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.
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…
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.