*My First Search and Rescue Operation*
I participated in my first search and rescue over the Thanksgiving weekend. The lost fisherman was the son of one of the secretaries in my office. He apparently decided that he could not wait to try out his new boat. He launched the boat late on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving to go fish the marsh. The wind was bad all that night and a storm blew through as well. He did not return. Mark, a criminal investigator, and I are both pilots. I have an airplane. I was called Saturday afternoon to do aerial search of a marsh area as well as the perimeter of Sabine Lake. We searched during the daylight and after dark with night vision and thermal imaging equipment. We searched again by boat on Sunday morning but found nothing. His body was recovered early this morning.
The victim, John, was a twenty year old young man that had gotten into fishing in the last month or so. He had gone with a buddy a few times to an area in the Bessie Heights Marsh, south of Bridge City, Texas. He enjoyed the sport so much that he soon obtained his own 14' aluminum john boat and a small outboard motor. From the receipts we recovered out of his truck, he purchased all of the "required" safety equipment for the boat, but the receipts did not indicate that he purchased ANY survival equipment at all. In addition, he had not had any formal or real informal boating instruction. He also had never operated this, or any other, boat at night.
Here is what I learned from the experience.
1. Get formal instruction. Boating is not something that you can learn to do by yourself. My grandfather and father taught me to boat over a time span of ten years. I recommend treating boating like learning to fly an airplane. Get formal instruction from someone who is experienced. Even after you are pronounced to be proficient, take an experienced person with you a lot at first and anytime where conditions are expected to be less than what you are used to. I read a story written by a guy that went on a hunting trip with outdoor legend Babe Winkleman. While I have always fancied Babe to be a bit of a weirdo, he saved the hunting partyís life because they were stranded and he knew what to do and had the gear and skills to do it.
2. Get a weather report. As a pilot, we are required to get a weather report before we climb into an airplane. With the Internet and the weather channel, you are an idiot if you do not get a weather report. If you have a friend that is a pilot, ask him for his DUAT.com access code and password. Ask him to show you how to use the service. You can get extensive weather from FAA weather briefers. They get there information from the national weather service. Always expect conditions to be significantly worse than forecast. You can also get extensive weather information from Accuweather.com and Intellicast.com. I begin every outdoor activity with a weather briefing. If the weather is expected to be bad, donít go or take an experienced buddy with you. By constantly getting weather briefings and comparing them with actual conditions, you will become a somewhat proficient amateur meteorologist.
3. Wear your life jacket. While conducting the search, I spoke with a game warden who had recovered many bodies over his tenure. According to him, only one was wearing a life jacket. Whatís that you say? Life jackets arenít cool. Well, neither is having your gas engorged corpse hoisted aboard a boat with a hook. In addition, neither is having your fingers and eyes are eaten out by crabs, catfish or other creatures. It is interesting how many people complain that a life jacket is bulky and uncomfortable and then walk outside and put on a 40 lb pack, loaded tactical vest with low ride pistol and knife holster while carrying an AK47 with 75 rd drum magazine. Get the picture? It is called a life jacket for a reason.
4. Carry an aviation transceiver with you. It needs to be in a waterproof container that will float. An FRS radio will not suffice as explained. You can buy an new one for about $300.00 or get a used one off of Ebay for considerably less. An aviation transceiver is a handheld radio that is used by pilots and line personnel to communicate on aviation frequencies. All general aviation aircraft are required to continuously monitor 121.5 mhz because aircraft emergency locator transmitters emit on that frequency. 121.5 is commonly referred to as the "guard" frequency. Begin transmitting a distress call on that frequency. If you are lost or stranded, someone will eventually come and look for you. Aircraft will fly by. If you can hear the sound of the aircraft, you can probably transmit and have them help you. I like an aviation transceiver better than a marine radio as it is portable and you can also communicate with members of your team (on 122.75, 122.65, 122.55) just like an FRS radio. General aviation aircraft do not pick up marine radio frequencies. You can also use the transceiver to monitor 122.00 which is the aviation weather frequency that pilots use anywhere in the United States to get updated weather information. You may not be able to receive Flightwatch on the ground, but, then again, maybe you can.
5. Tell someone where you are going and when you will return. Even if you do not like telling your mom or your wife where you are going, tell a buddy. People can come looking for you soon after you do not return and they will know where to look. As a pilot, I often have to travel to a part of Texas that has poor FAA radar coverage. Even when I am flying VFR, I file a flight plan, even though I legally do not have to do so. If I go down, I want people to come looking for me and to know where to look. When they come, I can talk to them on my aviation transceiver. Even if I cannot speak, I can click SOS on the "push to talk" button.
6. Wear bright colored clothing. As survivalists, we often think is terms of camouflage. The victim here was wearing camouflage clothing and was carrying camouflage gear and was in a camouflage boat. Bright yellow or orange is the survivalistís color of choice. If you wonít wear bright clothing, at least carry a brightly colored poncho or carry a can or florescent orange paint with you. Bright shows up at a 1000', camouflage obviously doesnít. Otherwise, it would not be camouflage.
7. Carry a good survival kit. This serves several functions. First, it reduces the temptation to try to brave bad weather to get back to shore. Second, it allows you to survive until help can arrive. As a pilot, I carry my bug back bag with, inter alia, a change of clothes, toilet articles and food. If I get stranded in another city, the temptation to try to scud run back home is diminished by the fact that I have comfort items with me. If the weather gets bad, go to shore and wait it out. Set up camp. The ironic thing is that the weather for most search and rescue operations is sunny and mild. That means that if the boater simply waited it out, he would have had good weather to return home. I have found that as I have gotten older, the urge to try to force my way back to the launch, or deer camp has diminished. This is partly because I am not as brave and partly because I have extensive gear with me.
8. Carry light and heat sources. We scanned the entire lake with night vision and thermal imaging equipment. We stayed between 600 and 1000 feet AGL. This was top of the line equipment and I couldnít really make out details of anything except bright lights and sources of high heat. Guess what? Lots of law enforcement departments buy this stuff and never train their people on how to use it. While this may be comforting if you are an escaped felon, it is a problem if you want to be found. Even the most inexperienced LEO will be able to make out a surefire flashlight fishing at them or certainly a burning flare, but not much else. One group of boys were found when they lit the spray from a can of OFF, thereby making a pulsating flare. However, do not flash the light at regular intervals. Even if you use Morse code, wait a nonstandard time between each transmission. There are a lot of flashing lights in the world. They all flash at regular intervals. Make sure yours does not.
9. Try to get farther inland from the shore. In my case, right after dark, the land cooled off faster than the water. Therefore, the water showed up as white on thermal imaging and the land showed up as black. If you are next to the water or are under a tower with a bright flashing light, you will likely be missed by someone scanning the shore from 500' or above.
Johnís death was based upon lack of experience. How do you get experience? Well, there are three of ways. The first is to exercise bad judgment. If you live through it, you will have experience. The second way is through formal training. You will learn from other people who have been there and will, hopefully, not make the same errors in judgment. Lastly, you gain experience by having an experienced mentor. My boating mentor was my father and grandfather. Even today, I ask myself "Would Dad or Grandpa go?" My instructor is still my mentor. Even today, I ask myself "Would Mark approve of my action?" These are observations I made over the last two days while searching for the body of a good young man. I hope that you will take them to heart so that something good can come out of this experience.
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