Calling in the Cavalry

Tragedies at sea teach us to stay prepared



Whenever I read about offshore boating and fishing fatalities, I feel at once sad and vulnerable. The ocean that brings us such joy and exhibits such beauty also possesses incredible power, much more than any of us anticipate.

The death of a Texas angler who succumbed in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico this month reminds me of the sea’s many potential dangers. It also reminds me that what I fear might happen out there really can happen to me.

According to news reports, Ed Coen and his friend Ken Henderson had tied up their 30-foot boat to an oilrig to fish when the vessel began to take on water. Henderson and Coen jumped into action, but it was already too late. Soon they were floating in their life vests in chilly water. The two were eventually forced to separate. Henderson survived the 35-hour ordeal; Coen did not. (Read the initial news report for more details here.)

Naturally, I find myself wondering what I might do differently, thinking through possible alternatives. My reasoning: If I examine such tragedies, maybe I can better protect myself. I keep coming back to signaling devices — EPIRBs and PLBs (personal locater beacons). Having one is not a rescue guarantee, but it definitely increases survival chances.

Some boats I fish from carry EPIRBS. I own a PLB as well, but do I take it fishing every time I go? Unfortunately not.

I asked Chris Wahler, product line manager at ACR Products, which makes EPIRBs and PLBs, about his take on the Gulf tragedy and the impact of signaling beacons on offshore safety. Here are his comments:

“We don’t have any specific insight about this tragedy but our hearts go out to the Coen family in their time of great loss. We can tell you that it is events like this that the U.S. Coast Guard and National Boating Safety Advisory Council are reviewing to get a better understanding how mandatory 406MHz EPIRB or PLB carriage by recreational boaters could change the outcome.”

Wahler says the Coast Guard lists four basic elements that make up successful rescues: an alert, a position, a means of active signaling and a survivable situation. “406MHz beacons are very effective at the first three,” Wahler says. “It is up to each of us as mariners to be prepared to survive the environments we find ourselves in long enough to give the Coast Guard a reasonable chance of getting there. Having a reliable means of distress communications is paramount in getting a rescue effort started.”

That settles it: My PLB has just become mandatory on all fishing trips.