Six Words in Three Seconds Provide a Path to Mayday

By Petty Officer 3rd Class Kelly Parker

In less than a second an electric current containing a three-second message traveled approximately two miles, across the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest.

The signal began its journey from a marine radio tuned to emergency channel-16 in Peacock Spit, an ocean bar just off the southernmost tip of Washington State, to the Megler Mountain Tower, an antenna equipped with the Coast Guard’s Rescue 21 technology.

The signal’s journey ended on the monitors of Coast Guard watchrooms along the Washington and Oregon State coasts. There it was recorded and stored to be played back and reviewed. The information in that signal gave a line of bearing and an estimated distance to its originating source. Since the vessel could not be contacted again, this was all the information the rescuers had to go by other than six quick words.

“Coast Guard, Coast Guard, mayday, mayday!”

A crewmember had only enough time to shout those six quick words before the 32-foot vessel he was on, along with five other souls, capsized approximately two miles offshore.

The tower watchstander at Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment, Wash., was briefed on the data contained in the signal.

“The only information known was the approximate bearing of the distress call, 266-degrees True off the Megler Tower,” said Seaman Christopher Moran, Station Cape Disappointment tower watchstander. “After being passed this little information, I headed to the tower along with Seaman Jennifer Bull. As soon as we entered the tower, I immediately started scanning through the binoculars.”

At that same time an MH-60 rescue helicopter crew from Group/Air Station Astoria, Ore., was inbound to Megler Mountain to initiate their search. When they reached the tower they followed the line of bearing towards the mouth of the Columbia River; 266-degrees True.

“As our surface and air assets were moving,” said Cmdr. Jeffrey Kotson, Group/Air Station Astoria operations officer, “we plotted that 266, which takes you right over the mouth of the Columbia River and specifically just a little bit north of that. We had the watchstander peer through the big eyes at the tower at Cape Disappointment and told him to look in Clatsop Spit and look in Peacock Spit for any signs of distress.”

“It was at this time that I spotted a person standing on a vessel, waving bright orange objects in what appeared to be a signaling motion approximately one nautical mile offshore from Benson Beach,” said Moran. “It was apparent that the vessel was partially capsized at the time and the persons were waving in distress.”

All assets involved in the search were immediately diverted to this location to rescue the six Oregon Air National Guardsmen who were clinging to the top of their overturned vessel.

“In this case, an uncorrelated mayday, where the radio transmission does not include a position and nature of distress, the Rescue 21 communication system proved extremely valuable.” said Kotson.

With the new technology of Rescue 21 working alongside the old methods of a lookout, these men were found within minutes in a vast ocean.

The six men were brought safely aboard the 47-foot motor lifeboat from Station Cape Disappointment with the help of the rescue swimmer from the MH-60 helicopter.

A message traveling across marine radio frequency Channel-16 VHF for even a few seconds, will contain more than just a voice message. It will contain lifesaving information that will be passed along to the Guardians who are on their way to help.

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