Make the Call Count—Know Your Location
by Tom Rau

It can’t be over-stressed how important it is for boaters to know their location, especially if they need immediate assistance. Some boaters, however, labor under the illusion that when they call the Coast Guard, by some magical means the radio watchstander can determine the caller’s location.
You are Here!                                                                                                  You are Here!

How pretty to think so, but it ain’t so. The boater is the only one who can provide his or her location on the water.

Unfortunately, far too often recreational boaters are unable to provide an accurate position, which finds the Coast Guard and other rescue agencies depleting resources and time conducting needless searches: lost time and effort that could prove fatal to a wayward boater.

Lieutenant Commander Chris Day, Coast Guard Station Traverse Air, drives home this point while conducting public safety seminars. The veteran Coast Guard aviator conducts a drill he calls “make the call count.” Using a hand-held tape recorder, he asks participants to pretend it’s a marine radio and they are transmitting a Mayday over Channel 16, the International Hailing and Distress frequency. Commander Day then selects someone from the group to issue a Mayday. Five to seven seconds into the broadcast, he switches off the tape recorder, simulating a dead radio for whatever reasons. Then he plays back the brief segment. Participants are stunned how they wasted precious time communicating frivolous information. “Make the call count,” he stresses: “Mayday, Mayday I’m five miles off Betsy Point, end transmission. That’s enough information to launch Coast Guard boats and aircraft to process a successful rescue,” said Day.

Two fishermen whose 35-foot fishing boat sank off Ludington Harbor on April 12, 2005 late at night could well have been in the audience to reap the Commander’s life-saving advice, for in the few moments before their boat went down, they fired off a Mayday that provided the following information in less than ten seconds: location, number of people aboard and nature of distress. Text book perfect and it saved their lives. As he slipped on his anti exposure suit, one crewman was going down with the boat, but due to the suit’s buoyancy he popped to the surface after ascending twenty feet below the surface, according to Mat Herrmann, the Coast Guardsman coxswain who rescued the pair.

It took twenty-two minutes from the time Group Grand Haven received the Mayday, to the time the Coast Guard Ludington crew aboard a 30-foot rescue boat reached the two fishermen bobbing in 35-degree water in 3-4 foot seas approximately 5.5 nautical miles northwest of Ludington Harbor, the GPS position provided in the Mayday. I spoke with Joe Loverti, the radio operator at Group Grand Haven who intercepted the initial call, and he told me a crewman immediately provided the boat’s position (range and bearing to Ludington Harbor and latitude and longitude) and in seconds the transmission ended. Moments later he received a second call from the operator, who again passed his location and that the boat was going down. End transmission.

On May 14, 2005, in another spectacular “make the call count” rescue, a Coast Guard boat crew from Station Kenosha, Wisconsin, pulled three fishermen from the waters off Kenosha in early evening after a crewman fired off an urgent Mayday. Both Station Kenosha and Group Milwaukee intercepted the urgent call for help, which carried the boat’s latitude and longitude (4 nautical miles west of Kenosha), number of people aboard, and that was it was rapidly taking on water. Station Kenosha immediately launched a 41-foot rescue boat and 16 minutes later, after pounding through four-foot seas, reached the three fishermen clinging to their overturned19-foot aluminum boat in 45-degree water. From near by Illinois, a Winthrop Harbor police helicopter crew also responded to the Channel 16 Mayday and was the first to reach the overturned craft. The copter hovered overhead, awaiting the Coast Guard boat.
Boat Smart Brief:

“These guys did everything right: they immediately provided their location, they wore life jackets, and they fired off a flare,” said Coast Guardsman Ben Spafford, the coxswain aboard the rescue boat. Also, I might add the crewman wisely used Channel 16 and not a cell phone, which alerted the maritime community at large, including the Winthrop Harbor police helicopter. In both Mayday cases, the people in the water (PIW) were wearing lifejackets or survival suits; however, the PIWs’ flotation devices did not carry night illumination devices like a strobe light or glow stick, a must for night-time boating. The survival suits did, however, carry reflective material that the search light on the Ludington rescue boat picked up, which lead to the fishermen’s rescue. Both cases also reinforced an observation that I have witnessed over nineteen years of writing Boat Smart columns and as a Coast Guard rescue responder: boats can sink in a heartbeat and often do.

For me, the most gratifying aspect of the rescue is that the boaters knew how to do the right things. While being interviewed by Fox 6 television, one of the survivors stated he owed his life to the Coast Guard Auxiliary and lessons he learned during a boating safety class sponsored by Flotilla 51, Station Kenosha. How sweet it is when boaters learn to take responsibility for their own safety. So tell me, are you prepared to make the call count? If you’re boat smart, you are.

Tom Rau is a long-time Coast Guard rescue responder and syndicated boating safety columnist.

Look for his book, Boat Smart Chronicles, a shocking expose on recreational boating — reads like a great ship’s log spanning over two decades. It’s available to order at:,,, or through local bookstores.

All contents are copyright (c) 2007 by Northern Breezes, Inc. All information contained within is deemed reliable but carries no guarantees. Reproduction of any part or whole of this publication in any form by mechanical or electronic means, including information retrieval is prohibited except by consent of the publisher.