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Float Plans Save Lives

By: Chief Warrant Officer Jim Krzenski
Commanding Officer, U. S. Coast Guard Station, Fort Pierce, Florida

You have decided to go offshore for a day of fishing in your 25 foot boat. The winds and seas are calm. It is an absolutely gorgeous day with temperatures reaching the high 70’s. The day just keeps getting better. The fishing is great. You’re pulling them in one right after another. The sun is beginning to get low in the western sky. You decide to call it a day. You go to start your engine before retrieving the anchor. As you turn the ignition key - nothing, not even a click !!! Your electrical connections are clean, but your battery is dead. There’s not even enough juice to send out a call for help on your VHF marine radio. The sun is quickly setting, and the temperature is beginning to nose dive to those body-shivering readings. The wind is beginning to pick up, your boat begins to bounce on the growing seas as darkness surrounds you. Wisely you don your life jacket.

Meanwhile back on shore, your family has just pulled in the driveway from a long day of shopping at the local mall. They were expecting to see you in the driveway washing down your trailered boat. Some concern begins to develop. Within an hour a call is made to the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard duty watch officer begins asking a series of questions which will help us find the overdue person. The watch officer asks,

— "Where did the boat leave from?"
— "I don’t know."
— "Where does he/she usually fish?"
— "I don’t know,"
— "What is the description of the vessel?"
— "What kind of rescue equipment is on board?"
— "What time did he/she depart and when are they expected to return?"
— "Does the overdue person have any medical conditions?"…

The reporting source's anxiety begins to rise with each passing minute and is compounded by the inability to answer all of the Coast Guard’s important questions.

With a minimum amount of information, the Coast Guard begins its search. The Coast Guard begins contacting all local mariners, and visually checking boat ramps. After an hour's worth of detective work the Coast Guard locates a vehicle and trailer sitting at a boat ramp parking lot that matches the description provided by the reporting source. The Coast Guard begins broadcasting a marine information broadcast which notifies all mariners that you are overdue. It also advises to report all sightings to the nearest Coast Guard unit. The Coast Guard dispatches a boat and crew to begin searching an area of ocean encompassing 50 by 30 miles of coastal waters. A search aircraft is dispatched from the local Coast Guard Air Station. The search continues throughout the night.

Mean while out on the overdue vessel, the sun has set several hours earlier. The seas are now four to five feet and rising. Occasional cold salt spray splashes over the bow, soaking you to the bone. You are scared, cold, and hungry. Then you have a brain storm. "Maybe if I fire off a flare someone will see it and come to my assistance." You break out your flare kit but discover that all of your flares have long ago expired. None of them work. Your spirits begin to rise when you see the lights of an aircraft far to the south going back and forth as if conducting a search pattern.

The Coast Guard boat crew has been underway in the 5 foot seas over four hours with negative sightings. The continuous pounding of the boat through the seas is increasingly fatiguing to the crew as their eyes strain through the blackness of night for any signs of the overdue vessel. The Coast Guard boat coxswain also searches the surrounding waters with the radar, looking for any speck that might indicate the overdue vessel. The very experienced Coast Guard crew realizes that the probability of detection at night in the five foot seas is very low.

Back at the Coast Guard Station, the duty officer is plotting all search efforts on a large nautical chart. The duty officer is also fielding calls from the now very distraught family members. The duty officer is also responding to calls from the inquiring media as well as keeping the Coast Guard chain of command informed of the search progress.

The first search area has been completed with negative sightings. Plans are to double the search area. No one knows whether the overdue vessel is adrift on the wind and current or at anchor. For refueling purposes a second Coast Guard boat and aircraft is dispatched to relieve those who have been searching throughout the night.

You’ve survived a long and lonely sleepless night on a 25 foot boat, on the ocean, in five foot seas . The warmth of the sun begins to raise your spirits. You know that if any one is searching for you they will have a better chance of finding you in daylight hours. Not 20 minutes later your eyes behold one of the most beautiful sights you have ever witnessed. Out of the west, with the morning sun shining on her bow, the white hull with the orange and blue stripes comes crashing through the foam crested waves and heaves to within hailing distance from your vessel. The Coast Guard confirms identification and radios back the information to the station. The station duty watch officer notifies other search and rescue units who then begin securing. The family is called with the good news, resulting in many tears of joy. The Coast Guard safely returns the overdue person and boat to shore where an emotionally-filled family reunion occurs.

This was a typical scenario describing a situation which the Coast Guard responds to on an almost every day basis. Please note that not all searches end as pleasantly as this one.

The number one thing this person could have done to help the Coast Guard was to file a float plan with a friend or relative. A sample Float Plan is available for your use. Please print it out, reproduce it, fill in the appropriate information and before beginning any boating trip, leave it with a friend or relative who can call the Coast Guard if you fail to return. The information contained will significantly enhance the Coast Guard’s ability to locate you in the least amount of time.

The Coast Guard encourages small craft operators to prepare a Float Plan before starting a trip, and leave it ashore with a yacht club, marina, friend, or relative. Be specific. Check-in regularly by radio or telephone at each point specified in the float plan. The "fresher" your last known position, the better our chances of success in locating a missing vessel in the event search and rescue operations become necessary.

There are many additional things that the boater can do to prevent the described scenario from occurring. To learn more please call the USCG Auxiliary Boating Course information line at 1-800-336-5647 to obtain info on the course offered nearest to your location. If you have other boating safety questions call the Coast Guard’s Boating safety Hotline at 1-800-268-5647.

May all your boating be SAFE.

Print a Float Plan

 

 

 

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