A re-print of an important article – Your delightful weekend cruise from Pt. Townsend, WA to Friday Harbor, WA in the San Juan’s has
turned to a nightmare. One minute you’re laughing at one of Hal’s out-of-date jokes – a fine example of Audrey’s famous Bloody Mary’s in one hand and the other draped across the helm – and the next you’re scrambling because the boat has hit something, something big, and you’re not sure what damage it has done. It seems like a lot of time has passed before you have the presence of mind to look below and, upon opening the aft bilge hatch, you see that the ocean is pouring in. You can’t see them, but there are two long creases in the hull, about half its length, culminating in two jagged holes, about 4” wide each, forward of the prop.
Upon getting to your feet, you shade your eyes and take a look in your wake trail and see only pieces of gel coat and fiberglass floating in the disturbed water … no sign of the rocks. You’ll find them marked on your charts later. Only three minutes have passed since the jarring experience, but Audrey is already handing life vests to Hal and Linda, and hers is on. She has a fourth in her hand, and with a look of concern in her eyes, she holds it out for you and waits for your next instructions. The engine stalled following the collision, and there is now an eerie silence, with only the lapping of the waves against the windward hull and the unending gurgling from beneath the bilge.
Your mind turns briefly to the hours, weeks really, you have invested in this boat. The hundreds of thousands of dollars you’ve spent, and the piece of yourself you’ve let it become. But your thoughts turn quickly to emergency procedures as the Rule bilge pump activates and starts pumping water overboard. The machinery weight of the engine and generator, along with four storage compartments full of boating supplies, are contributing to the added intake of water and, in only 5 minutes since the underwater collision, the boat is developing an aft and slightly portward list.
You are the captain, and the good folks on board are counting on you to have a plan; to have prepared for this. You have one, and the procedures come into focus as you get your wits about you. You tell Hal to go up top and release the tender from its mounts and tie downs, double check the lashing line and put it overboard. Everything goes into the tender except passengers, for now. The Abandon Ship, or “Ditch” bag, has all the emergency supplies in it, and it is lashed into a pre-determined position in the tender – which has become a lifeboat. You transfer the ship’s First Aid Kit and flares into the boat, and ask Audrey to gather water and packaged food.
The list is getting more critical now, and Hal, Linda and Audrey are on the aft deck, trying to remain calm. The tender is ready and you’ve seen to it that everyone is warmly dressed and is wearing their coats and hats in addition to life jackets. It’s 11 minutes post-event now, and you’d best not wait any longer to radio for help.
The boat came with a VHF radio, an older one, and other than using it to hailing radio for slips in harbors you visited, you haven’t used it much. Now you check that it’s on channel 16, the emergency channel, and press the PTT on the microphone. The gravity of your situation hits home as you hear yourself saying the words. over the din of the bilge alarm, “May Day, May Day, May Day … this is the motor trawler AUDREY C off the south corner of San Juan Island declaring an emergency … we’ve evidently hit a submerged rock and the boat is taking on water faster than we can pump it out.”
Less than 13 minutes into a boating emergency, your whole life has changed. You have no idea how far away help is … and you look out the window to see there’s a wind whipping up the sea that didn’t affect the comfort of your passengers in the heated cabin of the boat, but might be a real factor in an open tender at sea. Then a crackle and a response on the radio.
“Motor vessel AUDREY C, this is Coast Guard station Anacortes, please respond.” You do and shortly after you tell your story on the radio, you learn that no fewer than 7 vessels (5 pleasure boats, 1 fishing boat and a Coast Guard cutter that was cruising Thatcher Pass) have altered course in your general direction. You hadn’t been able to give precise latitude/longitude info to the coast guard because the battery was discharged on your hand-held GPS and you didn’t know where you were – or how to read latitude/longitude on the chart that was stuffed somewhere up near the helm. Looking outside, you gave landmark desciptions and rough distances – it was amazing how difficult it was to be accurate when you needed to – from each. The Coast Guard had asked you if your radio featured DSC, but not only did none of the buttons on your VHF say that, you didn’t know anything about it. “No, I don’t know what that is”, was your only answer.
With the aftward and portward list getting more severe, you explain what it’ll mean to abandon ship to the three frightened people gathered round the lashing line to the tender, reassure them that help is coming, and decide to take another look below. Though you can’t visualize where the water is coming in, you can reach into the depths of the bilge and feel along the hull for a hole. It only takes a minute to find the breaches, two holes of roughly the same size, with edges protruding inward. You call Audrey, who is nearby, and ask her for towels. She’s back in a moment, and you roll the towels as tightly as possible into roughly the size of the holes. Then, getting an angle on the hull breach, you force the rolled towels into the holes, stemming the gushing water and leaving only towel seepage. The pump rapidly expels the remaining water and, within another 10 minutes, you start to breathe more easily as your situation seems considerably better than it did 15 minutes before.
You look up from your position on the deck, and see two of the rescue boats on the horizon, and you realize that the emergency is over, and your passengers and yourself are going to be alright. As you keep an eye on the rolled towels as the fishing trawler tows you to his home port where his brother has a sling to take you out of the water and affect repairs, you find yourself thinking about latitude and longitude, and realizing that, in open water far from land (and landmarks) you wouldn’t have been able to tell anyone where you were.
The above story ended well, thankfully, but could just as easily have turned into a real disaster. What if there was a way that you could transmit a distress call with the push of a button that let all nearby vessels, and (most-importantly) the Coast Guard know you were in trouble? And what if that distress signal related your GPS position, critical ID information, vessel statistics, name, etc.? Well, there has been such a system for years and, although the Coast Guard has taken awhile to achieve a monitoring system that can reliably zero in on a boat in distress, that system is ready and operational, and the service is free and ready to use now. It’s called DSC, and it should be employed aboard every seagoing vessel in existence today.
All permanent VHF radios sold in the U.S. are now required to have DSC (Digital Selective Calling), which transmits a distress call with your boat’s ID and, if equipped, GPS coordinates (latitude & longitude) to the Coast Guard and other vessels with similar transceivers immediately. There’s a DSC button on VHF’s that allows you to declare an emergency with a single touch, an incredibly valuable feature in an emergency situation. This service is available on some hand-held and all permanent mounted VHF radios from all manufacturers.
To use DSC, you must have a MMSI (Marine Mobile Service Identity) number, and they are free and easy to get in the U.S., and only little more involved if you’re planning to travel internationally by boat. To get yours in the U.S., log onto the Boat U.S. site at www.boatus.com/mmsi. After completing the form, you’ll be issued a permanent MMSI number. That I.D. should be programmed into all the ship’s VHF’s (NOTE: Follow your instruction manual’s instructions carefully; most VHFs give you only one chance to input MMSI data), whether permanent or handheld. If you need to apply for a station license (planning to cruise internationally), the forms for that process are available at the Boat U.S. site listed above as well. If you (1) have a station license, or (2) plan to apply for a station license, you do not want to apply for the free Boat U.S. MMSI number.
If your VHF radio is an older one (that doesn’t feature DSC). you need to weigh having this free, potentially life-saving service vs. the expense of buying a new radio or handheld (note that handheld radios don’t have nearly the range of permanent mount units). For us, it’s a “no brainer” … having the reassurance of push button, instant notification of the Coast Guard and nearby boats in the critical minutes of an emergency, and not having to worry that you’ve related inaccurate GPS info, is too valuable to put a price on.
… and read the article on Ditch Bags on our Gear & Electronics page