Why marine VHF, and the call you never want to make

Recreational boaters are using marine VHF radio less and less, which seems worrisome because VHF channel 16 is often the quickest and best way to ask for help. And, wow, can I offer a vivid example! Imagine the sheer terror of suddenly finding yourself without propulsion while right in front of the unrelenting wall of steel that is the bow of a commercial barge being pushed at about six knots, no brakes. I not only heard the unforgettable VHF call — and the following calls from the successful rescue boat, thank goodness — but also recorded most of them thanks to a great Icom radio feature.

But before you listen to the audio, let me set the scene. May 28, 2018, was already an especially memorable day on my mostly solo Gizmo passage from New Bern, North Carolina, to Maine. I always relish the run through New York Harbor and the East River — though best done in good weather and feeling fresh, because dangers lurk — and on this lovely day my stepson Curran bused and Ubered down from Brooklyn to Great Kills Harbor, Staten Island, for the ride. He loved seeing the bustling metropolis from the water, and I loved learning more about what was happening ashore from an always curious resident.

Also, because it happened to be NYC’s annual Fleet Week, there were more vessels of interest tied up along the route than usual, plus more small boats taking in the sights. So we were feeling pretty, pretty good when we finally picked up a Morris Yacht Club mooring off City Island (#1 on the map above) and prepared to take their launch ashore for a seafood dinner… until we heard the terrified call emanating loud and clear from the big speaker on the Icom M605 VHF.

ICOM M605 manual page automatic recording feature
ICOM M605 manual page automatic recording feature

The M603 automatically records the last 120 seconds of received VHF audio, and by the time my own heart rate settled down enough to think of playing that back into my phone recorder, the very first emergency call had passed out of its two-minute memory. So please imagine that first you heard something like “Barge! Barge! Barge! At Whitestone Bridge! I’M RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU!!!” repeated twice, with terror ascending, and now listen to the rest…

Coast Guard! Coast Guard! We’re stalled out right in front of the barge!

I didn’t edit that recording at all, except to lower the static volume between calls, and it almost reflects the real timeline even though the Icom only records when the radio’s squelch is broken. In other words, that Channel 16 call for help got an almost instant response, first on VHF and then on the water. I know nothing further about the incident — there may be little record because apparently there was no loss of life or property — but it sure sounds like the stalled boat was very quickly hauled out of serious harm’s way. And I do have a theory about their great fortune.

We had motored under the Whitestone Bridge (#3 on the map) about an hour before the incident and certainly noticed the USN Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport tied up at SUNY Maritime on Throgs Neck (#2), almost under the same-named bridge. We also noticed the small boat guarding the big catamaran, quite like many we’d seen that day including the FDNY quick response rescue boat I’d photographed earlier off Staten I.

I theorize that the guard boat was the Westchester Marine 2 unit you hear calmly reporting the rescue on the recording and that incident developed almost in front of them. Which was very lucky for Four Winds (or maybe a Four Winns). But what would have happened if that skipper did not have a working VHF and also know how to call out on 16 with his approximate position and problem?

I very much doubt that a cell phone call to the US Coast Guard would have solved this problem, and certainly not as fast. And as impressed as I was to hear responses from NYPD and USCG along with Weschester Marine (with FDNY probably close by), the rescue might have made by a recreational or commercial boat also monitoring VHF Channel 16. (Though I’m sure glad I didn’t have to make that possibly very hairy calculation with Gizmo.)

At any rate, let’s make sure our VHF radios are working well, let’s monitor 16, and let’s encourage fellow boaters to do likewise.

Then again, I like to remember the boating safety statistics, which really aren’t bad, and especially not for cruising style boats. And I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from cruising along the wildly diverse shores of New York City. There’s lots of tidal current, traffic, and visual distractions, but the harbor and “river” (estuary actually) are quite manageable in my experience (and obviously help is standing by). Seeing and hearing NYC or any big city from boat distance is always fascinating, I find, and of course there’s an added viral safety aspect nowadays.

So I’ll finish with another bit of the zeitgeist called the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, a big fixed barge at #4 on my map that passing boaters may be curious about, especially if there’s a basketball game underway on the top deck. It used to have a frightening Active Captain Hazard Mark, but that’s been removed now that I and maybe others checked the facts.

Ben Ellison

Ben Ellison

Panbo editor, publisher & chief bottlewasher from 4/2005 until 8/2018, and now pleased to have Ben Stein as a very able publisher, webmaster, and editing colleague. Please don't regard him as an "expert"; he's getting quite old and thinks that "fadiddling fumble-putz" is a more accurate description.

9 Responses

  1. Major says:

    Wow ! Thank you for posting that .
    Always considered my radio a most important part of my Searay 260 and a backup hand held just in case. Lake Powell Arizona .

  2. Chris s/v/ Pelican says:

    We’ve been through there numerous times and have heard interesting things happening over the radio more than once. For example, there was the time that a sailboat and a barge were both right at the gate and got into a swearing argument on 16 with the sailboat (under power) insisting that they had right of way due to restricted maneuverability due to draft. They just couldn’t understand that the barge was deeper, less maneuverable and absolutely had the right of way. This argument went on for a good 5 minutes with the USCG doing their standard “Channel 16 is for hailing and emergencies only” several times during the yelling match.

    Then there was the time we had a big trawler wake us as we went by Mill Rock. As we passed the west end of Roosevelt Island, we saw the Trawler drifting and we heard them on 16 calling a pan pan that they had lost all propulsion. We’re a 40′ sailboat with a 53HP Yanmar, but, regardless, we pulled out our heavy lines, threw our fenders over the side and prepared to approach them to do a hip tow. As we closed in, an NYPD vessel rapidly approached us, pulled alongside and asked if we were the ones that called for help. Yeah.. always assume it’s the blowboater in trouble. We were pretty sad we didn’t get to tow the trawler out since there’s nothing more fun for a sailboater than to rescue a powerboater (since we always get made fun of for how slow we go). What would have been even better is if we could have raised our sails while we had him in tow lol.

    Then there are the standard sad securite calls we’ve heard requesting slow pass/no wake near diving operations for body recoveries in the East River. And the one time we heard someone in a canoe call the Staten Island Ferry asking for a slow pass.

    The East River and New York Harbor can always be interesting. They used to terrify me. Now I look forward to my runs through, dodging water taxis, fuel ships, ferries, tugs, barges, superyachts and pleasure boats – but I have a much better idea of what they are going to do and where they are going to go.

    • Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

      Thanks for the stories, Chris!

      At this point I think you might enjoy the route west of Staten Island — Raritan Bay to Kill van Kull, or vice versa. It’s a little longer, but also easy going with nearly zero cross traffic in well-protected waters. And the industrial/historical waterfront scenery is amazing, I thought.

      • Chris L-S says:

        Yeah… that’s actually something I’ve wanted to try. We usually take a 6 week trip from our home port in Albany NY, down the Hudson, around the south side of Long Island, up through Buzzards, through the Cape Cod Canal and then stop in southern Maine or Mass and work our way back. We often end up in Atlantic Highlands on one of the last legs (unless we decide to come back through the sound and stop off at places like Port Jeff and Old Saybrook, and City Island (like you, we love those massive platters of seafood you can get there – we usually grab a mooring at City Island Yacht Club when there since they have free 24×7 launch service and the guest moorings are generally in their first row) and I’ve eyed up that passage up through the Kill van Kull but always wondered about shipping traffic through there. We got 6 knots unless we’ve got a favorable current with us, so getting out of the way of large ships can be interesting. However, this year, due to the circumstances, we’re skipping our trip so it will be at least another year before I get to pass through that area.

        • Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

          I think you’ll be fine in there, Chris. We saw little traffic, mostly small tugs and no freaking commuter cats doing 30k outside the channel markers 😉 Then again, I’ve only done the passage once and it was 9/11 (and a Panbo reader got a nice shot of us flagged up and riding the tide near the 59th st. bridge)


          • Chris s/v/ Pelican says:

            Funny.. reminds me of one more story for New York Harbor. We were coming down the Hudson on July 3rd a few years ago and approaching the George Washington Bridge. We saw a ton of flashing lights under the bridge and wondered what was going on. When we were within a half mile, one of the larger vessels with its lights flashing peeled off from the group and headed for us. As they got closer, we could see it was a Homeland Security fast attack vessel of some sort (didn’t know they had these) with a guy on the front with a 50 caliber trained at us. As they pulled alongside, they yelled to follow them, so of course we complied. They brought us over the the large gathering of lights which turned out to be other vessels from Homeland Security, the Coast Guard, the NYPD, the Border Patrol and the Department of Energy (who knew they had boats). There were 8 boats formed into a gauntlet with 4 on each side. We were told to pass through the gauntlet. We asked what was going on and they said it was classified. So (ever so slowly as a sailboat under power) we did. We were then told to do it a second time.. all this time with multiple guns aimed at us. They then told us we could vacate the area and continue on our original course. I asked, again, what was going on, and the guy I spoke with this time told me that they were doing radiation checks on vessels as they had a threat for the 4th of July. We’ve had other interactions with military and law enforcement vessels since then (including an encounter with a fleet of 10 naval vessels including a submarine and aircraft carrier off the coast of Florida at 2am), but none quite so personal as this one in New York! Always something different every time we go through!

          • Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

            Well, that must have been frightening!

            But I’m also sympathetic to the folks who have to think about the possible dangers, and the simple ugly truth is that you or I could load a large dirty bomb onto our innocent-looking cruising boat and take out the GW bridge, or a cruise ship tied up in Manhattan, or many other things. We still enjoy an amazing amount of freedom to poke around the major harbors known in the security trade as “soft targets”… but that could change overnight. Past info and thoughts on the subject:



  3. We’ve been through the East River every time we go North or South – always interesting, but never THAT interesting! The trip through at 0300 in 2017 was spooky – fog about 50-100′ up, so all the buildings & bridges just disappeared up into the murk – visibility at water level was fine, but the passage is VERY quiet at that time of night. Didn’t see another moving vessel from Governor’s Island to Hart Island where we anchored after our trip up from the Chesapeake. CH16 is always on, and I usually have Ch13 in “dual watch” when we’re in places like NY Harbor.

  4. Bill says:

    Snap! Not having/using a VHF actively while boating is pretty much 100% as dumb as cycling without a helmet. Within the last year I’ve Mayday-called the Coast Guard after witnessing a helicopter drop from the sky. Long story short – all three passengers survived.

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