LIFELINES

Soundings - - Contents - BY MARIO VITTONE

Vis­ual sig­nals are key for a suc­cess­ful res­cue at sea. If you want the Coast Guard to find your crew, think big­ger and brighter.

It was over­cast, pitch black and driz­zling. Only a storm and waves could have made the search con­di­tions worse, and we were all think­ing the same thing: On an open skiff, with nowhere to hide, the kid must be freez­ing. Yes, U.S. Coast Guard res­cue crews take ev­ery search se­ri­ously, but we look harder out the win­dow for kids in peril. We should. Get over it.

We had an idea where they were— the fa­ther and his 10- yearold son were re­ported over­due from fish­ing on the bayou near Delacroix in Lou­i­si­ana—but we weren’t hav­ing any luck find­ing them. The res­cue and co­or­di­na­tion cen­ter had good data on where the two had put in, and the lo­cal sher­iff had iden­ti­fied the fa­ther’s car and boat trailer, but hours of comb­ing the 16- square- mile search area had turned up noth­ing.

Then, low on fuel and just min­utes from pack­ing it in for the night, we saw a flick­er­ing light. It broke through on my night vi­sion gog­gles. “Con­tact right,” I said. “One-thou­sand yards. Four o’clock.” The air­craft lurched and the light rose in the win­dow as the he­li­copter banked. “Where?” the pi­lot called out over the in­ter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem. “Wav­ing flash­light. Dead ahead now, 700 yards,” I an­swered, scram­bling out of my seat to get my eyes back on the light.

“I got it, I got it,” the pi­lot said. The air­craft slowed as we moved to­ward the ves­sel.

It was the fa­ther and son. With­out a VHF ra­dio and out of cell range, the dad had ex­hausted all his flares be­fore we even got on the scene. He had tried sig­nal­ing other boats and lit off his night flares in the di­rec­tion of the ma­rina, but he hadn’t brought a flash­light. He had never planned to be out past dark, or to have en­gine trou­ble, I sup­pose. The flick­er­ing light was ac­tu­ally from a life jacket he had set on fire and was hold­ing above his head, un­til he was

sure we saw them. He had melt­ing plas­tic drip­ping down his arm and had suf­fered third-de­gree burns to his hand be­fore he dropped the jacket into the wa­ter.

All suc­cess­ful searches end the same way: Some­one puts their eyes on some­one else. You might set off an EPIRB or call on a VHF ra­dio, but un­til some­one looks at you, you re­main lost. Be­ing found is about be­ing seen, and be­ing seen is harder than you think. This is true if you are on your boat, in a raft or alone in the wa­ter. Why? Be­cause the ocean is re­ally big, and you are re­ally small.

Of course, hav­ing a VHF ra­dio or EPIRB aboard is a much bet­ter plan for sig­nal­ing than light­ing some­thing afire, but if things go wrong, your first com­mu­ni­ca­tion with a search­ing air­craft may just be a vis­ual sig­nal. Here’s how to do that part right.

To be seen at sea, you have to make your­self big­ger and brighter, and you can do that through ac­tive and pas­sive sig­nal­ing. Light­ing off a flare is an ac­tive sig­nal; so is wav­ing a flash­light or a flam­ing life jacket, or us­ing a sig­nal mir­ror. In land-based sur­vival sit­u­a­tions, ty­ing brightly col­ored cloth­ing in trees is pas­sive sig­nal­ing; you don’t even have to be there for it to work.

If you’re hop­ing to be found at sea, re­mem­ber that pas­sive sig­nals are the ones you can’t or don’t con­trol once de­ployed, and ac­tive sig­nals are the ones that re­quire your par­tic­i­pa­tion. Strobe lights and EPIRBs are ac­tive-pas­sive. (I just made that up.) You have to turn them on, but they do all the work af­ter that.

If you are lucky enough to be on some­thing that floats in­stead of in the wa­ter, then make your­self as big as pos­si­ble. If you have spare line, tie it off and let it drift down-cur­rent from your ves­sel (not too far), and then tie some­thing else off. Then do it again to cre­ate a line of de­bris that leads back to you. Spare life jack­ets, seat cush­ions, empty cool­ers and life rings are things that aren’t go­ing to do you any good on board, but a 20-yard chain of de­bris trail­ing be­hind you could catch the eye of some­one else. Mount your strobe lights, too, and turn them on. If you know some­one is search- ing for you, then you don’t need to worry about con­serv­ing bat­ter­ies. And if you haven’t al­ready, turn on your EPIRB—even if you called for res­cue via VHF ra­dio, it will give re­spon­ders a po­si­tion. Things can change fast out there, and your EPIRB will give search air­craft a nee­dle to fol­low, one that’s point­ing straight at you.

If you are in the wa­ter, the same rules ap­ply, but there’s more ur­gency. You need to make your­self big­ger. If you are aban­don­ing your ves­sel— des­per­ate times, in­deed— then take ev­ery­thing you can with you. Gather spare life jack­ets and any­thing else that floats, and bring it all in the wa­ter. If at all pos­si­ble, stay with oth­ers in your crew. Tie your­selves to­gether, since this is no time to be alone if you don’t have to be.

It is crit­i­cal that you ac­ti­vate your elec­tronic sig­nals early. Strobe lights are de­signed to flash for at least 18 hours, and most LED lights last much longer. Turn them on and mount them, even if it is the mid­dle of the day. You don’t know how well your hands will work when night falls.

Your ac­tive sig­nals—flares, sig­nal mir­rors, flash­lights (my fa­vorite) and sea dye mark­ers— are much more ef­fec­tive if you know some­one is look­ing in your di­rec­tion. Send­ing up a sin­gle flare isn’t a bad idea if you think there may be a ves­sel close enough to see it, but save what you can for search­ing air­craft and ves­sels. It is likely that you will see them be­fore they see you, and this is when you should get to work. Send up flares and point your wav­ing flash­lights when you are con­fi­dent that search­ing eyes are look­ing in your di­rec­tion. A he­li­copter or plane has nav­i­ga­tion lights just like your boat’s, and it is rare that the oc­cu­pants are look­ing back­ward. Wait un­til you are some­where be­tween the search crew’s eight to four o’clock po­si­tion be­fore pop­ping smoke or burn­ing a flare.

And if you’re in the wa­ter, splash around if you can. Think about how much big­ger you’ll look if you cre­ate a ring of white wa­ter around you in a dark sea.

The ocean is re­ally big, and you are re­ally small. I don’t care if you’re on a bright-white, 26-foot cen­ter con­sole; from a mile away, the dif­fer­ence be­tween your hull and a long rolling white­cap is noth­ing. Make your­self big­ger. Make your­self brighter. And do so when it mat­ters most.

The ocean is big, and even in great con­di­tions, a search air­craft will have a hard time spot­ting a boat, raft or per­son.

All avail­able sig­nal­ing meth­ods should be used to make your­self big­ger and brighter.

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