A version of this story first appeared at Coast Guard Pacific Southwest and was written by Senior Chief Petty Officer Doug Samp, command center supervisor at Coast Guard Sector San Francisco .
I want to tell you about the most useful safety device available today. When you’re going through your underway checklist, this item should be the first and last thing you mark off. It’s simple and it’s free.
It’s called a float plan.
Essentially, it’s a “who, what, where and when” of your boat trip. A completed float plan — validated just prior to getting underway and updated if plans change during the voyage — is the holy grail to a search and rescue controller if something catastrophic happens during your voyage and you’re unable to notify the Coast Guard of your distress.
For a search and rescue controller, a mayday call with the “big four” – vessel position, number of persons aboard, nature of distress and a description of the vessel – or an emergency position indicating radio beacon are typically easier cases to manage because there is a known distress and location. The Coast Guard command center would then assume control of the case; issue an urgent marine information broadcast; launch rescue resources, such as a helicopter or boat; and monitor the case until conclusion when the mariner is safely ashore.
The Coast Guard cannot respond to an incident until they become aware that people or a vessel needs assistance. Some of the toughest cases worked in a Coast Guard command center are the reports of an overdue vessel that has a confirmation of departure from its slip or launch ramp, but hasn’t safely arrived at its destination. This open-ended situation leaves friends, family and search and rescue controllers uncertain about the status of the mariner. Filing a float plan can greatly reduce that uncertainty for everyone by speeding up the response.
Any boater who has been offshore knows the ocean is a big place; trying to locate a or a person floating in the water is a difficult enough proposition without a starting position or a route to initiate a search.
Without a float plan, valuable time is wasted while the search and rescue controller has to fill in the blanks and develop a reasonable search area from scratch. An overdue report usually comes into the command center around 10 p.m. from the concerned spouse or friend who hasn’t heard from their loved one all day.
Believe it or not, the vast majority of people who call the Coast Guard with a report of an overdue vessel have no idea of what kind of vessel their loved one was sailing on or where they planned to go. This leaves the search and rescue controller with a myriad of questions: did the boat stay near a marina? Did it go offshore? Where did it depart from? Where was it going? What should the rescue crews look for? Are these loved ones already at a bar somewhere ashore celebrating the big catch?
A search area for a 25-foot boat reported overdue on a voyage from San Francisco Bay to Monterey Bay is pretty big; the search area only gets bigger over time when the search and rescue controller and family member have to make guesses about a voyage and recreate a route in order to develop a reasonable search area. By filing a properly completed float plan, you take control of the situation, helping the Coast Guard quickly develop a reasonable search area and reduce a mountain of uncertainty for your family members and the search and rescue controller.
You have the world’s greatest Coast Guard watching your back, ready to respond when you get underway. Help yourself and help us by carrying all your safety equipment on board and filing a completed float plan.