Waterways Officials: Best Way To Avoid Problems Is To Be Prepared

By: Elizabeth Van Wye

Topics: Boating

A fishing boat aground in the North Inlet last year is assisted by Chatham Harbormaster personnel. COURTESY PHOTO

CHATHAM – You are out for a quick fishing trip and unexpectedly the surf overtakes your boat, flips it over and you find yourself wet and standing on top of what was the bottom of your boat, stranded in the North Inlet connecting Pleasant Bay with the Atlantic Ocean. No other boats are around and it is late afternoon with the tide ebbing and visibility down to less than half a mile.

This is not what you imagined your fishing trip would look like, but six weeks ago this was the predicament for four boaters in Chatham waters.

Chatham Harbormaster Stuart Smith knows firsthand the treacherous nature of the surf and tides that surround the town on three sides. Last Tuesday evening, 90 people Zoomed into a virtual presentation sponsored by the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center called "Rescues around Chatham." Smith and members of the Coast Guard used this and other examples to describe the joint emergency response system and what can happen when the unexpected takes place on the water.

With its two inlets and shifting shoals, Smith called Chatham "one of the more dangerous harbors on the East Coast." A network of responders works together to answer the distress calls that regularly arise. The Coast Guard generally takes the lead and Lt. Jeremy Silwa and Petty Officer Justin Pago of the Woods Hole station described the sophisticated systems that assist in gathering information and directing boats and aircraft as needed for search and rescue. Local harbormasters and fire departments up and down the Cape are key players teaming up with the Coast Guard to respond locally to emergencies.

Historically, marine radio channel 16 is how emergencies are reported. While this is still the case, the ubiquitous cell phone is now a huge help in activating the response system, Smith said. In the case of the recent overturned boat, it was a waterproof cell phone with a waning battery that triggered the response system.

"The call was confused and broken up but if they had lost the phone, it could have been much worse," Smith recounted.

This call had a happy ending, with no injuries or lives lost. The vessel was recovered later by a towboat and the fishing gear bag wound up being retrieved miles away off Yarmouth. For Smith, though, it was an opportunity to remind anyone planning to be in the water to do a risk assessment before going out.

Some of the key questions to ask before proceeding should include finding out about water conditions. Is the tide coming in or out? What does the surf look like? Recreational boaters may want to save that trip for another day; commercial fishermen may have fewer choices. Boaters often address their own ability to navigate the conditions but the other question to consider is if a rescue boat can reach you if problems arise. Smith called it knowing "how to get in and how to get out."

In addition to the risk assessment, Smith stressed the importance of wearing a life jacket, not just having them on the boat. In the case of the overturned boat, after the accident "the life jackets were now under the boat" and inaccessible, he said in response to a question. "Have you ever tried to put on a life jacket in the water?" he asked, noting how difficult that was.

Senior Chief Carlos Hessler, Officer in Charge of Coast Guard Station Chatham, who participated in the program, stressed that having the necessary safety equipment on board, including life jackets, flares, radios and more is key. "Help may take a while," he said, and boaters need to be able to help themselves in the meantime. "That's why having the appropriate safety equipment on board is so important."

Knowing where you are at all times is also important, Smith said. Emergency response to the overturned boat and to a later event, in which a child was buried in the sand, was hampered by confusion over where the emergencies were happening. In the latter case, the location was reported as "across from Wequassett" when the actual location was on North Beach Island across from the Chatham Bars Inn. Smith noted the confusion was understandable, but it still delays responders who have to focus resources as time ticks away.

In the case of the child buried in sand, the situation was complicated by the location near a dune. "It caved in as they dug her out," he recalled. With an EMT on the boat, the child was safely extricated and taken to the fish pier with no injuries.

Assessing risk is an important part of Smith's approach to distress calls. Last September a distress call was received from a fishing vessel in the North Inlet. The boat was aground and the engine had failed. Smith and the harbormaster team arrived on the scene and assessed the situation. High turbulent surf meant even the rescue boat was filling with water. The disabled vessel was anchored in the cut and the crew reported they were not in need of immediate rescue. That allowed Smith to decide to wait for the arrival of the larger 42-foot Coast Guard surf boat to get up to the vessel, get a tow line on and tow the boat to Stage Harbor.

"A lot of things could have gone south," Smith said, "with four- to six-foot breaking surf and occasional eight-foot breaks." He called the rescue a "picture perfect execution of surf rescue by the Coast Guard."

Other rescue situations recounted included man overboard, a helicopter crash in Crow's Pond, a heart attack victim on the beach and even the rescue of a six- to seven-foot shark that went aground on South Beach.

The program was part of a continuing CMMC Virtual Summer Speaker Series via Zoom. Next up is "The El Faro:  Lessons From Major Marine Disasters" with the Acting Director of the National Transportation Safety Board scheduled for Aug. 27. For more information and tickets go to www.chathammarconi.org.