The first MAYDAY distress call that I ever heard was offshore. We were outside of the United States Territorial Sea and pushing ahead of a major weather system that was already turning the blue gentle rolling ocean waves into slate grey behemoths.
“MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY!” The voice was broken and garbled. Most small cruising vessels are equipped with very high-frequency radios known as VHF. If your antenna is mounted 60 feet above the water and all of the connections are in perfect working order, your signal might reach 10 miles unless the atmospheric conditions boost or bounce the transmission. We were approximately 46 miles offshore and out of communication range from most land-based receivers. The MAYDAY transmission was weak and intermittent telling me it was at a minimum of 10 miles away but could be much greater.
“MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY,” She called again. Through the static and hiss I discerned, “This is the Sailing Vessel …” There was another high pitch static burst. “Our location is ….”
I scrambled for my log book, down the cockpit, and into the dark pitching cabin, illuminated by a small red light. I found a pen just as the static burst ended. “39.9,” Another static burst interrupted the transmission. “ 72. 46”
They were off of Long Island south of Montauk but there wasn’t enough information to get an accurate fix.
I had the mic in my hand and was about to depress the transmission button. My words were going to be slow and methodical. I would say, This is Sailing Vessel Caprica. Your transmission is broken and garbled. Please repeat your position, over. What is their position? What is my position? I took a look at my log book. The last entry was from the start of my midnight watch. Almost two hours had passed and we were traveling on a North Easterly trajectory at 7 and a half knots. I should double check the GPS, I thought.
A half second later, we received another weak transmission. “This is the United States Coast Guard Sector Long Island…”
I was relieved. If you hear a distress call, you have to answer it and be ready to provide assistance. I knew the position was several miles away so the protocol is to wait and see if somebody closer answers. I was going to wait a minute then return their call.
A few minutes later, I was back in the nearly black cockpit, illuminated by my red glowing compass and the glare of the stern navigation light. It was a bleak, black night with waves crashing unseen around us. The stars faded, then disappeared as the weather front overtook us and the wind grew more violent as I settled into a nook tucked behind the dodger, safe from the cold salt spray.
Occasionally, I scanned the horizon for contacts but it was black, empty and we were alone.
We were out of radio range, out of cell phone range and a world unto ourselves.
Calling for help at sea means that all is lost. There is a shame attached to being rescued. You weren’t prepared or good enough to handle the situation. Why would you even do something so dangerous… with your family? When this point is made to me, I consider the people that have died or have been in catastrophic accidents on the two-lane road between where I live and where I work.
Before we shove off for a 2-month cruise, we take on everything necessary that the vessel or the 4 crewmembers might require for that time period. Food, medicine, water filters, tools, fuel filters … the list is exceptionally extensive and requires mastery at excel to coordinate the logistics. Usually, if you need a part, there is no “I’ll just stop at the store and pick up _________.” You have to be ready and prepared for all eventualities and that includes abandoning ship.
The formula is simple. Distance + preparation + experience = Consequences. Essentially, the further you are away, the more prepared and experienced you determine the value of consequence. Being at sea can be like being on Mars if you need help and sometimes the “rules” don’t even apply.
Using your VHF to call for help requires a few specific steps. Once the VHF radio is set to Channel 16, transmit “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY.” Then you say the name of your boat 3 times. You then say MAYDAY again and your boats name. After these steps are followed, you give your location and hope that somebody is ready with a pen and paper for GPS coordinates. If you are using landmarks instead, pray that local knowledge can translate the descriptions of names and places you are listing. You then report the nature of your emergency and the kind of assistance that you need, how many people are on board, injuries and seaworthiness of the vessel.
NO MATTER WHAT YOU SAY ON THE RADIO, THE COAST GUARD WILL ASK YOU IF EVERYONE HAS A LIFE JACKET ON AND FOR YOUR CELL PHONE NUMBER.
If you have cell phone reception and call 911, your response may be less than satisfactory. The 911 dispatcher will contact the coast guard who will then issue a radio call known as a Pan-pan. The Pan-pan is the Coast Guard alerting boaters in the listening area to your situation and that they should report all sightings and assist if possible. After notifying the Coast Guard, the 911 dispatcher will contact local assets that can assist, specifically the Department of Natural Resources Marine Police.
Fun fact. There are approximately 260 DNR Marine Police officers in Maryland Patrolling roughly 3,000 miles of shoreline.
So when we were anchored in a peaceful cove and two weather-beaten leather faced men made clear their intentions to board us; I knew that we were on our own.
Alison and I were down below enjoying a movie in the air-conditioning, taking a break from the oppressive summer heat when a faded blue hull passed exceptionally close to our port side.
Boats at anchor have a territory around them that is a no-go zone. I call it our defense perimeter and violation of this zone could result in a verbal warning to a serious disagreement.
When I climbed out of the companionway and assessed the situation, it was clear what was happening. They were after the Honda generator purring on the back deck.
The approaching vessel was a 26 foot late 1980’s Bayliner with two adult males. Male no 1. was standing behind a half smashed windshield with one hand on the wheel and the other methodically working the throttle. Male no 2. was laying over the bow, reaching for our port side lifeline. “Closer,” he said. They were both shirtless, decorated with a smattering of faded tattoos and surrounded by junk fishing poles. Sections of the Bayliner’s cockpit were replaced with bare rotting plywood half buried under a jumble of 5-gallon gasoline cans.
The bowman looked back towards the driver and waved him forward. “A few more feet!” He said again, slightly exasperated.
“Okay,” I thought to myself and bounced on deck and was suddenly standing at the lifeline as the Bowman made contact with my boat. “That’s a bad idea,” I said as they both looked up at me shocked and stunned. The Bowman lay frozen in an outstretched position. His deeply tanned sinew laced arm pensively grasped my lower lifeline.
It was clear that I was in control of the situation and that the consequences of this engagement would be devastating.
A moment passed as the driver stood half crouched and the Bowman lay frozen in front of me. “We were going to knock!” The driver said. “Ah…….we need directions.”
“Directions,” I said, thinking that I would play along.
After we all played our part, the two men puttered away visibly relieved and we realized that there was no escaping human nature or the allure of a shiny new generator.
Part II Bad People, Bad Intentions and What Wasn’t Written. Jan 22