Hi sea kayakers and kayak fishermen. Welcome to Notes from a Local, your online audio resource for tips tools and pointers useful to sea kayakers and kayak fishermen around the world. I’m your host from Sea Kayaking Dot Net, Adam Bolonsky.
Today’s topic, vhf radio mayday calls and the Coast Guard backwards ten count.
One of the more confusing aspects of making a radio call to the Coast Guard is the sometimes lengthy number of procedural questions a Coast Guard watchstander might ask once they’ve answered your call.
The reasons for their questions are numerous. The watchstander might be having a hard time figuring out your position from the triangulations the radio crew are taking from your call. The second is that the Coast Guard suspects that your mayday call is a hoax and, in classic trace-that-phone-call delaying tactics, they’re want you to continue talking so they can better trace where you’re broadcasting from.
One of the methods they’ll use — and it’s a confusing, potentially exasperating one, especially if you’re the caller — is slow ten count. The watchstander will ask you a couple of times to count slowly to ten, then back down again.
Let’s listen in to a recent vhf radio channel 16 exchange between a young, obviously inexperienced boater making a mayday call off the coast of southern California and the Coast Guard watchstander who picks up her call. The boater is hard aground on a sand bar in the dark.
Here’s the audio clip:
Ascending 10-Count VHF Radio
As you can hear, the obviously inexperienced caller does her best to answer the watchstander’s questions. Here are the first few moments of their exchange. You’ll hear the caller’s initial mayday, the watchstander ask that she give you position via latitude and longitude, and finally the watchstander’s request for further, more detailed information.
The reasons for this lengthy exchange are numerous. One is that until the Coast Guard has fully implemented its Rescue 21 VHF radio/search and rescue system — which will better help them trace vhf radio transmissions — and even until after it is, the Coast Guard will always need you to tell them your position. Although they can roughly triangulate your position with their high site antennas, the method is very inexact and only gives the Coast Guard a very rough assumption of your location.
And if you don’t have a firm grasp of latitude and longitude coordinates, either because you don’t carry a GPS or because your GPS is broken, or because you can’t provide your latitude and longitude by looking at your chart, both you and the Coast Guard are in a pretty untenable situation. You mayday call is going to take a whole lot longer than you may have thought, and it will take a lot longer for the Coast Guard to arrive than you may have thought. You may end up being on the radio for a lot longer than you’ll likely have anticipated, and if your situation is dire, the time delays will likely make your situation a whole lot worse.
Let’s listen in now to what can become an unnerving situation: your mayday call goes on for a lot longer than you may have thought.
So what’s this gradeschool counting exercise all about? By asking you to count up to 10 slowly and then back down again, your particular Coast Guard watch stander, and the watch stander’s compatriots at other Coast Guard stations, will be doing their best to triangulate your position with their high site antennas.
You’ll note how in the recordings, the caller from the sailboat has to respond to not one watchstander but a second watchstander at the offshore Channels Islands Coast Guard station.
The second station is likely in a better position to get a handle on where he grounded boat is. It is also in a better position to assist, by radio, the motorized lifeboat, basically a fast orange zodiac with an aluminum bottom and cabin, sent out in the middle of the night to assist the caller and her friends. That boat has a radio receiver on board that the crews are using to home in on the caller’s vhf signal — that slow and pedestrian count from one to ten and back down again.
There is one more element worth noting to in this nearly half-hour long back-and-forth VHF communications between the boater and the Coast Guard. Aside from being asked to count to ten and back down again, the watchstander asks the caller to take an inventory of onboard flares. These will be helpful in helping the Coast Guard rescue boat crew find the caller. Listen to as the watchstander asks the caller to let a flare and launch it. And finally, as the call becomes more complex, and involves not only the rescue crew but the watchstander, listen to the Coast Guard at Los Angeles issue a pan pan call asking all area boaters to be on the lookout for the stranded boat and to assist if they can. The pan-pan is urgent but not critical; the Coast Guard merely asks that area boaters be on the lookout for a 30-foot sailboat aground near Ventura one to two hundred yards from shore.
So there you have it. If you’re a sea kayaker,r kayak fishermen or small-boat user who finds themselves in enough trouble to make a mayday call, be prepared either to give your latitude and longitude, a precise description of your location, or have to endure the elaborate, laborious, time-consuming task of maintaining radio contact with the Coast Guard so that they can triangulate your position, home in on your radio signal.
Keep in mind that if your initial call is vague about your location, your inability to tell the Coast Guard where you are can have pretty inconvenient if not somewhat embarrassing consequences. The name of your your boat (in this case Wazoo, as in up the Wazoo), or the temporary callsign you chose, and your reported situation, will be broadcast far and wide by the Coast Guard on Channel 16.
Not only will your pan-pan tie up Channel 16, it could also do so at a time when another boater who knows their location may be in more serious trouble. This can be, on the one hand, unfair to other boaters.
On the other, it can truly make you sound like a dope. Not only will you be audibly outed on the airwaves for your lack of seagoing experience, but your confused responses, befuddlement, essel name, and your full name, will be broadcast over the open airwaves.
Well that’s it for today’s installment of Notes from a Local, your online audio resource for tips tools and pointers useful to see kayakers, kayak fishermen, and small-boat users around the world. I’m Adam Bolonsky from Sea Kayaking Dot Net. Thanks for stopping by. Until next time, see ya ’round!