From The Boathouse: Search and rescue is not a toy


Did it really cost the Coast Guard $50,000 to search for a boater claiming that his boat was sinking inside Newport Harbor?

Apparently, this same person issued six fake mayday calls over the VHF marine band radio's distress Channel 16 last month as the Daily Pilot reported Oct. 31.

Search and rescue is an important mission of the Coast Guard and the local harbor patrols, but the price tag of $50,000 seems inflated as the actual costs. First, the article states a 12 ½-hour search for the sinking boat in the harbor. Let's note that someone could ride their bicycle around harbor's shoreline in less time.

Additionally is the question, why would a Coast Guard cutter respond inside the harbor when the Sheriff's Department Harbor Patrol is ready to go and the deputies know the harbor well? The cutter's smaller rescue boat (RIB) would be a better vessel to search the harbor and navigating the narrow channels and low bridges. I can see using a helicopter for a quick bird's eye view and the use of the helicopter's radio direction finder capabilities.

In the price tag of the search, the actual costs that should be reported are the fuel, wear and tear on any equipment and direct out-of-pocket expenses. The personnel costs are fixed whether the crew is on a mission or standing by at their station.

Granted, emergency resources are being diverted while the crews are seeking for someone who is making a fake distress call. However, using inflated numbers is a disservice to the taxpayers and leads people to wonder why it costs so much to search for a sinking boat inside the harbor.

Thinking about making a fake mayday call over your marine VHF radio? Well, think again. Not only is it a federal crime, but California has CPC section 148.3, which makes it a felony if the fake call is likely to cause great bodily injury or death to anyone resulting from the call.

This legislation allows local prosecution of people who send hoax maydays. First, the local district attorney can prosecute the case; secondly, all the rescue agencies that risk their lives on this type of call will benefit should a rescuer be injured or lose their life trying to affect a false rescue. There is a federal statute, but it is nearly impossible to get the federal attorney general to prosecute.

Recently, a San Diego boater was sentenced in May to one year and one day in federal prison after he plead guilty to two charges of making fake radio distress calls to the Coast Guard. The judge also sentenced him to three years of probation and requirements to repay the Coast Guard almost $7,000.

The existing state false reporting law includes responses in authorized emergency vessels. The consequences can be a year in jail, a $1,000 fine or both for making a fake call.

Tip of the week is for boaters to monitor VHF marine band radio's Channel 16 while underway and report anyone that you might observe misusing the radio by issuing fake distress calls. All new mounted marine radios have digital selective calling (DSC) that will connect with your onboard GPS systems and allow you to input your maritime mobile service identity ID number (MMSI). Activate the emergency button on the face of the radio and a mayday call is automatically sent with your ID number and your position provided by your GPS. This will greatly help take the search out of search and rescue especially with the Coast Guard's Rescue 21 project that updates and replaces maritime communications.

BoatUS has teamed up with the Federal Communications Commission to provide the MMSI number online, and it is free to obtain the ID number or update your existing account at

Boat safely and your radio can make a difference if you are in distress versus trying to use your cell phone. The radio has a further range, and emergency responders and many boaters have radio direction-finding equipment to zero-in on your radio signal.

And don't forget: Tune in to the No. 1 boating radio talk show in the nation, Capt. Mike Whitehead's "Boathouse Radio Show," broadcasting coast-to-coast on the CRN Digital Talk Radio syndicated network at noon Saturdays and replayed at 10 a.m. Sundays.

Safe Voyages!

MIKE WHITEHEAD is a boating columnist for the Daily Pilot. Send marine-related thoughts and story suggestions to or go to

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World