Montauk vicinity.

Many of us boat solo, at least from time to time, and being alone is another potential peril. If the sea is rough when I sail alone during the day, I wear a harness and clip-on, and troll a 50-foot knotted line off the stern to grab hold of should I go over. There’s also a rigid boating ladder in place. However, nighttime sailing is a different story — there should always be a minimum of two people aboard, one at the controls, and the other always acting as a lookout.

William C. Winslow is the Public Affairs Officer for Division 014-05, First Southern Region, of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. He reminds boaters that “the Coast Guard is dedicated to saving lives at sea. Give ‘em a helping hand should you get into trouble.”

By William Winslow

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