Rescued boaters made big mistakes

Water Ways
Honolulu Star Bulletin (07/24/99)
By Ray Pendleton

After hearing about the successful rescue last week of three men who were adrift in a 17-foot outboard, I have just one question. What were those guys thinking?

In case you were off-island and missed the story, three thirty-something guys left Hickam Harbor last Saturday morning in their open bowrider to do some offshore fishing. When they hadn't returned by nightfall, friends and family notified the Coast Guard and the search began.

On Monday morning they were spotted by a Coast Guard C-130 crew some 75 miles west of O`ahu and 46 miles south of Kaua`i. Later, the crew of the CG cutter Washington took the men aboard and towed their vessel into port.

That the trio of hapless anglers are now safely back with their families is the result of very good luck and a highly skilled CG search and rescue team. They may have only suffered sunburn and dehydration, but their story could have easily ended fatally, as it reads as a virtual how-not-to-go-to-sea tale.

First, it would seem they didn't respect the fact they live on an isolated island chain in the middle of the largest ocean in the world. Contrary to its name, the Pacific can be a wildly treacherous body of water. It is certainly not the place to be tempting fate on a boat essentially designed for protected waters, and with only one engine.

Second, they didn't tell anyone where they were going - known as "filing a float plan," in CG language. When the CG was asked to search for the vessel, their only clue as to where to look came from CG marker buoys dropped to determine a drift pattern caused by the wind and ocean currents off the south shore of O`ahu.

Third, the boaters had little more than their life jackets and a cellular phone for safety equipment. If there is an emergency, boaters need to be heard and seen if their rescuers are to have any chance of success. To be heard, they should have had at least a VHF (marine band) radio and better yet, an emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB). In fact, the latest EPIRB, the 406 MHz with Global Positioning System (GPS) interface, lets rescuers pinpoint stricken vessels anywhere in the world via satellites.

Such equipment isn't required for boats of that size, but safe boating, especially in Hawai`i, should mean using the Coast Guard's requirements as just the starting point.

That applies to being seen as well. Dye markers and smoke and signal flares all have some value, but a newer product on the market is even better. It's called a SEE/RESCUE and it is a polyethylene banner that unrolls out across the water to form an 11-inch wide, 40-foot-long, bright orange slash against the blue ocean.

In tests conducted by the U.S. military, SEE/RESCUE devices have been consistently spotted from an altitude of 1,500 feet and a distance of over one mile. Spotting a white 17-foot boat floating on an ocean cluttered with windblown whitecaps is almost impossible.

"The fact that we found them, it's pretty miraculous," one Coast Guard officer said.

We can only hope that those boaters understand how close they came to being statistics and have learned some valuable lessons from their mistakes.

We would also hope that boaters everywhere in Hawai`i will also learn from this incident, and if they have any questions, they will quickly enroll in one of the safe boating courses offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary or the U.S. Power Squadron.

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