Help From Above

Some cruisers know about this communications option, but from my experience, most do not.

And it can be a life saver.

You've settled into your offshore routine, and the boat is running great, All systems are working and the crew is doing well...except, that is, for Brian. He thinks he got a touch of food poisoning at that funky restaurant in San Miguel in the Pearl Islands. But he admits he really hasn't felt very well since leaving Panama City after the transit through the Canal.

The Galapagos Islands are still 400+nm in front of you, and the seas are calm. The last 400 or so miles have been thankfully uneventful, and everything aboard the good ship, Marmalade, is shipshape and operational.

By evening things begin to change. Concern grows as Brian's condition deteriorates, now almost delirious with fever. The four of you are not sure what to do, as his condition is serious and there is no obvious sign as to the cause. Were you closer to land, there would be no question but to turn towards the closest port to reach a medical facility. But offshore passagemaking is all about self reliance and taking care of business without relying on others.

But this has turned into a different situation, as the life of one of your friends and crew members has become alarmingly threatened. It is time for action, and a call for help needs to happen, as each hour seems more desperate than the last.

Assuming your vessel is well equipped for bluewater travel, you no doubt have a single sideband radio or a satellite phone aboard, and very likely an EPIRB. These communications devices are vital links to the outside world.

No surprise that cell phones don't work out here, and the trusty VHF radio is useless out here, hundreds of miles from nowhere... Or is it?

Take the above medical emergency, or a catastrophic mechanical failure, or if the mast or rigging fail in some spectacular fashion. Any number of calamities can occur that severely affect your ability to continue on as usual.

Have you ever considered another form of communications, one that allows you to speak to the people high above you? I am talking about an Air Band VHF radio, a great gem of a tool that allows the crew on a boat to contact aircraft passing high above.

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It might be something to think about.

I sat down with a cup of coffee one morning, and pulled up one of those flight tracking programs, readily available for computers and smartphones. Flightradar24.com is one of many interesting ways to see aircraft in real time as they whisk around the globe. Planes Live is a popular app for the iPhone and iPad.

Zooming in on the area between Panama City and the Galapagos Islands, I saw a number of flights passing over the boat's route, all hitting at a slightly different point and time along the track to the Galapagos, most at or near 36,000 feet:

  • LAN Airlines Boeing 787-8 Flight LA601, en route from Los Angeles to Lima, Peru, 659 mph, on a heading of 140 degrees
  • Aeromexico Boeing 787-8 Flight AM1029, en route from Buenos Aires to Mexico City, 467 mph, on a heading of 324 degrees
  • LAN Peru Airlines Boeing 767-300 Flight 2476, en route from Lima to Los Angeles, 533 mph, on a heading of 320 degrees
  • Korean Air Boeing 777-200 Flight KE274, en route from Lima to Los Angeles, 534 mph, on a heading of 324 degrees
  • Aero Mexico Boeing 787-8 Flight AM10, en route from Mexico City to Santiago, Chile, 579 mph, on a heading of 152 degrees
  • Avianca Airlines Airbus A330-243 Flight AV928, en route from Lima to San Salvador, 490 mph, on a heading of 333 degrees

And this does not include the regular, multiple daily scheduled flights of three separate airlines between Guayaquil, Ecuador and San Cristobal in the Galapagos.

Consider this. Aviation English is the universal language of commercial airlines, globally accepted after a horrific collision in 1977 that claimed the lives of almost 600 people due to an inability to communicate clearly.

As you probably know, VHF communications is intended for short range communications, usually out to 10 miles or so, generally line of sight. The larger antennas of the USCG allow further distances but still nowhere near enough for high seas communications. That is where satellite phones and single sideband radios come into their own.

But an aircraft flying overhead is often clearly visible, in your line of sight. Even traveling at 36,000 feet, an aircraft directly overhead is less than six mile away from your position. And while no longer required to monitor this emergency frequency, every aircraft in the air today, commercial, private, and military, has the ability to hear the aviation equivalent of our Channel 16, which is 121.5 MHz. In scan mode, emergency messages may be picked up.

Another point to understand is that air band transmissions occur air to air, or air to ground from high altitudes, so have generally much longer range than ground or water based VHF transmissions. A five-watt air band transceiver can easily exceed 10 miles or more.

I spoke with long-time friend and manufacturers rep, Tim Conroy, about the idea, which came up during a Hatteras LRC Rendezvous, of carrying an aviation band VHF aboard a cruising boat. Tim was already familiar with the concept, but thought it best to introduce me to the man in charge at Icom America.

That is how I met David McLain, National Sales Manager of Marine and Avionics for Icom America. David confirmed that it is a good idea, and that it is perfectly legal to have an aviation VHF aboard a boat. While there is hardly a reason to use it for regular communications, it might be very useful in an emergency.

David suggests that a handheld unit, transmitting five watts of power (versus nine watts in a fixed mount radio) is the most versatile and useful if the crew is in danger and must get off the boat. The popular Icom A14 is a good choice for cruisers, and he sells many of these to the crews of large yachts and megayachts.

 The popular Icom A14 is an aviation transceiver that costs only about $225. Many pilots find it easily transmits over 10 miles. Imagine how it might come in handy in an emergency. 

The popular Icom A14 is an aviation transceiver that costs only about $225. Many pilots find it easily transmits over 10 miles. Imagine how it might come in handy in an emergency. 

As he described, putting out a Mayday call to an aircraft flying overhead, providing them with your exact GPS position so the pilots know that you are calling themcan open up more opportunities for a quick response. The pilots can forward your emergency details to a ground station that can follow its standard emergency protocol or contact marine emergency services or local government agencies. In the case of the USCG National Command Center, that 24/7 number is 1-800-DAD-SAFE.

For Marmalade's small crew pointing her bow to the Galapagos, an Ecuadorian patrol boat not far away would indeed be a welcome sight, and transport Brian to medical care in time.

McLain said Icom will introduce a new radio this August that raises the transmitting output to six watts. This new A24 also will include built-in GPS, certainly of value if you are in a liferaft. 

David recommends storing the batteries out of the radio so the lithium ion batteries stay fully charged until they are needed. These radios are only water resistant, so can't take the same conditions as the waterproof marine radios we are used to. Even so, they offer another option for emergency communications.

One look at this map of global commercial air traffic routes makes the point of relevance with our cruising routes.

 With a couple of exceptions, the spider web of air traffic routes of commercial passenger and cargo aircraft crisscross the traditional cruising routes around the world.

With a couple of exceptions, the spider web of air traffic routes of commercial passenger and cargo aircraft crisscross the traditional cruising routes around the world.

I know a couple who plan to traverse the Northwest Passage this summer, leaving Annapolis in a couple of weeks. I bet they have no idea just how many flights will fly directly overhead as they cruise west to the Pacific Northwest. 

Across much of the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans, these air routes provide a blanket of potential coverage.

And closer to home, if you happen to be involved in a natural disaster or storm, or are on the wrong side of a situation where chaos and confusion rule the day, waving your arms from a boat's cabin top or building rooftop to get a rescue helicopter's attention may be a whole lot of drama, but is much less effective than calling the state troopers or Coasties on the radio on the frequency they are already monitoring. This would have helped in Katrina, in the aftermath of countless hurricanes on the U.S. East Coast, in an Alaskan fishing or hiking accident, or during a California wildfire. To talk to the aircraft looking for survivors is nothing short of heavenly communications. 

Just something to consider as you ponder your next adventure. And in case you were wondering, Marmalade made it to San Cristobel without further incident, and the crew is busy having fun in that unique wonderland of nature.

Hopefully, Brian will rejoin his friends before they leave for the Marquesas.

Updated 15:53 - Some readers have the mistaken idea I am suggesting that you use this radio instead of an EPIRP, sat phone, or SSB. That is obviously not the case. I am just presenting that an aviation band radio is another tool that you may not have thought of. There is no guarantee you will successfully contact an aircraft you try to call. If the boat were indeed sinking, the EPIRB would be turned on immediately, followed by the other emergency communications tools.