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Date: 7 January 2014. Pan-Pan Ponderings.

Yesterday was an exciting day on the radio and not in a good way. As friends who visit know, my VHF radio is always turned on. And yes, I do believe that startled Lynn and Dave [Overnight Guests] the other night. Oops.  In any event, just after 0900 a 43' motor vessel called the Coast Guard with a pan-pan.

Pan-pan (pronounced pawn pawn) is an alert given on the radio. The vessel would be in a bit of difficulty but not in imminent danger. Most are familiar with the far more serious Mayday call that means I need immediate help.

This was a twin engine boat and had lost one engine. This in and of itself is not normally cause for a pan-pan broadcast. However because the vessel would be running much slower than usual the captain rightly contacted the Coast Guard. Seas were rough as well (Small Craft warnings were out) and the gent wanted the Coast Guard to call his wife to alert her that he'd be late.

Of course there is a bureaucracy involved so everyone listening within range of his broadcast learned all but his blood type! Think party line but not quite so bad. Still, one of the nice services the Coast Guard performs is the simple dialing of a phone to let a spouse know you're okay. This also avoids a needless search and rescue -- after all, he's not missing, he's just late arriving.

Often times I've heard both TowBoatUS and Sea-Tow performing this service. Once I even heard a fellow called because he was going to be a daddy and needed to get his boat to shore now. Never did hear how that turned out but when mamma's having a baby she can be quite resourceful...

Now there's something you need to know as a kibitzer on the VHF radio. You hear only so far away (line of sight, or to the horizon) however folks with higher antenna will broadcast further and the Coast Guard has repeater towers so they can hear a long way away. In fact, the Coast Guard officer was responding from Mobile, Alabama. That's a distance of about 300 miles from the boat in trouble.

Mobile, Alabama and Alligator Harbor near Panacea.

The boat estimated he'd arrive at port in five hours. This was at 9:38 a.m.  (think 2:30 in the afternoon) and a schedule was set up for comms (communication) with the Coasties every half hour. All proceeded well for many hours.

Of course with the seas so rough the boat was not making the headway anticipated and soon there were repeated calls without answer. The alerts were being sent on the VHF every few minutes and eventually at least two planes were up looking for the boat. (Okay, possibly just one plane but definitely two different voices on the VHF.)

From the half of the messages heard:

  1. The boat was taking on water and possibly being abandoned.

    DO NOT EVER LEAVE YOUR BOAT unless it's on fire!

  2. The boat was running low on fuel.

  3. The power system (lights, radios, etc.) failed.

Finally a plane was able to locate the boat -- a miracle in itself. The ocean (Gulf of Mexico in this case) is large and a boat is small. In rough seas your white boat blends nicely with the whitecaps and waves. Even with GPS coordinates it's not quite so easy as one might think to find a boat offshore.

Aside: In the far north you will notice some boats with Red, Orange or Yellow paint on the pilot house top. Now you probably can surmise why: so they are easier to locate from the air when things go awry.

A boat repo man advocates making the boat distinctive
so it can easily be located in case of theft or an emergency.

So with the Coast Guardsmen in the air giving guidance toward the safe haven the boat eventually made it close -- at nearly 10:30 p.m.  Ouch!  Winds from the north are more powerful than dirt dwellers understand, and even some boaters do not realize the power of continually blowing winds. The water is actually blown out to sea and it is much shallower than you'd imagine. Water levels can often be less than the charts show.

The entrance to Alligator Harbor (at the red arrow) is tricky in the best of circumstances and the intended arrival time of mid-day was perfection indeed. However rough seas and delays caused a dangerous situation. Fortunately the Coast Guard was there in the air, along with an FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation) boat on scene. The motor yacht was guided into safe haven.

The red arrow is where boats must make the turn (almost a U-turn) to get into Alligator Harbor. With water shallow, no lights and rough seas the outcome could have been far different. FWC (often called Florida Water Cops though their responsibilities are larger) is the enforcement arm of the state government for the state of Florida. 

There were some lessons I learned while listening:

  1. Have a second anchor ready to deploy. One anchor is not enough.

  2. Have plenty of fuel. This journey was supposed to end by mid-afternoon at the latest. The boat got to the marina at 1:15 a.m. the following day. The captain was nearly out of fuel by the time he arrived at the dock but it could have been far worse if he hadn't had so much in reserve.

  3. The Coast Guard offered advice on staying warm and bundled up. As a warm-weather cruiser I had not considered how cold affects decision making skills.

Exhaustion and Cold make for poor decisions. Be safe!

Thank goodness for the Coast Guardsmen and FWC officers who are willing to get out here and help when the chips are down! Our men in uniform are terrific and it's good to know I'm not alone.

P.S. - Having TowBoatUS or Sea-Tow helps too!

Have you ever had to call for help while on the water?
And do you have your cabin top painted a bright color?


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