Overcast, pitch black out, and drizzling; only a storm and waves could make 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. 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 ten-year-old son that were reported overdue from fishing on the bayou – but we weren’t having any luck. The rescue and coordination center (RCC) had good data on where they had put in and the local sheriff had ID’d the father’s car and boat trailer, but hours of searching, had turned up nothing in the 16 square mile search area. Then, nearing the end of fuel and just minutes from packing it in for the night, a flickering light broke through on my NVGs, “Contact right – 1,000 yards – Four O’Clock!”
The aircraft lurched and the light rose in the window as the Helo banked. “Where? Where?” the pilot called out over the ICS. “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 towards the vessel.
It was the missing father and son. Without a radio and out of cell range, the dad had exhausted all his flares before we even got on scene. He had tried signalling other boats and lit off his night flares in the direction of the marina. But he didn’t bring a flashlight. He never planned to be out past dark, or to have engine trouble I suppose.
The flickering light was from the the lifejacket he had lit on fire and held over his head. It became clearer as we got closer and turned our search light on his boat. Holding it up until he was sure we saw them, melting material dripping down his arm, he took third degree burns to his hand before dropping it into the water.
All searches end the same way – someone puts their eyes on someone else. You might set off and EPIRB or call in on a radio, but until someone looks at you, you remain lost. Being found is about being seen and being seen is harder – a lot harder – than you think. This is true if you are on your boat, in a raft, or alone in the water. Why? Because the world is really big and you are really small.
Of course, a radio or EPIRB aboard is a much better signalling tool than lighting a fire on your boat, but if things go wrong enough for you, your first “communication” with a searching aircraft may just be visual. Here is how to do it right:
Active and Passive Signalling
To be seen at sea, you have to make yourself two things – bigger and brighter. That’s the formula. The two ways to be more visible are through active and passive signalling. Lighting off a flare is an active signal; so is waving a flashlight – or flaming life jacket – or using a signal mirror. In land survival, tying brightly colored clothing in trees or marking arrows in the snow that point to your camp – these are passive signals; you don’t even have to be there for them to work.
When hoping to be found at sea you should simply remember that passive signals are deployed and then you can’t or don’t control them anymore, and active signals need you to do something to make them work. 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.
In a Boat or Raft
If you are lucky enough to still on something instead of in the water, make yourself as big as possible. If it floats and 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 – making a line of debris leading back to you. Spare life jackets, seat cushions, empty coolers, life rings, these things aren’t going to do you any good on board but a 20 yard chain of debris trailing behind you looks different and different catches the eye.
Mount your strobe lights and turn them on. If you know someone is searching for you (and you should know this) then you don’t need to worry about conserving batteries. And of course, if you haven’t already, turn on your EPIRB – even if you called for rescue via radio, gave them a position, and you know they are on the way. Things can change and fast out there and your EPIRB will give search aircraft a needle to follow, pointing straight at you.
In the Water
Same rules apply, it’s just a bit more serious now. You need to make yourself bigger but if you didn’t bring it with you, then hope is all you got. If you are abandoning your vessel – desperate times, indeed – take everything you possibly can with you. All spare life jackets, all spare anything that floats, get in the water with you. Stay together and be tied together – this is no time to be alone if you don’t have to.
It is critical is that you activate your electronic signals early. Strobe lights are designed to flash for at least 18 hours and most LED lights last much, 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 by the time night falls.
Your active signals – flares, signal mirrors, waving flashlights (my favorite), even sea dye markers, are much more effective if you know someone is looking. Though sending up a single flare isn’t a bad idea if you think there may be a vessel close enough to see it, save what you can for searching aircraft and vessels.
It is likely that you will see them before they see you and here is where you should go to work. Send up flares and point your waving flashlights when you are confident that searching eyes are looking in your direction. A searching helo or plane has nav lights just like your boat, and it is rare that they are looking behind them. Wait until you are somewhere between their eight to four o’clock before popping smoke or burning a flare.
And in the water, splash if you can. Waving is near useless compared to how much bigger you get if you splash and turn the water around you white.
The ocean is really big and you are really small. And 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 it when it matters most. Burning a lifejacket will work, but you really should be a little more prepared than that.
(First published in Soundings)