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August 14, 2007 > Vessel Assist helps find lost sailboat

Vessel Assist helps find lost sailboat

Submitted By Scott Croft, BoatU.S.

July 25 started like any other day at the Vessel Assist, 24-hour call center located in Newport Beach, California. The center receives hundreds of calls on weekends from boaters asking for on-the-water assistance or tows back to port. But dispatcher Fred Hunt knew something was really wrong when the captain of the 26-foot sailboat, Blew By You, began hailing the U.S. Coast Guard at around 9 a.m. requesting assistance. The boat was hopelessly lost in fog miles from shore due to an electrical system failure that cut power to the navigation electronics. The crew had become disoriented during the night due to the pea soup weather. The sailboat had left the previous day from Santa Barbara for passage to San Diego.

With their cell phone useless that far offshore and their main VHF radio dead, the captain and his crewmate relied on their last piece of functioning communications gear - a five-watt, hand-held VHF radio - to desperately hail the Coast Guard for help in finding their way home. But, due to the boat's significant distance from shore, the Coast Guard never heard their calls for help. Their calls, however, were heard by Vessel Assist's VHF radio dispatch network, a unique series of elevated radio towers with high-power radio equipment stationed along the Pacific Ocean coastline. It was the only communications gear able to pick up the lost boaters' radio transmission.

Hunt quickly notified his supervisor, the center's assistant manager Shawn Landin, who immediately notified the Coast Guard. Landin, Hunt and the Coast Guard then began a three-hour exercise to try to determine the sailboat's location. "They were a needle in the haystack of ocean swells," said Landin. The Vessel Assist team quickly identified the specific "high site," or radio tower picking up the handheld VHF signal - in Malibu - that gave rescuers their first clue on the boat's location. "It narrowed it down to about 100 square miles," said Landin.

As the morning progressed the Vessel Assist dispatch team relayed communication between the sailboat and Coast Guard, ultimately pinpointing Blew By You's location with the help of visual cues from a passing freighter and a Good Samaritan boater. At one point the situation became more serious as Blew By You's captain was struck in the head by the boom. Using all of the information gathered from the Vessel Assist call center, the Coast Guard launched a helicopter and C-130 and was ultimately able to locate the sailboat. A Coast Guard vessel team boarded Blew By You and provided medical assistance to the captain, and departed. The captain then remained aboard with his crewmate as Vessel Assist Ventura towed the boat 45 miles back to Marina del Rey.

Vessel Assist recommends that boaters going off shore consider renting an Emergency Position Indicating Rescue Beacon (EPIRB) from the BoatU.S. Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water. EPIRBs are rented by the week for a nominal $40 fee. The beacons can provide rescuers with critical location information when cruising beyond normal VHF radio and cellular telephone range. Go to http://www.BoatUS.com/Foundation/EPIRB for more information or call 888-663-7472.

Boat Owners Association of The United States (BoatU.S.) is the nation's leading advocate for recreational boaters providing its 650,000 members with a wide array of consumer services, including on-the-water towing assistance provided by TowBoatU.S. and Vessel Assist Pacific. Combined, these two towing fleets offer North American boaters the largest network of U.S., Canadian and Bahamian towing ports with over 280 locations and nearly 500 towing assistance vessels - twice that of any other service provider.

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