Gone fishin’: On the water, channel 16 is your radio lifeline

A marine radio is an indispensable piece of boating equipment. — Nelson Sigelman

A week and a half ago on Saturday I left Tashmoo and headed across Vineyard Sound for the Elizabeths to cast a Sluggo into the rocks in search of striped bass. The sea was flat and the wind light — a perfect summer day to be out on the water.

After working my way west along Naushon without much luck, I decided to drift and bottom-fish for fluke. As I usually do when out alone, I had clipped my handheld marine VHF radio to my windshield — a habit I fell into after writing about three men fishing for tuna south of the Vineyard who found themselves treading water when their boat sank under them. It happened so quickly they had no time to use the console radio. Fortunately, a handheld that had been clipped to their boat windshield floated up to the surface, and they were able to call for help.

Out of boredom I was listening to the radio traffic when a call came over channel 16, the emergency channel monitored by the Coast Guard. The man said one of the people on board his boat was experiencing a medical emergency — a stroke possibly, or a heart attack. The alarm was obvious in his voice as he attempted to give the Coast Guard his location and describe the nature of the emergency.

I was struck by the contrast. Everywhere I looked, people were enjoying themselves on a beautiful day, and somewhere not far from me a potentially life-threatening emergency was taking place. Initially, the boater was unable to give a precise location, but said he was making his way to New Bedford Harbor as quickly as he could; he guessed he was about 45 minutes out.

I heard Fairhaven Fire Rescue call to say they were responding on Marine 25, a fire boat, with three paramedics on board — the sirens blared in the background on my radio. The Fairhaven harbormaster began alerting boaters in the vicinity to stand clear to allow for the rescuers to make speed. The boater asked them to hurry, and I could only imagine his distress and sense of helplessness.

That Monday I called Fairhaven Fire Chief Timothy Francis, and learned that the man was doing well. He said the fire boat was dispatched at 11 am to a location near Middle Ledge and arrived at 11:16 am, noting that the fishermen had thought they were further away.

The boater was Richard Kenney, vice president of a Boston-based company and no stranger to boats. We spoke by phone, and he provided me with the following email account of his harrowing ordeal that began as just a regular weekend outing.

“Typical day fishing on the Molly with the same guys I go out with every weekend. Left the dock at 6 am, ocean was glass. We were catching scup we were going to use as bait on the other side of Quick’s [Hole]. Things got slow, and we decided to move our position. Barry and John came in for a drink as we made the move to a new spot, and I remember John saying how hot it was already. The next thing I see is John shaking and convulsing — dropped his ginger ale to the ground and then slumping over at the table in the cabin. Things got serious real quick.

“Barry was holding him up, and we both agreed this was a real emergency, because we could not get a response from John. I hailed the Coast Guard on 16 and explained our situation. Not knowing what was wrong with him, they began to ask me his symptoms. He was passed out, not responding and still breathing, soaked with sweat. They immediately asked for my GPS position to locate us. My computer was on fish find [mode] and in my haste — not sure what I pressed — I locked up my computer and it took almost two minutes to restart it and give them a position. All I could tell them at that point was I was heading into New Bedford Harbor from Quicks Hole. If I was thinking, I could have got it off my Sea Tow app in a second — not thinking.

“As I continued to talk to the CG (channel 16 to 22, then on cell) we were checking on John, trying to get him to respond. We never stopped moving; we were heading in from Quicks Hole at 12 mph, and knew we needed help faster than my boat was going to get us there. We could see docks at Mishaum Point, and were considering going to a dock and calling an ambulance from the land. At that point the CG informed us they had dispatched a boat toward us. The next 10 minutes took what seemed to be a lifetime. John was still unconscious, but he was breathing. We first spotted the two boats at about Wilkes Ledge speeding toward us, and within minutes they had both tied off to us and were in the boat treating John — EKG, IV — these guys were good and fast. John came to after being out for 15-20 minutes right as the boats were tying up to us, but didn’t remember anything. Before we knew it they had John on their boat and were rushing him to the hospital.

“Barry and I didn’t talk much on the ride in, just cleaned up and headed in. That was the longest 25 minutes of my life. It’s a terrible feeling traveling only 12 mph in the middle of the bay with a good friend lying on the deck and not being able to help him. Everything worked out for the best; John is OK, but they still don’t know what got him after testing: dehydration, heat stroke? Cheers to the Fairhaven Fire Department and the harbormaster for a quick response and a great job.”

Richard provided the following update: “Since that incident I’ve read the manual to the Lowrance Elite 7 GPS/Fishfinder, and our location was one touch of the finger away, but instead I was scrolling through menus looking for a location screen. I’m the guy who never read directions Christmas morning when building the kids’ toys.”

Few fishermen leave the dock and expect to be faced with a sudden emergency situation. We think about fishing and bait and tides. But it is good practice to instruct everyone on board, including youngsters, on some basic safety procedures that include how to stop the boat and how to call for help on the radio.

I spoke with Chief Francis about what boaters need to know in general to stay safe. He said that all boaters ought to be required to take a boating safety course and understand how to provide a position in the event of an emergency.

“Because the ocean’s a big place, and especially when it’s at night, or late in the day or in bad weather, it’s hard enough to find you as it is,” he said.

Chief Francis said boaters need to know how to operate a VHF radio and be prepared for an emergency, and make sure everyone on board knows what to do as well.

Unfortunately, too many boaters have no clue how to communicate on the radio, and some are simply idiots — for example, the boater I heard blaring music over channel 16 later that day until the Coast Guard reminded the individual it is an emergency channel.

The Coast Guard says “A VHF marine radio is the single most important radio system you should buy.” A cellphone is no substitute.

The Coast Guard emphasizes that a boater may only have seconds to send a distress call. Knowing what to say is important. I have taken these steps from the Coast Guard website:

  1. Distress signal “MAYDAY”, spoken three times.
  2. The words “THIS IS”, spoken once.
  3. Name of vessel in distress (spoken three times) and call sign or boat registration number, spoken once.
  4. Repeat “MAYDAY” and name of vessel, spoken once.
  5. Give position of vessel by latitude or longitude or by bearing (true or magnetic, state which) and distance to a well-known landmark such as a navigational aid or small island, or in any terms which will assist a responding station in locating the vessel in distress. Include any information on vessel movement such as course, speed, and destination.
  6. Nature of distress (sinking, fire etc.).
  7. Kind of assistance desired.
  8. Number of persons onboard.
  9. Any other information which might facilitate rescue, such as length or tonnage of vessel, number of persons needing medical attention, color hull, cabin, masks, etc.
  10. The word “OVER.”

Stay by the radio if possible. Even after the message has been received, the Coast Guard can find you more quickly if you can transmit a signal on which a rescue boat or aircraft can home.

MEP nab striper crooks

The Massachusetts Environmental Police (MEP) landed a nice haul Sunday night when they went fishing for striped bass crooks in Cape Cod Bay in response to numerous complaints that commercial fishermen were taking bass on closed fishing days. Commercial fishing is only allowed on Mondays and Thursdays.

Late Sunday night the MEP conducted what they described as “a saturation patrol” of the commercial striped bass fleet in southern Cape Cod Bay, using three patrol boats and one undercover surveillance vessel. The MEP conducted 60 vessel inspections, and found six commercial vessels in possession of striped bass prior to the Monday open-fishing day. Commercial fishermen are not prohibited from recreational fishing as long as they abide by the recreational rules and clip the right pectoral fin from any commercial-size fish, according to the MEP Facebook account.

“Officers confiscated 388 pounds of illegal striped bass with a market value of approximately $2,400, fishing gear valued at $3,000, and issued approximately $1,000 in fines. Charges included commercial fishing during closed season, over the limit striped bass, possession of striped bass without a clipped fin, and operating without navigation lights.”

It is good to know that the Environmental Police are out there. Generally speaking, it is MEP policy not to release the names of people except in the case of an arrest. I would encourage MEP to release the names and post them on their page. There should be a degree of public shaming for fishermen who have no use for the rules designed to benefit them. That is the real irony.

Not so long ago, the Division of Marine Fisheries would declare the commercial striped bass season open and fishermen would start hammering the bass. The price would drop and the quota would be reached within weeks, closing off local markets while summer visitors were still clamoring for fresh bass.

The new regulations are designed to maintain a strong price and lengthen the commercial season. Fishermen who cheat just undercut themselves.

As of Tuesday, commercial fishermen had taken 296,249 pounds of striped bass, or 34.1 percent of the state’s 869,813-pound quota, according to the DMF website.