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Caloosa Spirit


Catalina 42 mkII


A Friend in Need?

Most of us have a favorite rainy day activity—curling up with a good book, plugging in a favorite video, tackling a fix-it project languishing for want of the right opportunity, whatever. But for high drama and entertainment nothing beats listening to the radio—the VHF, that is. All boaters know how vital the VHF is for things like checking the weather, chatting with friends, and making dinner reservations. But on a stormy day while tucked snugly into a protected anchorage, it’s also important to listen for who’s dragging in the anchorage, who’s lost their dinghy, and other emergencies. For a couple of hours one such afternoon we listened to this “emergency” taking place out in the channel beyond our anchorage at St. Thomas, USVI: (And I didn’t make this up!)

A woman’s voice: This is the Laughing Pelican sending an SOS to the Coast Guard. Come in please. (pause) This is Laughing Pelican. Can anyone hear me?
(Eventually) Coast Guard: This is United States Coast Guard, San Juan, Puerto Rico Group. What is the name of your boat?
Laughing Pelican: This is the Laughing Pelican and we’re caught in a storm off St. John Island. We were headed for Cruz Bay, but we can’t see anything.
Coast Guard: Please identify the kind of boat you are in.
Laughing Pelican: It’s a 54 ft. Hylas sailboat.
Coast Guard: What color is your hull?
Laughing Pelican: It’s white.
Coast Guard: How many people are on board?
Laughing Pelican: We have 5 people. My husband is the captain.
Coast Guard: What is your position?
Laughing Pelican: I said we’re caught in a storm off the south side of St. John. We were headed for Cruz Bay, but we’re not sure where we are now.
Coast Guard: Can you give me an accurate position?
Laughing Pelican: We don’t have any GPS, so I can’t tell you exactly where we are.
Coast Guard: What is the nature of your emergency?
Laughing Pelican: The wind is very strong, the waves are very high, and we can’t see anything!
Coast Guard: What is your speed?
Laughing Pelican: I can’t tell you that, because our speedometer isn’t working.
Coast Guard: What is your direction?
Laughing Pelican: We’re somewhere between St. John and St. Thomas. We’re not sure where we’re going.
Coast Guard: Please give me your direction off your compass.
Laughing Pelican: Just a minute, I’ll go get that information from my husband. (pause) We’re heading southwest.
Coast Guard: What is your depth?
Laughing Pelican: The depth meter says anywhere from 3 to 80 feet, depending on the waves.
Another voice: They have to drop an anchor now. There are reefs all over the place.
Coast Guard: Can you deploy an anchor?
Laughing Pelican: No, we can’t. It’s a very big boat, and the anchor is all the way forward at the bow. We can’t get to it! The waves are too big and the wind is too strong!
Coast Guard: You need to stop the boat and determine where you are.
Laughing Pelican (indignantly): We can’t stop the boat here. We’re going to Cruz Bay. We’re on vacation!
(pause)
Coast Guard: Stopping the boat at this point is your best course of action.
Laughing Pelican: Okay, we’ll turn off the engine, but the waves are very big and the wind is very strong. (pause) Now we’re headed southeast.
Coast Guard: If it’s safe someone needs to go forward to deploy an anchor. That’s the safest thing you can do. If you don’t, you’ll end up in the middle of the Caribbean.
Laughing Pelican: Well, it isn’t safe, but we’ll try. (long pause) We’ve got the anchor out. It’s 29 feet deep. (long pause) Coast Guard, I can give you our coordinates, now. We’re at 270 degrees west, and the water is 129 feet deep.

By this time we thought the Coast Guard operator had left to have a stiff drink. Also, another boat had offered to come to Laughing Pelican’s aid using their radar. Understand, at no time did the woman on Laughing Pelican say exactly what she wanted from the Coast Guard, except maybe to stop the wind and waves and by divine intervention transport them to dry land. Lest anyone be tempted to feel the slightest shred of sympathy for what were obviously charterers on Laughing Pelican, know that the sky had overcast and darkened for several hours prior to the rain and wind. There was absolutely no reason for those people to be out on the water in the storm. It took superhuman stupidity not to take shelter at any of the many anchorages in the vicinity when the weather was obviously starting to sour. Eventually, as the wind and rain abated, we heard:

Laughing Pelican: This is the Laughing Pelican calling the Coast Guard. Come in please.
Coast Guard: This is United States Coast Guard, San Juan, Puerto Rico Group. How can we be of assistance?
Laughing Pelican: We can see land now, so we’re heading toward it. We’re not sure what land it is, but we can see it so we’re going there.
Coast Guard: We understand that the emergency is being called off. United States Coast Guard out.

In the midst of this on-going conversation VIP Yacht Charters was continually trying to reach Laughing Pelican. For some reason Laughing Pelican never responded to them, and only intermittently responded to the ketch who was attempting to get to them. (At one point the woman on the ketch asked Laughing Pelican if they were a sloop or a ketch. Then she caught herself and rephrased to “Do you have one mast or two?”) We were sure that VIP was as much concerned for their negative PR spreading across the air waves as they were for the safety of their charterers. Certainly VIP had no business chartering to someone so inexperienced! I hoped that VIP’s chase boat took Laughing Pelican in tow back to their base and ensconced the charterers in a hotel to spare themselves any further embarrassment, and to spare the rest of us out on the water from further harassment!

One final note: The Coast Guard operator deserved a medal for his patience. I’m sure I would have thrown down the microphone in disgust or suggested that the boat just keep going toward the Caribbean—preferably off the face of the earth! But his conduct and voice tone were impeccable throughout the hour or two of these inane transmissions. We feel very comfortable with the knowledge that the U.S. Coast Guard—a friend indeed—will respond to any and all requests for assistance to the best of their ability, regardless of the level of real need.

Posted Saturday November 26, 2005

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