Sooner or later, we might encounter a situation where, either ourselves or our friends, are in need of assistance on the water.
As a former military SAR operational helicopter pilot, I feel it is worthwhile to share some insight into what the applicable Rescue Coordination Center (RCC), and ultimately the crew of a SAR helicopter will be thinking and expecting if the worst should happen and you determine that a Mayday call is warranted.
For the exercise, lets assume that you are 80 miles offshore in deteriorating weather ( beaufort scale 7) and have had an electrical fire onboard your vessel. The result has been:
1. A loss of engine power and therefore loss of directional control.
2. A loss of most radio communication although VHF-FM does still work….for now.
3. Forty five minutes after the engine failure, the vessel was hit hard abeam by a 30 foot wave resulting in a person onboard your vessel being thrown, and breaking their leg.
RCC will look at all options and resources in order to help you in the least amount of time. If the situation is not deemed to be life threatening, and the Captain of the vessel determines that they need mechanical assistance and nothing more, the appropriate marine resource will most likely be dispatched. Information would be passed to the applicable regional operational SAR air resource and preliminary planning would be initiated by the duty crew in order to launch in minimal time if the situation changes and lives are in imminent danger.
With the above situation, a working VHF-FM is a key factor in determining what the Captain of the vessel should do in order to communicate effectively with the RCC. It would be in the crew’s best interest to get as much information of the vessel’s/ passenger particulars to the RCC in case the VHF-FM is lost later because of the effects of the fire as well.
In the era of GPS, it is reasonable to assume that the crew of the vessel will have a solid fix on their position and be able to pass this position to the RCC, however, I have been on numerous missions where we called the distressed vessel on Channel 16, and had the Captain of the vessel perform a long count . We would then home (DF steer) the long count signal and cross reference the HSI (Horizontal Situation indicator) needle with the radar images that corresponded to the vessel’s LKP (Last known Position).
If , in the above scenario, the VHF-FM eventually fails, it is important that the Captain of the vessel turn on the ELT and leave it on. All marine and air SAR resources will be able to home the ELT and find the vessel in distress irrespective of the weather conditions.
In our exercise, the situation deteriorates and a person is injured onboard the vessel. If this injury happened after the VHF-FM was lost, the Captain should activate the ELT, thereby escalating the response from RCC. This would be interpreted that conditions had changed and lives were now in danger. Air SAR resources would be dispatched immediately from the nearest regional SAR resource.
A typical Canadian SAR helicopter crew consists of 2 pilots (One being the aircraft commander), a flight engineer (Hoist Operator) and 2 SARTECHS (Search and Rescue Technicians). The aircraft commander ultimately has control over the safety of the crew and aircraft. As the helicopter is enroute to the vessel in distress, the crew is receiving updates on the condition of the POB’s (persons on board), the sea state as reported from the Captain and the type of vessel. From this information, a plan is formed by the crew which draw on previous experience to determine the best course of action.
For example, sailboats have extensive rigging which make it difficult to hoist a SARTECH to the deck if the sea state is high and the boat is rolling/pitching. If the situation was such that it was deemed necessary to abandon a sailboat, the SAR crew might elect to ask the vessel to tie the liferaft to the stern of the boat on an extended painter line, inflate the life raft and then abandon the sailboat. This would enable the crew to safely hoist the vessel occupants, away from the rigging of the sailboat. Sometimes there is not time to inflate life rafts but instead, the vessel crew members find themselves abandoning the boat by jumping into the sea. Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind is hypothermia due to water temperature. It is therefore imperative that immersion suits be carried for all vessel members if the marine environment and planned trip should include cold waters.
If the situation allows a hoist to the deck of a vessel, when the first SARTECH is lowered to the deck there will be an anti-static cord dangling from the hoist. Do not grab this cord. If you do, there will be a static discharge from the helicopter to the vessel, through you. It is quite a jolt.
Stand back and let the SARTECHs come to you. After the members are on deck, there will be a stokes litter lowered with a guideline attached to the SARTECHs on deck. This allows them to guide the stokes litter safely to the deck in bad sea states.
Once the patient is stabilized, they will carry the stokes litter to the hoisting point on the deck and the patient will be hoisted up to the helicopter.
In our scenario, the vessel was dead in the water. This complicates the hoisting procedure but the hoist can be effectively carried out by an experienced SAR crew. If your vessel is able to maintain steerage, it is advisable to follow the helicopter crew’s instructions. They will most likely require you to maintain 3-5 knots headway while steering 30 degrees out of wind, taking into consideration the sea state and it’s effect on the stability of the vessel in the roll plane.
The US Coastguard deploys a Rescue swimmer from the helicopter. This individual usually is a free swimmer ( unattached to the hoist). As well, the US coastguard uses a “rescue basket”. I have used both and prefer the rescue basket over the stokes litter if the patient is able to move under their own strength. The rescue basket can also be used to pickup individuals in open water because the upper edge is outfitted with flotation. The basket sinks into the water to the float level, allowing easy access for hypothermic individuals to basically “fall” into the basket and then be hoisted up. This is an improvement over the old “billy pugh” system.
In any event, I hope that you find value in this information. It is important to always remember that there are usually many factors or “links” that lead to a situation whereby one finds themselves calling for rescue by the appropriate authorities. More often than not, breaking the chain by removing one link is all that is required to prevent disaster at sea. Be prepared, informed and always operate your vessel within the capabilities of the crew and the vessel itself.