The U.S. Coast Guard spent 11 days search­ing 350,000 square miles of ocean for an 82-year-old sailor. He was never found, but there are lessons to be learned from the tragedy.

Soundings - - Contents - Kim Kavin

When Jenell Web­ster or any of her fel­low com­mand duty of­fi­cers re­ceive a call about a boater in dis­tress, they fill out a quick ref­er­ence card. Their goal: to col­lect in­for­ma­tion they need for in­put into the U.S. Coast Guard’s data-anal­y­sis pro­gram, and to have res­cue teams search­ing for the boater within 30 min­utes.

“Our clock starts when we hang up the phone,” says Web­ster, a se­nior chief petty of­fi­cer with the 5th Dis­trict Com­mand Cen­ter in Portsmouth, Vir­ginia. “The more de­tail some­body knows, the more we can put into our pro­gram and find the op­ti­mal place to search.” The idea is to move swiftly and de­lib­er­ately to the res­cue phase of search and res­cue, in­stead of get­ting stuck on search— an un­for­tu­nate re­al­ity that hap­pened this past Novem­ber, in a case that pro­vides in­sights into how the Coast Guard con­ducts searches and what boaters can do to help the agency suc­ceed in res­cues.

In the Novem­ber case, the 5th Dis­trict re­ceived a call about 82- year- old Hugh Blanken­ship of Florida, who was try­ing to sail home from Mary­land aboard the 29- foot Catalina/ Mor­gan Marta. Ac­cord- ing to mul­ti­ple news re­ports, Blanken­ship had been a sea­man all his life and had been check­ing in reg­u­larly with his fam­ily, but had not been heard from in a while. He had last been seen in Vir­ginia. He was out on the wa­ter with min­i­mal in­stru­men­ta­tion, with only a hand­held VHF ra­dio, a cell­phone and pa­per charts. Af­ter 11 days of search­ing more than 350,000 square nau­ti­cal miles with 15 Coast Guard air­craft and 12 Navy as­sets, the search for Blanken­ship was called off.

The Coast Guard never places blame for an ac­ci­dent on a boater, but Web­ster and oth­ers ac­knowl­edge that when the ini­tial dis­tress call is light on de­tails, res­cue teams can sense that the odds of suc­cess are likely to be longer—along with the time de­voted to search in­stead of to res­cue. “We’ll have some that we think we’re go­ing to do re­ally well,” she says, “and then we have cases where we’re ask­ing, ‘What are we look­ing for? Where are we look­ing?’”

Ev­ery case is dif­fer­ent, Web­ster says, but af­ter the search for Blanken­ship was called off, the Coast Guard is­sued a state­ment that of­fered sug­ges­tions to all boaters. It read, in part: “We also want to re­mind mariners of the im­por­tance of fil­ing a float plan and equip­ping their ves­sels with mul­ti­ple com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vices, es­pe­cially a fixed VHFFM marine ra­dio. Ad­di­tion­ally, we strongly en­cour­age mariners to carry cell­phones and emer­gency po­si­tion in­di­cat­ing ra­dio bea­cons ( EPIRB) that have been prop­erly reg­is­tered with the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

Hav­ing the type of in­for­ma­tion the Coast Guard will need starts long be­fore set­ting off from the dock. The first step, Web­ster says, is cre­at­ing a float plan— not just a “here’s where I’m go­ing boat­ing to­day” plan, but in­stead a de­tailed doc­u­ment that in­cludes specifics about the boat. With that in­for­ma­tion, the Coast Guard has far bet­ter odds of suc­cess. “If we know where they were go­ing, we have some­where to start search­ing,” Web­ster says. “We can do a voy­age sce­nario. This is why it’s im­por­tant for peo­ple to know the make and specs of their boat, how much fuel it holds, how fast it is.” A good float plan also should in­clude what the boater will be do­ing, and who the des­ig­nated con­tact is back on shore. “That’s a very ba­sic float plan,” she says. “If you’re try­ing to stay in con­tact with some­body, how of­ten are you check­ing in with them? If you’ve missed your call- in af­ter two hours, then we know where to start search­ing, be­cause two hours ago, we knew where you were, and we know that in that two- hour win­dow, some­thing went wrong. It short­ens the search area for us.”

Other in­for­ma­tion that should be part of a float plan—and that could make all the dif­fer­ence in a search—is where the boater usu­ally stops to grab a meal or to re­fuel. For fish­er­men, where are the grounds that the boater usu­ally fre­quents? “We will start mak­ing call-outs over the ra­dio,” she says. “We’ll look to talk to other boats in the

area to find out if any­body has seen this guy. He’s sup­posed to be in this fish­ing ground. A lot of times, we can re­solve it via the ra­dio if the per­son just missed his call-in.”

Be­yond hav­ing and fol­low­ing a solid float plan is hav­ing the right equip­ment on board. Ac­cord­ing to Web­ster, a fixed-mount VHF ra­dio trumps a hand­held. “If you have a fixed VHF, your an­tenna is higher up on the boat and you have a longer range. A hand­held VHF ra­dio is not long-range at all. If it’s fixed, it’ll be good—and it de­pends on how far off­shore you are. Our tow­ers might not be able to reach it, but an­other boater could and then re­lay it to us.”

Cell­phones are use­ful for near-shore boat­ing, Web­ster says, but if you have a prob­lem, don’t call the Coast Guard. Dial 911 in­stead. The 911 dis­patch­ers can get your lo­ca­tion from your phone. The Coast Guard can’t. “We can re­quest it from the cell­phone com­pa­nies, but it comes right up on their screens,” she says. “We give them a lot of our pa­per­work, so they can fill it out and send it to us im­me­di­ately.”

Other key safety equip­ment in­cludes flares, but don’t fire them all at once. “If we get a flare re­port, we’re go­ing to send some­body out there, be­cause we’re try­ing to draw out an­other flare,” she says. “If you have a pack of six flares, shoot one off and give it some time. I can’t give an ex­act time, but not ev­ery five min­utes. Give us some time to get a re­port of the sight­ing and get out there, and if you see a he­li­copter or boat com­ing to­ward you, that’s when you set off an­other one. They’re look­ing for an­other flare.”

And, Web­ster says, have an EPIRB— specif­i­cally, a 406 MHz ver­sion that is reg­is­tered with the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion, as op­posed to a per­sonal lo­ca­tor bea­con.

“Per­sonal bea­cons, peo­ple usu­ally have strapped to them­selves,” Web­ster says. “But a 406 MHz [EPIRB] is reg­is­tered [to the boat]. And it’s satel­lite- based, so it’s pretty ac­cu­rate for po­si­tion as long as it has a clear view to the satel­lite. It will have the owner­op­er­a­tor’s name, the emer­gency con­tact— make sure you put the name of a per­son who will not be on the boat, and file your float plan with them. Hav­ing ev­ery­thing in or­der doesn’t guar­an­tee a suc­cess­ful search, but, it im­proves the odds of get­ting to the res­cue phase. Says Web­ster, “There is a chance that we can find these guys.”—

The 11-day search em­pha­sized the im­por­tance of a float plan.

The search for the sailor spanned 350,000 nau­ti­cal square miles.

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