going rogue

going rogue

Jeremy Leonard from Surf City Catamarans shows what a little outreach will do…

We as sailors are a little rogue. We like our freedom. Many of us hop on our 5 knot s boxes and go out into the middle of our nearest body of water to escape the pressures of our daily life. We like the wind whipping through our hair, and the thought that there’s no one out there to mess with us. So naturally, when we hear about some government agency seemingly trying to regulate our fun, our faces start to scowl and we get a bitter taste in our mouths.

Accusations started to fly this past week when supposedly the Coast Guard was going to pull the plug on issuing a permit for the Doublehanded Lightship in the eleventh-hour if the participants didn’t have EPIRBS – thread here. That seems kind of unreasonable, doesn’t it?
Knowing that there are always two sides to a story, I decided to go talk to the Coasties in charge of issuing permits and see what they had to say.

The San Francisco Sector CG station at Buena Vista Island is in charge of the area from Piedras Blancas to Gualala Point to Lake Tahoe and including the Delta a huge swath of California. Last year alone there were 1664 rescues by this sector, the highest caseload in the entire Coast Guard. There are over 1250 Marine events per year that this group works with, and up to 6 marine events going on simultaneously. Needless to say, there’s a lot of stuff going on around this place. They issue 20 to 25 offshore race permits per year, and to date, no permits have been denied. Scott Humphrey of the Vessel Traffic Service illustrates the point, “ This is a really busy and complex area in terms of the different Maritime User Groups… so by working with the racers, what we’re really trying to do is mitigate risks and be in a position where we can respond successfully.”

I made a call and was immediately transferred to Lieutenant Commander Janszen’s office, the person who actually signs the race permits, and set up a meeting. I figured, me being the hippy sailor from Santa Cruz, we’d stroll around the Coast Guard facility and I’d ask her a few questions from the thread, and I’d be on my way. Well, to greet me there were 5 highly educated, very knowledgeable Coatsies, and the Training Director from the Vessel Traffic Service. Apparently, and I’m not lying one bit, they read SA and you guys had some wrong information that they wanted to straighten out. I’m lucky they didn’t arrest me with all the smack you talk.

We sat down at a nice conference table complete with their meeting agenda printed up on Coast Guard Stationery, and I started in with questions directly from the thread. Perhaps the largest complaint was the fact that the decision was apparently made so close to the race. Actually…I was informed that in fact the decision was made over a year ago when there was a town-hall style meeting with sailors, local yacht clubs, and the Coast Guard. The goal of the meeting as put by LCDR Janszen,, “With limited resources, how can we keep people safe.” MSTC Clark, the Marine Events Coordinator, was at the meeting, “We were there for three hours and we talked about the distress situation, much like we are now…For the record IYC was there.” The vast majority of the clubs in the Bay were there, and in fact, the idea of making EPIRBS a requirement was suggested by the Coasties and approved by pretty much everyone in attendance. Completely eliminating the idea that the big, mean Coast Guard was being heavy-handed. LT Mausz recalls, “This was a safety measure that we talked over with the yacht clubs, this was the best idea that we all could agree upon.” OK, so it sounds like everyone agreed to this a while back.

Two recent, sobering incidents were brought up several times, the loss of the 32 foot sailboat Daisy and the loss of Heat Wave’s Keel. Both incidents are fresh in everyone’s mind. But stemming back to the ‘80s this stretch of water has taken at least 9 racer’s lives. So requiring EPIRBS for race participants in such a proven treacherous area, sounds reasonable to me, especially since, if cost is an issue, you can rent them from several different sources. Several YC’s even said that they would front for additional EPIRBS if needed. But why not mandate that everyone that leaves the Gate have an EPIRB? The answer according to the CG, is the most day-sailors don’t want to be out there when it’s rough, whereas racers will tend to push the limits.

How about a ‘Do Not Rescue’ directive as suggested in the thread? According to MSTC Clark, he actually received several calls prior to the Doublehanded Lightship from people that, “didn’t have an EPIRB, didn’t want it, have been sailing longer than I’ve been alive and they wanted a waiver.” No luck, you want a permit, get an EPIRB. And think about how your overturned, half sunken 8ksb will affect the next guy that might be surfing down swell, flying a chute in bad visibility. Now there are two boats down.

And what if one of the YC’s says that their racers are not going to have EPIRB’s?, LTCR Janszen says, “We’re just not going to sign the permit, you can still have your race, we’re not going to terminate your voyage, you’re just not going to have our permit.” The ramifications of which, I think, is that it is virtually impossible to get insurance.

Satisfying the EPIRB requirement is pretty easy, though there are many choices. Luckily, I had the encyclopedia of EPIRB’s sitting next to me. LCDR Lusk, ran me through all the different types of EPIRB’s and presented me with several pages to familiarize myself with the functions of each. She said that, “…any 406 EPIRB is acceptable, category 1 or category 2, and PLB’s are fine as long as they’re 406s… make sure the PLB is marine grade.” I’m telling you, the amount of EPIRB (and general boating) knowledge in this woman’s head is amazing.

So what about rescue times? Will they be plucking a frozen rumsicle with a beeping EPIRB around its neck out of the water? Perhaps. But according to LCDR Lusk, “ I testified in Federal Court last Tuesday and I ran 6 scenarios. We utilize a search model to determine when its time to stop the search. The survival time for someone between 8 years old and 69 years old in 54 degree water is between 1.5 and 4.5 hours. That’s wearing a PFD and assuming they don’t drown first.” Even on the low end, that’s a long enough time to get a chopper in the air and get a MLB on scene.

If the weather’s bad outside will the Coasties just deny a permit? Nope! According to MSTC Clark, “Before an offshore race the RO is required to call Station Golden Gate and get a weather forecast or they’ll ride out there with Station Golden Gate and take a look out there.” LCDR Janszen interjects,” Station Golden Gate will take the Race Deck out there to assess the weather, but it’s still the Race Deck’s call. We will not cancel a race due to weather.” LT Mausz adds, “ The meetings that I’ve attended, we’re not the professionals that understand which boats can handle what weather, we try to encourage the RO’s to determine what their parameters are, and determine when they would call a race. The RO’s know exactly what types of boats are racing.” In the last two years they have had two races canceled by Race Organizers.

It really feels personal with these folks, as I was getting ready to leave after a tour of the VTS Command Center, LCDR Janszen commented, “ Like with the sailing vessel Daisy, the person that called their family was our Captain. Captain Gugg has to make the next of kin notifications when somebody dies at sea… It hits home to us, we don’t want to make those calls.

So, I went looking for the unreasonable bureaucracy that wants to take our fun away, and found a group of people that just want traffic in The Bay to flow without anyone getting hurt. I also found a group of people that held public meetings to come up with reasonable solutions for when things go sideways, with most in agreement with the solution. After all, the rules change when people are willing to jump out of a helicopter into 54 degree water to pull our families to safety.