Cell Phones Do Not Replace... - 07/28/2017
Cell Phones Don’t Replace VHF Radios

If you have an emergency situation a cell phone is no substitute for a marine VHF radio.

I Needed to call the USCG Immediately and only had a cell phone

I had just taken delivery of a new 22’ boat and I was excited about getting out on the water quickly. The boat was not yet equipped with a VHF radio, but I wanted to get out on the water and do a little fishing. It was a beautiful weekday afternoon. I was casting jigs, going for spotted sea trout when I heard a voice: “help, help, over here, over here.” I looked toward the horizon and saw a man in the water. He was waving a large piece of wood.

The Rescue

I pushed the throttles down and raced to him. The man, who was a marine mechanic, had fallen out of his 17-foot boat while talking on his cell phone and a large wake from another boat had hit him. Worse, he and neglected to clip the kill-switch lanyard to his belt so the engine was still in gear, pushing the boat at about 5 knots! I pulled him aboard, then we raced to his boat about a mile up the bay and he got back aboard.

Just as I left the cold, soaking-wet mechanic, a Coast Guard helicopter appeared. The USCG crew was searching for him already. Turns out the guy on the other end of the cell phone heard a splash and called the Coast Guard.

The USCG to the Rescue

OK. I needed to tell the Coast Guard to call off the search. With no VHF radio, I had to use my cell phone. It took me 15 minutes to get the right number from the phone company’s information service. During this time, the chopper had circled the bay about five times, needlessly burning fuel paid for by US taxpayers. If I had a VHF radio, the CG would have heard my message instantly. Lesson learned: there’s no substitute for a VHF radio.

Help Could Be Closer than the Coast Guard

US Coast Guard Capt. Greg Kinney, who heads the search and rescue operations, said that if you are using your cell phone to call for help “you’re calling the CG alone. But when you are on VHF channel 16 and calling for help, other boaters in the area can hear you and answer, too.”

The CG estimates that 10 percent of Mayday calls come through cell phones.

C.L., Sarasota, FL

BoatTEST invites you to send in your boating “Safety Tip of the Day”. Just email it to:editorial@BoatTEST.com. If you have a picture to illustrate it, please send it along, too. Many thanks!


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