Kayaker Missing off Everett WA

AM

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While I agree that carrying an appropriate communication device is always wise — and that discussion of the merits of this or that device are instructive — this sort of incident is not about technology — invariably it’s about the person, their ability, and their decision making. Without knowing more about this young man and his paddling experience, we really can’t take away much from this story.

But yes, VHF all the way. And a sat beacon too.

Cheers,
Andrew
 

alexsidles

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Here are a few observations from my use of a non-DSC VHF radio plus a standalone GPS unit during a rescue last summer:

I. Describing location. In the thread above, John Abercrombie mentions tracking and describing his location not by lat/long but by reference to known points, e.g., “about one mile south of XXXX island.”

During my rescue, I broadcast what I thought was a precise and unambiguous location along the lines John describes: “north jetty, at the east end of the jetty, a hundred yards from the jetty, and being carried westward by the current.” As it turns out, however, there are two distinct points that can each plausibly be described as the east end of the north jetty. The two points are more than a mile apart and, from certain angles, do not lie within line-of-sight of one another. The coast guard could not figure out where I was based on my description, while I, in turn, could not figure out what was so damn hard about searching the north jetty.

II. Reading and reciting coordinates. Earlier in this thread, John and Paul describe the difficulty of reading lat/long off a GPS unit. First, the information is sometimes buried several menus deep. Second, upon activation, the unit will erroneously give its previous location as its current location until the unit locks on to the signal, and it is not always obvious when signal lock-on has occurred. Third, depending how your display is configured, it is possible to confuse the destination coordinates with the location coordinates. (Confusion of this nature was a contributing factor to a friendly fire incident involving US forces in Afghanistan in 2014.)

Finally, as I discovered during my rescue, it’s a challenge to recite a long string of digits in an intelligible manner while waves are breaking over your head. Also, a standalone GPS demands the use of both hands, one for the radio, one for the GPS, leaving no free hands to hold on to the boat or the paddle.

III. Transmitting. As Jim notes, my transmissions gradually became garbled and eventually ceased altogether as water increasingly muffled the microphone. George Gronseth of the Kayak Academy in Issaquah, a co-author of Deep Trouble, has long complained that radios marketed as waterproof aren’t actually suitable for the rigors of kayaking. At most, he writes, “if the only time your radio ever gets exposed to water is in a single emergency where you had to take it out of the bag to use it, then most radios that are rated as ‘submersible’ (i.e. per IPX8 or JIS7) would probably function long enough at the surface of the water to get a call out for help.”

My so-called submersible radio did, indeed, survive submersion just barely long enough to make the call. But if it had taken another ten minutes to sort out the confusion surrounding my location, my radio would have been inadequate. (Even in that event, however, I still had a PLB, a backup radio, multiple species of flare including large parachute flares, an air horn, and a cell phone; plus people on shore had already seen me and were yelling and calling for help.)

As Phil and others suggest in the thread above, each of these difficulties could have been avoided by use of a DSC radio or a PLB. In the end, however, the difficulties I experienced turned out to be harmless. In fact, although I carried a PLB on me, I did not activate it, since it was always clear I was going to be rescued. And of course, DSC and PLB each introduce new weaknesses of their own. DSC drains your battery during non-emergency use; handheld DSC units take longer to acquire the GPS signal than a standalone GPS unit does; a PLB can’t confirm whether your distress signal has actually been received, etc., etc.

Someday, they’ll make a gadget where you can just push a button that says, “Solve all my problems right now.” But, as Andrew notes, the gadgets we have today do not remotely work that well. As I discovered in a harmless fashion, and as James Lesemann of Everett discovered in a fatal fashion, our gadgets fail under the very conditions that cause us to need them.

I’ve sent the coast guard a Freedom of Information Act request for any recordings of my distress call and the subsequent radio traffic. If Rescue 21 retained it, I’ll post it on WCP … unless I sound like a total goober on the tape, in which case forget it.

Alex
 

kayakwriter

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Alex, thanks so much for sharing your experience-based expertise; it certainly carries a lot more weight than all our theorizing. If you're up for sharing the tapes if and when they surface, I'd be really interested. As you may know, I'm also an instructor/examiner for the ROC (M) (the cert needed to use a VHF in Canada.) It would be really educational to be able to share examples of transmissions where the s**t is really hitting the fan. Super teachable moments, literally.
 

Nick Heath

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Overall I'm a little surprised that PLBs are not more popular among kayakers and other paddlers, as they are for crew on much larger and more capable sailboats. (Mandatory for many orgazized events.) I carry one on on my PFD. for me, it is a backup. I'd use the VHF radio first. PLBs are inexpensive and you don't have to worry about battery life for a few years - but - you only can only activate them one time and then they need a new battery. i think that's fair enough if it just saved your life!
 

jefffski

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Here are a few observations from my use of a non-DSC VHF radio plus a standalone GPS unit during a rescue last summer:

I During my rescue, I broadcast what I thought was a precise and unambiguous location along the lines John describes:

Great point about using recognized place names. A problem I encountered when I made a call to the police non-emergency line about an incident was that the call taker had no idea of ANY of the place names, from specific (Jug Island) to the general (Indian Arm). Even at Whistler Blackcomb, when I broke my ankle and called Patrol dispatch, they garbled my instructions about where I was to the crew, even though I was on a marked run. I told them to stay left, they were told to keep right.

II. Upon activation, the unit will erroneously give its previous location as its current location until the unit locks on to the signal, and it is not always obvious when signal lock-on has occurred.

I've noticed this with my handheld GPS. So, it's a good reminder to turn on the unit occasionally, especially at the start of the day, to get the new location.

Also, a standalone GPS demands the use of both hands, one for the radio, one for the GPS, leaving no free hands to hold on to the boat or the paddle.

I had never considered this. Great point.

III. Transmitting. As Jim notes, my transmissions gradually became garbled and eventually ceased altogether as water increasingly muffled the microphone.

Yikes. so many issues I had never considered.
 
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cougarmeat

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Nick, though the contact between PLB's and Search & Rescue is more direct than when using "Here I am." devices like The Spot, InReach, Zeleo, etc. let you share your location with others back home without calling up the cavalry. Also, those devices use easy-to-find, easy to replace AA or AAA batteries.

The last time I checked the battery for the PLB was rated for five years. That's five years since the device was built, not five years since you bought it. If a PLB is sold at a discount, it might be that a bit of time (a year, etc.) has passed on that battery. When it runs out, you had to send the device in to have the battery replaced at a cost of about $100. So that has to figure into the long-term cost. Also testing of the PLB seemed more complicated and had less frequent opportunities than the more general communicators - which are "tested" each time you send an Okay/Check-in message.

That's why I would use something besides a PLB - BUT I WOULD USE SOMETHING. It seems a shame, whether someone is stuck in the water or stuck in the snow and the outcome turns for the worse, that they could have had a much better result had the person only needed to push a button to tell someone their exact Lat/Long location (at the time of the button push).
 

JohnAbercrombie

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PLB response times are shorter than SPOT and other devices, according to reports.
I think a PLB takes less time to 'boot up' and once a signal is transmitted, the 'rescue authorities' are contacted more directly.
Also, for me, the unit size is a factor - the PLB fits into that excellent inner pocket in my MsFit PFD; the Zoleo and SPOT are quite a bit (150%?) bigger.
For me, the PLB is always in my PFD for 'Mayday' situations. On trips the 'satellite communicator- SPOT, now ZOLEO- is with the gear that goes to shore for the evening check-in, and in my pocket if I go for a walk.
In a world/hobby where folks pay $700 for a paddle the price of a PLB doesn't seem so high.

Also - DSC 'SOS' only works if your signal gets (mostly via line of sight transmission) to a DSC receiver that's listening. And that may not be the rescue services.
So the more remote the area, the more I would tend to rely on the satellite devices.
 

chodups

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The last time I checked the battery for the PLB was rated for five years. That's five years since the device was built, not five years since you bought it. If a PLB is sold at a discount, it might be that a bit of time (a year, etc.) has passed on that battery. When it runs out, you had to send the device in to have the battery replaced at a cost of about $100. So that has to figure into the long-term cost. Also testing of the PLB seemed more complicated and had less frequent opportunities than the more general communicators - which are "tested" each time you send an Okay/Check-in message.
I guess that I am a belt and suspenders kind of guy. I wear a VHF, Spot and EPIRB.

My cell phone doesn't figure in to my rescue plans. Not even a consideration. It is stored out of reach below deck in a waterproof box with my wallet, car keys, passport and the float plan that I filed with the local authority. If my boat is found folks will know it belongs to me.

I use the Spot to let anyone who cares to know, where I am. It placates my wife and friends and helps them follow along. Everyone knows that if they don't get a message it don't mean a thing. The "Save My Ass" function is a "nice-to-have" but not something that I consider a great asset and not what what I would want to place my bets on if things are taking a dark turn.

The VHF has other uses besides "Save-My-Ass" and I would use it to contact listeners if I was in need of help but not in fear of dying. I, also, obviously use it for contacting shipping traffic if I am in-play.

My EPIRB I view as my Hand-of-God, only to be fired off if I was in fear of dying or in the act of dying. It is strictly a "Save-My-Ass" or last living act to direct people to my remains type of device. As such, I have no issue with testing procedures or the 2-times-per-decade battery replacement and cost. My wife agrees.
 
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JKA

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My EPIRB I view as my Hand-of-God, only to be fired off if I was in fear of dying or in the act of dying. It is strictly a "Save-My-Ass" or last living act to direct people to my remains type of device.
Interestingly the rescue folk here are getting quite proactive in getting people to trigger their PLB BEFORE they are in real trouble!

Their argument is that they would rather help someone than have to respond to a life-threatening event.

Search and Rescue base coordinator Jono Gillan says "he made a prudent decision to call for help".



 

kayakwriter

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I'm all over having the PLB as well as the DSC VHF too. I just last month had the battery replaced in my PLB for the second time, I've had it that long. So between the initial purchase and two battery replacements I've probably spent $700 or $800 for a device I've never used and hope never to use. And I couldn't be happier about that fact!

We chewed this over in another thread, but a reminder that to ensure best response time with PLB/EPIRBs, keep the registration information up to date. (In Canada, you do that here.) With the high false alarm rate, SAR's first reaction to a squawk from a PLB is usually to pick up the phone and call you or your named contact(s). Once they've confirmed you're really out on the big blue, that's when they scramble the resources.
 

kayakwriter

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Also - DSC 'SOS' only works if your signal gets (mostly via line of sight transmission) to a DSC receiver that's listening. And that may not be the rescue services.So the more remote the area, the more I would tend to rely on the satellite devices.
We're fortunate in BC in that the Coast Guard has installed a chain of repeater antennas at high points up and down the coast. It doesn't mean that civilian VHFs can talk to one another, but it does mean that the odds of a civilian VHF being able to contact the Coast Guard are high. Even with my handheld VHF, I've only been out of range of the weather broadcasts (and so, I assume, the Coast Guard), when I've been way up some fjord and deep in a radio shadow.
fig4-17-eng Coast Guard VHF coverage west coast.png
 

kayakwriter

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Nowadays, the PLB/EPIRB signal has the GPS co-ordinates, doesn't it?
Yup, and it's been that way for any new units on the market for years. I take your point - the lat/long should be showing them that hey, yeah, this PLB is in the middle of Georgia Strait, not alongside the marine pub at Winter Harbour. So I probably phrased my initial comment poorly: as I understand it, a lot of the false alarms are accidental activations on fishing boats and the like. So SAR isn't really so much trying to confirm where you are as whether the alert they're receiving is for real.
 

alexsidles

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One other benefit of VHF over PLB: with VHF, every boat that carries a marine radio (whether carriage is voluntary or compulsory) is required by law to monitor channel 16 or, within areas designated GMDSS Sea Area A1 (which, since 2015, includes all the coasts of the continental US except the Great Lakes), a boat may instead monitor DSC distress channel 70 plus such other frequencies as may be necessary for safe navigation.

The upshot for me during my rescue was that many boats heard and responded to my call, not just the coast guard. In fact, two civilian boats found me first, first a cabin cruiser that lacked the seamanship to maneuver in the difficult conditions, then a commercial fishing boat that was able to get me out.

With a PLB, only the coast guard would have heard me. Maybe they would have eventually broadcast my position to all boats, but they might have some protocol to go through first to avoid spreading rumors and panic, whereas with my VHF I could take communications into my own hands and spread as much panic as I liked.

Alex
 

kayakwriter

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One other benefit of VHF over PLB: with VHF, every boat that carries a marine radio (whether carriage is voluntary or compulsory) is required by law to monitor channel 16 or, within areas designated GMDSS Sea Area A1 (which, since 2015, includes all the coasts of the continental US except the Great Lakes), a boat may instead monitor DSC distress channel 70 plus such other frequencies as may be necessary for safe navigation.
It's a slightly different situation in Canada. Essentially only large commercial vessels are actually required to maintain a watch on 16; smaller and voluntarily equipped vessels are only highly encouraged to do so. (Kayakers with handheld VHFs out on daytrips could probably maintain a constant watch; kayakers on multiday expeditions in remote areas would probably rather conserve their battery power in case they need to transmit.)

But your point is a good one: being able to transmit to any vessel that's in your vicinity (and monitoring 16/70) ups the odds that help will be nearer than the closest SAR base. It's a very strong pro for a VHF. The pros of a PLB are its one-button, sealed-unit reliability and effectively unlimited range. To me, that makes a strong case for carrying both if you can possibly afford to. Aside from having complementary capabilities, having both provides some redundancy in case one fails at the moment of need.
 

JohnAbercrombie

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And even in the US, I think it's a case of:
Vessels not required to carry a marine radio (e.g. recreational vessels less than 20m length), but which voluntarily carry a radio, must maintain a watch on channel 16 whenever the radio is operating and not being used to communicate.
So it's not a requirement to have the radio turned on all the time.
Fortunately for people needing help, most boaters do have the radio turned on and put up with the 90% inane chatter that occupies the VHF channels.
 

Kayak Jim

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...and while the chatter may not be always heard as it falls into the background noise of the engine, or due to the operator being on deck rather than in the cabin, the DSC alert squawk might be more difficult to ignore.
 
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