This is the age of email, tweets, iPhones and Blackberries. There are handheld devices that can provide the average fisherman with sophisticated navigational information and global communications capabilities.
But what do you do when you are almost 40 miles offshore and the electrical power fails? That was the question Lee Welch of Edgartown faced Friday while on a fishing trip with friends Ken Abbot of Edgartown and Tim Marr of Cuttyhunk.
The three men were aboard Lee’s 35-foot Carolina Classic sportfisherman. They had left Edgartown Harbor about 6 am, on a daytrip to look for tuna and marlin in a fishing area known as West Atlantis about 90 miles south of the Vineyard.
As they approached their destination, Lee was watching his gauges. The boat was having voltage problems. Essentially, the engine’s alternators were generating enough excess electricity to fry the batteries.
About 11 am, Lee decided he did not like what he was seeing and made a course back to Wasque. Lee had a plan to isolate the problem and run on his generator. But when he hit the power to lift his engine hatch, the entire electrical system shut down. He was about 37 miles south of the Island.
Lee, a licensed electricial contractor, gave me the layman’s explanation. “One thing led to another thing,” he said.
At this point in our conversation, he was willing to acknowledge the irony of an electrician with a boat named Live Wire, with a dead electrical system — no power meant no marine radio.
He was able to jury-rig a battery to provide enough power to his radio so he could hear but not transmit.
“We were sitting there with nothing,” said Lee. They faced the prospect of floating until someone came to look for them or until they could attract a passing boat.
At one point they did see a boat in the distance and set off a flare. The other boat stopped but never came over to investigate.
Although he did not want to alarm his wife, Lee decided that it was time to activate his EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon). That in turn alerted the Coast Guard to his position and identity.
About an hour later, a Coast Guard Falcon jet flew over. Kenny ignited an orange handheld flare. The jet banked and flew low over the boat.
Lee heard the Coast Guard operator say that the boat had been located and was engulfed in smoke and flames. The jet came over on the deck and dropped a floating canister attached to a long floating rope just off the bow of the boat.
Kenny tied a popping plug to a spinning rod and used his casting skills to retrieve the rope. Inside the canister was a handheld radio. Lee immediately contacted the jet and said they were in no immediate danger but had no power.
The Coast Guard issued a marine broadcast alerting mariners in the area to be on the lookout for a vessel in possible distress and to assist.
The Coast Guard initially contacted Lee’s wife Cheryl to say the EPIRB had gone off and they could not be contacted by radio. Cheryl contacted Kenny’s wife, Jennifer Rand, who told her friend Tara Whiting who called her boyfriend, Danny Gilkes of Edgartown, a charter fishing captain, to see if he could be of any help contacting the boat.
The next call Jen received from Cheryl was that there was a fire but everyone was fine. The third call was that the fire was out, but the boat needed assistance.
On the radio, Lee heard that a Good Samaritan would assist but he did not clearly hear the name of the boat.
Danny and his first mate and cousin, Will Deitz, 16, of Edgartown had gone to their boat. They could hear the Coast Guard broadcasts. When the call for assistance was broadcast, Danny called the Coast Guard and said he would assist in his 30-foot Clean Sweep. Edgartown harbormaster Charlie Blair, who had been preparing to assist, provided Danny with a commercial towrope.
The Clean Sweep left Edgartown Harbor and did not return until 5 am. The entire trip out and back took almost ten hours.
One of the scariest moments came while rounding Wasque Point, entering the southern end of Muskeget Channel. The seas were very rough. Throughout the return trip at five-knots, towing a much heavier boat, Danny worried about his return through one of the Island’s most treacherous passages. Luckily, the seas had calmed.
Danny said the Coast Guard stayed in constant contact and relayed messages between the two boats. “It was really comforting knowing you had a big brother,” Danny said.
Lee had high praise for Danny and his seamanship. I asked Lee what he took away from the experience.
“That you need backup to the backup,” he said. “I just came from the store with a brand new Icom handheld radio and there will probably be another one to back that up and there will be more battery packs.”
The Coast Guard does sometimes tow vessels but not regularly. The bottom line is that it leaves towing to commercial services except in certain emergency situations.
The Maritime Assistance Policy describes how the Coast Guard defines a distress situation. Weather, type and condition of vessel, medical conditions of those on board, all factor into the evaluation.
Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Justin Peters, Sector Southeast New England, said in a distress situation the Coast Guard responds and issues an urgent marine information broadcast that encourages any nearby boaters to offer assistance.
If the condition is not a distress situation, the Coast Guard issues a marine assistance request broadcast. It lets other boaters know someone is in need of assistance.
The Coast Guard waits to hear that a Good Samaritan or commercial outfit is responding. If there is no response after a period of time the Coast Guard may respond or keep monitoring the radio.
“Because we have made that determination that it is non-distress, the last thing that we want to happen is that we are engaged in responding to a non-distress case and a distress case does happen,” Mr. Peters said.
There are commercial outfits that are in the tow business. BoatUS acts like Triple-A on the water. I spoke with Captain R.W. Henson of Towboat Nantucket Sound who covers our waters for BoatUS. He has fetched boats well offshore in his specially built boat.
Payment of an annual fee of $149 provides up to $2,500 in tow services. One phone call and a boater can be covered as of midnight that night.
He said at the commercial rate the cost to go out and tow a boat stuck about 50 miles offshore would likely run more than $2,000. “When people see us coming they are so grateful they bought insurance,” Mr. Henson said.
Price your life
I asked Mr. Peters what equipment he recommends boaters heading offshore carry. “The first is the EPIRB, that is certainly the most important piece we want folks to have when they go offshore,” Mr. Peters said.
The type of boat EPIRB would depend on the size and use of the boat. He said the new personal locator beacons are also a very good piece of equipment to have and are very convenient to attach to a lifejacket. The obvious benefit is that should a person in the water be separated from the boat, his or her companions or the boat EPIRB, rescuers would still know where to search.
Mr. Peters said it is very important that boat owners register the equipment with the Coast Guard. “It is important that we know not only where you are but who we are looking for,” he said.
I checked at West Marine. The cost of locator beacons ranges between $150 and $600.
Communication equipment is essential. Larger vessels are required to have a backup power source for a radio. He said a separate battery powered radio is a very good idea for any offshore boat. Satellite radios also provide communication capabilities offshore.
EPIRBs, backup radios, handheld radios, locator beacons may seem like a lot of extra gear. But ask yourself this question: Would you rather find yourself in trouble offshore with too much or too little safety equipment?
“The important message is that we understand that some of these things are a little pricey for the initial outlay but they are out there to save your life,” LCDR Peters said. “Better to have those types of gear and never need them, than to not have them and need them.”