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Talking to a giant tanker from a little plastic boat

Why kayakers should make (and understand) sécurité calls

It’s kayaking season here in New England, and as I was returning to the water this year I realized I needed to reacquaint myself with VHF radio usage.

So I’m going to share this story from last summer in hopes that it helps some other kayakers in a similar situation, as I haven’t found a ton of info about this myself.

Here’s the moral, before the story: if you’re kayaking around motorized boats, particularly in the ocean, you should have a VHF radio and know how, when, and why to make sécurité calls. (More on how to do it below.)

Now, the story

Last summer, my fiancé and I were out on a five day kayaking and camping trip in Casco Bay off the coast of Portland, Maine. For all five days of the trip I’d been using my VHF radio on long open-water crossings of established shipping channels and various busy small motor boat routes. Portland harbor has some of the busiest shipping channels in New England, and since it was over a long Independence Day weekend, small boat traffic was high also. We’d seen some other kayakers but hadn’t heard a single other call from them, nor actually seen any other kayakers using or even carrying a radio.

I began to wonder if I was just being overly-cautious and if I really needed to be using the radio in the first place. Instructors and guides I’d paddled with the in the past carried them, but I hadn’t met any other recreational kayakers that actually used them to make calls, and few carried one.

On the last day of our trip, the seas were forecast at 3-5 feet in the bay, and we had overcast skies with a little rain. We paddled for a few hours in those conditions, with rolling seas and winds altering our course back to the harbor. So we decided to make one last quick stop at old Fort Gorges—the prominent structure built on Hog Island Ledge, seemingly floating right on the water in the mouth of the harbor.

IMG_4262

Approaching Fort Gorges—the last point on our trip before crossing the shipping lanes back into South Portland inner harbor.

After a quick tour, we got back in the boats and paddled to a safe vantage point just southwest of the fort. I took out the radio and made a sécurité call.

“Sécurité sécurité sécurité. This is red seakayak, red seakayak, red seakayak. Two kayaks plan on crossing from Fort Gorges/Hog Island Ledge, southwest to Bud Light/Spring Point, South Portland. Due to winds, crossing expected to take up to 35 minutes. Expected completion time 14:30. Any interested parties, listening on one six. Repeat.”

Before I got a chance to repeat and out of nowhere, I finally got a call back! The first time another boat actually acknowledged any call of mine! And quite a boat it was…

“Sea Kayak, Sea kayak, this is [I can’t remember the name of the vessel] tanker. We’d appreciate it if you could hold off your crossing for about ten minutes or so until we pass your location—we don’t want to run you over. Over.”

“[Name] tanker, [name] tanker. Affirmative. We’ll wait here until we see you pass. Over.”

“Thanks guy. [Name] tanker OUT.”

So there we sat, bobbing in the waves, for about ten minutes until a behemoth grey tanker passed in front of us—standing a few stories out of the water. It was definitely moving faster than we could have gotten out of it’s way, and our crossing time definitely would have put us directly in it’s path.

portland-map

Our location and route in Portland Harbor, and the route of the tanker passing when we made the sécurité call.

We waited until it passed and I made another sécurité call… this time with no response.

I repeated and waited for about a minute with no response, and then ventured across.

We made it back to our dock, safe and sound, and I was feeling pretty good about having made that call—and honestly just thought it was really cool that I had just communicated with a giant tanker from the seat of my tiny plastic boat.

Then, another cool thing happened. A man came jogging down the dock towards us as we unloaded our boats.

“Hey, are you the kayakers that just made those security calls?”

“Um, yeah, that’s us.”

I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing—for a minute I thought I was in trouble. He thrust his hand out.

“Thank you—really. I wish all of you guys did that. I drive one of the water taxis and I’ve never heard a kayaker do that. Honestly, most of the boats around here think of kayakers as a nuisance—but it’s not that we’re against you guys, it’s just that you’re so hard to see in the waves, and we don’t want anyone to get hurt. Plus, a lot of the tourists just don’t know what they’re doing. That’s smart, what you did—so thanks, and tell your friends to do the same!”

(I’m paraphrasing here, as I don’t remember it verbatim, but this was pretty close.)

He shook my hand, jogged back down the dock to his taxi boat, and sped away.

The moral

So again, the moral of the story is even if you never get a response back, people are listening, and they appreciate it. At least this guy and the tanker did. Now I’m “telling my friends”, as he suggested.

If you’re kayaking in the ocean, or around any other boating traffic, invest in a handheld VHF and learn how to use it. It might just save your life, or somebody else’s.

Here’s some more info to get you started…

 

Proper VHF usage and Sécurité calls for kayakers

A quick overview

Sécurité calls are one of the three main safety communications you hear on the water, akin to the generally well-known “mayday”. All safety and emergency messages are communicated on VHF channel 16 (pronounced “one six”) in the coastal waters of the United States.

All of the words derive from French and are listed below, in order of urgency:

  1. Mayday

    (Believed to have originated from the French “venez m’aider” meaning “come help me”.) This call is to report grave and immediate danger to life or vessel, and request immediate, emergency assistance.

  2. Pan Pan

    (Pronounced “pon pon”,  from the French word panne, meaning “a breakdown”.) This call is to report an urgent dangerous situation, where there is not immediate danger of loss of life or property. By making this call, you are requesting assistance, though not an “emergency” response.

  3. Sécurité

    (Pronounced “see-cure-it-tay”, from the French word of the same spelling meaning “safety”.) This call is to warn other vessels of any safety hazards, including use by the coast guard to communicate important meteorological messages. In the case of kayakers—you actually are the safety hazard—you’re reporting your own location so other vessels are aware of it.

It is important to remember that VHF transmissions are broadcast to every receiver in range—so all the boats in the area will hear your messages. For this reason, it is important to keep them brief and make them only when necessary so as to not congest the channel, lest another party should need to radio an emergency. These are very serious! The penalties for a false distress call (mayday) in the U.S. include fines up to $250,000 and up to 6 years in prison, plus having to reimburse the coast guard for the cost of the search.

While the Coast Guard will generally reply in the United States, it is possible that your location could be closer to another boat, and they may respond first (as is the case with my story above).

The sécurité call procedure

So, I know the actual interaction described above wasn’t technically “correct” VHF usage, according to Coast Guard regulation. Listening in around major ports (I do most of paddling in Boston Harbor), it doesn’t seem like most crafts actually follows this protocol, other than the Coast Guard themselves. But, I generally try to stick to it as best I can.

From what I’ve been told, and my research, this is the proper way to make a securite call: (specifics/locations added from story above). Please note that this information is from my own experience and I am NOT an expert authority on this. If you’re unsure, you should contact the coast guard.

“Securite sécurité sécurité.
All stations. All stations. All stations.
This is Red Seakayak, Red Seakayak, Red Seakayak.
Safety message concerning Fort Gorges/Hog Ledge to Bug Light/South Portland Harbor.
Two kayakers planning on crossing southwest from Fort Gorges/Hog Ledge to Bug Light/South Portland Harbor, expected time 35 minutes for completion 14:30.
Out.”

Here’s the procedure:

  1. Say “sécurité” three times (pronounced “sey-cure-it-tay”).
  2. Say “all stations” three times. (This alerts all crafts listening that this message is pertinent to them.)
  3. Say your call sign three times. (Since you don’t have a boat name, use something descriptive like “red seakayak”.
  4. Say “safety message concerning” followed by your general location. Be as specific as possible with your location, including your heading and major navigation waypoints on the chart.
  5. Now, state your specific situation, which should include where you’re starting from, where you’re going, your heading, and the timing.
  6. Say “repeat“.
  7. Wait a 10-20 seconds for a response. If none, repeat the entire message, steps 1-5.
  8. Say “out” this time, signaling that your communication is complete. 

Some tips

Saying “repeat” after your message?

I think, technically, you’re supposed to repeat all sécurité calls at least once—as described above (steps 6-8). In practice, I generally don’t hear most boats doing this, save for very large cruise ships and tankers entering or exiting the harbor, and the coast guard. Sometimes, I feel like I’m taking up too much time on the radio repeating a message, but then again, your radio as a kayaker is underpowered compared to most other boats, and you have to contend with environmental noise like waves and wind, so it’s probably a safe bet to repeat your message just in case the first one didn’t come through clearly.

Saying “break” to divide a long message?

The Coast Guard often broadcasts messages with a “break”—meaning the message is being divided into multiple parts. Saying “break” signifies that the message will continue after a short pause. This is done to clear the air momentarily, in case a more important emergency message must be broadcast (remember, this is happening on channel 16—the universal emergency channel all boats listen to). I generally don’t think kayakers would need to do this—you should be keeping your messages succinct anyways, and keeping your message to one chunk seems more efficient to me.

Saying “sécurité” vs. “security call”

I hear lots of commercial boats simply saying “security call, security call” instead of the proper “sécurité” repeated three times. They’re both the same thing, from what I gather, but the technically correct procedure is to use the term “sécurité” three times (pronounced “sey-cure-it-tay”).

You need a map (chart)

You can’t make useful safety calls unless you know exactly where you are and can accurately relay this info to other parties. You need a nautical chart which marks obvious waypoints and buoys (use the approved NOAA charts, which you can download and print for free in a handy format for kayakers from their website). You’ll want to make sure your map is waterproof (either get the waterproof ones, or put your printed maps in a water-tight map case). And obviously, you need to know how to read it. Take some time to learn how the charts work. And, even if you have a GPS unit, you don’t want to rely solely on it (batteries, mechanical issues)—plus, it’s way easier to glance down at a big map in front of you than it is a tiny screen, especially with a paddle in your hands. Oh, and make sure it’s connected to your kayak somehow, so you don’t loose it in the wind. Most map cases (like the one in the photo atop this post and in the next photo below) have plastic rings that you can use to strap to your deck rigging or spray skirt with a small carabiner or parachute cord.

You need a compass

And know how to use it—this goes along with needing to understand the map, and how to give headings. There are various types of deck-mounted compasses for kayaks, but a small hand-held hiking compass does the trick also (I keep mine on a string connected either to my PFD or my map case).

Never say “over and out”

“Over” specifically means you are soliciting a reply from a specific hailed party (such as the coast guard, or another vessel). “Out” specifically means you are completely done transmitting your message. Therefore, saying the two together is a contradiction and will mark you as a noob. That’s something you might hear a trucker say on a CF radio or in the movies, but is not correct nautical communication. 

My VHF radio & suggested equipment

Whatever you get, I recommend something that:

  • is completely water proof and submersible
  • floats
  • has a strong connection point for a leash
  • has standard VHF, plus weather channels
  • can take standard (AA, AAA, D, etc.) batteries—at least as a backup

In case you’re wondering what radio I use, it’s the Uniden MHS125. I can only speak to this particular radio, as it’s the only one I’ve ever had, but I love it.

vhf

Photo of my radio and waterproof map case. Note the plastic ring on the case, which you can use to secure it to your deck rigging or spray skirt.

It meets all of the criteria above, plus it runs on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, and comes with a wall charger, as well as a car charger. But in addition to that, it comes with a backup battery pack that you can fill with 4 AA batteries for those long trips where you can’t charge. The life of the unit is great—the lithium-ion batteries were fine for all of the five day trip—it was down to about a quarter full when we got back (and made the call to the tanker). But if you’re on a longer trip, you can always have 4 AA’s handy.

Your thoughts?

On the off chance that another kayaker in the northeast find this—hope to see you out there one day, and if you see me, give me a shout on the VHF.

I’d love to hear in the comments section below of anyone else’s experiences with VHF radio usage, and/or any suggestions or comments about the usage described above.

Happy paddling.

 

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