It was overcast, pitch black and drizzling. Only a storm and waves could have made the search conditions worse, and we were all thinking the same thing: On an open skiff, with nowhere to hide, the kid must be freezing. Yes, U.S. Coast Guard rescue crews take every search seriously, but we look harder out the window for kids in peril. We should. Get over it.
We had an idea where they were—the father and his 10-year-old son were reported overdue from fishing on the bayou near Delacroix in Louisiana—but we weren’t having any luck finding them. The rescue and coordination center had good data on where the two had put in, and the local sheriff had identified the father’s car and boat trailer, but hours of combing the 16-square-mile search area had turned up nothing.
Then, low on fuel and just minutes from packing it in for the night, we saw a flickering light. It broke through on my night vision goggles.
“Contact right,” I said. “One-thousand yards. Four o’clock.”
The aircraft lurched and the light rose in the window as the helicopter banked.
“Where?” the pilot called out over the internal communication system.
“Waving flashlight. Dead ahead now, 700 yards,” I answered, scrambling out of my seat to get my eyes back on the light.
“I got it, I got it,” the pilot said. The aircraft slowed as we moved toward the vessel.
It was the father and son. Without a VHF radio and out of cell range, the dad had exhausted all his flares before we even got on the scene. He had tried signaling other boats and lit off his night flares in the direction of the marina, but he hadn’t brought a flashlight. He had never planned to be out past dark, or to have engine trouble, I suppose. The flickering light was actually from a life jacket he had set on fire and was holding above his head, until he was sure we saw them. He had melting plastic dripping down his arm and had suffered third-degree burns to his hand before he dropped the jacket into the water.
All successful searches end the same way: Someone puts their eyes on someone else. You might set off an EPIRB or call on a VHF radio, but until someone looks at you, you remain lost. Being found is about being seen, and being seen is harder than you think. This is true if you are on your boat, in a raft or alone in the water. Why? Because the ocean is really big, and you are really small.
Of course, having a VHF radio or EPIRB aboard is a much better plan for signaling than lighting something afire, but if things go wrong, your first communication with a searching aircraft may just be a visual signal. Here’s how to do that part right.
To be seen at sea, you have to make yourself bigger and brighter, and you can do that through active and passive signaling. Lighting off a flare is an active signal; so is waving a flashlight or a flaming life jacket, or using a signal mirror. In land-based survival situations, tying brightly colored clothing in trees is passive signaling; you don’t even have to be there for it to work.
If you’re hoping to be found at sea, remember that passive signals are the ones you can’t or don’t control once deployed, and active signals are the ones that require your participation. Strobe lights and EPIRBs are active-passive. (I just made that up.) You have to turn them on, but they do all the work after that.
If you are lucky enough to be on something that floats instead of in the water, then make yourself as big as possible. If you have spare line, tie it off and let it drift down-current from your vessel (not too far), and then tie something else off. Then do it again to create a line of debris that leads back to you. Spare life jackets, seat cushions, empty coolers and life rings are things that aren’t going to do you any good on board, but a 20-yard chain of debris trailing behind you could catch the eye of someone else. Mount your strobe lights, too, and turn them on. If you know someone is searching for you, then you don’t need to worry about conserving batteries. And if you haven’t already, turn on your EPIRB—even if you called for rescue via VHF radio, it will give responders a position. Things can change fast out there, and your EPIRB will give search aircraft a needle to follow, one that’s pointing straight at you.
If you are in the water, the same rules apply, but there’s more urgency. You need to make yourself bigger. If you are abandoning your vessel—desperate times, indeed—then take everything you can with you. Gather spare life jackets and anything else that floats, and bring it all in the water. If at all possible, stay with others in your crew. Tie yourselves together, since this is no time to be alone if you don’t have to be.
It is critical that you activate your electronic signals early. Strobe lights are designed to flash for at least 18 hours, and most LED lights last much longer. Turn them on and mount them, even if it is the middle of the day. You don’t know how well your hands will work when night falls.
Your active signals—flares, signal mirrors, flashlights (my favorite) and sea dye markers—are much more effective if you know someone is looking in your direction. Sending up a single flare isn’t a bad idea if you think there may be a vessel close enough to see it, but save what you can for searching aircraft and vessels. It is likely that you will see them before they see you, and this is when you should get to work. Send up flares and point your waving flashlights when you are confident that searching eyes are looking in your direction. A helicopter or plane has navigation lights just like your boat’s, and it is rare that the occupants are looking backward. Wait until you are somewhere between the search crew’s eight to four o’clock position before popping smoke or burning a flare.
And if you’re in the water, splash around if you can. Think about how much bigger you’ll look if you create a ring of white water around you in a dark sea.
The ocean is really big, and you are really small. I don’t care if you’re on a bright-white, 26-foot center console; from a mile away, the difference between your hull and a long rolling whitecap is nothing. Make yourself bigger. Make yourself brighter. And do so when it matters most.