Distress signals may not always attract attention
by Tom Rau

In most cases, visual distress signals will attract attention to a boater in need, but not always. In those rare cases where they fail to catch the eye, it may have little to do with the eye but rather much to do with the type of distress signal device the eye can detect. Types can be as different as night and day—literally.
And so it was literally the case regarding a recent lifesaving rescue. On July 22, 2008, a 22-foot powerboat rolled over, leaving five fishermen clinging to the hull. The capsizing happened around 10 a.m. on Lake Michigan about three miles off Holland, Michigan.
On July 22, 2008, a couple aboard a 36-foot In an urgent effort to draw attention, the stranded boaters set off several flares they managed to extract from the overturned boat. The hand-held red flares went unnoticed. Determined to attract attention, they attached a distress flag to a fishing pole and waved it overhead. Nearly two hours after the capsizing the orange 3ft x 3ft flag displaying a black square and ball symbol caught the eye of a couple onboard a nearby sailboat.
“When my husband and I first spotted the flag, we first thought it might be a flag used to mark fishing nets,” said Tina Kelsey. “But then my husband, Bill, noticed the flag moved out of sync with the wave motion.”
Tina aimed in on the flag with binoculars and recognized the orange flag with a black square and ball as a day-time international distress signal, knowledge she had acquired in a United States Power Squadron boating safety course. She immediately called the Coast Guard on VHF-FM Channel 16, the International Distress Frequency.
Coast Guardsman, Andrew Duhaime, Station Holland, picked up the call. “The caller right off provided a position and that she had two people in sight in the water. By the time she made a second call, we were on the rescue boat racing towards the latitude and longitude position she provided,” said Duhaime.
“I can’t believe how quickly they got to us,” said Tina Kelsey. When the Holland Coast Guard rescue boat arrived, all five of the survivors were aboard the sailboat. They were transferred to the Coast Guard rescue boat and returned to shore.
A combination of a visual distress signal and VHF-FM marine radio drew the eye and ear that led to a successful rescue.
Ironically, Tina Kelsey had a half hour earlier snapped a pic on her digital camera of a 65-foot powerboat pounding northward into head seas. “My husband and I couldn’t believe the pounding that boat was taking, enough to find me scrambling below deck for my camera,” said Tina. Several hours later the large boat would break up off Little Point Sable.
The captain of the doomed craft fired off an urgent Mayday over VHF-FM Channel 16. A nearby boater heard the Mayday and raced to the rescue. The boat sank in moments, leaving a father and his teenage son in desperate straits. Yet, with a heap of hope: both were wearing life jackets. Hopefully their life jackets carried distress signals: in particular, a day-time orange smoke signal in the event the radio distress call went unheard. As it turned out, both were rescued by a “Good Sam” who picked up the distress call along with the Coast Guard.
A lady on shore captured this dramatic boat break-up on a camcorder that caught one of the crewman leaping off the stern.
Whether it be flares, distress flags, or the marine radio, one or all promise to save your life in an emergency. Boat Smart—carry them all.

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:
www.boatsmart.net, www.seaworthy.com,
or through local bookstores.