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Sailing With Charlie: Help!

Graphics by Hannah Welch
Graphics by Hannah Welch

Emergency procedures are not to be taken lightly when venturing out onto the ocean. There are all kinds of devices that can be employed in the event of a serious catastrophe. Charlie commonly teaches the ASA 104 Bareboat course and all these methods must be memorized. In real life, though, you would never use them while cruising the bareboat circuit – at least in the BVI. Why would you deploy a life raft in BVI waters … sitting there baking in the hot sun awaiting rescue when you could climb into your dinghy and motor ashore. In all cruising areas in the wonderful archipelago of the BVI, you are never more than six miles from land.

Some methods described in the text book are doubtful. Firing off a gun may frighten away would be rescuers. Waving outstretched arms up and down may elicit an equal response, like: “Hey! How you doin’.” Lighting a fire on board might get you: “Look, they’re havin’ a barbie.”

The tried and true method of getting help is the VHF radio, Channel 16. Students are told to only call Mayday in the event of potential loss of life situations – and this does not include running aground where you are expected to get off yourself. So, when a dire circumstance arises, transmit on Ch.16 and say ‘May Day’, three times. Then give the name of your vessel, the nature of the emergency and your location. Your location: ‘I’m in the BVI’, common 30 years ago, is now expected to be more accurate. Interestingly the three emergency calls, in order of seriousness: May Day, Pan Pan (for serious situations but not impending loss of life) and Securite (for warnings or navigational information) are derived from the French language. May Day comes from M’aidez (help me), Pain Pain (I’ve run out of bread) and the other one, self explanatory. But why would the French have the honor of dictating the world’s emergency vocabulary. The answer may well be that in maritime history the French required assistance more than anyone else (the VHF, however, was not common during the Battle of Trafalgar).

Like most safety equipment it is important to read the instructions and, if possible, test the items in question. Flares have expiry dates and these should be checked. Hand-held flares should be pointed downwind of the holder to avoid singed eyebrows. Rocket flares should be fired with a clear trajectory.

Charlie’s friend Jonas kept a flare gun handy in his house (guns are illegal in the BVI) to shoot at possible intruders. One day he was fiddling with the cocking mechanism and it went off. It shot into the wall, bounced off, hit a computer screen, bounced off and hit the wood ceiling, ricocheted onto the couch and burnt a four inch diameter hole right through it before damaging an expensive Mexican floor tile. The house filled with smoke and a devastating fire could have resulted. Conclusion: Don’t fire a flare gun inside your boat unless it’s a life or death situation. In this case an ounce of prevention may not be worth the cure.

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