Helicopter rescues imperiled sailors

Here's a story I wrote for SAILING Magazine about what sailors can do to prepare for being rescued by a helicopter.

How to prepare for helicopter rescue

By David Liscio

Like those who fail to plan for home evacuation in case of fire, most sailors tend to ignore the possibility of a helicopter rescue.

Should one become necessary, there are specific steps that must be taken to ensure passengers and crew exit safely.

SAILING discussed different emergency situations with helicopter pilot Lieutenant Commander Doug Atkins and rescue swimmer Aviation Survival Technician First Class Joel Sayers from the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, who offered sound advice on how to give this dangerous procedure the highest chance of success.

Basically there are two hoisting scenarios – abandoning ship, or a MEDEVAC to remove a sick or injured crewman. In the latter, the boat is secure and maneuverable, so the focus is on coordinating the hoist and monitoring the victim's medical condition.

In either case, here are the basic rules:

--Don't panic.

--If the boat is sinking, issue a Mayday on VHF channel 16 and activate EPIRB, if available. The EPIRB should be freshly registered before leaving the dock.

--Prepare to switch to another radio frequency, such as 21A or 22A, when instructed. If beyond shore-based VHF radio range, call by SAT phone. Know the number for the USCG Rescue Coordination Center in the area you are sailing.

--Don PFDs or survival suits.

--Activate chem lights, strobes or signal lights on the vessel and those attached to PFDs or survival suits.

--Assess the situation. Is the boat taking on water? If so, tell the Coast Guard so that additional pumps and life rafts can be brought to the scene.

--Describe to authorities conditions aboard the boat (this will help the rescue crew determine what supplies to bring along). Is anyone sick or injured? If so, affix a tag to the victim with a note on injuries. Is there a nurse or EMT aboard? If so, pass that information along.

--If time allows, pack a resealable plastic bag with the victim, containing ID, medication, and personal contact information.

--Get your ditch bag ready – including handheld VHF radio, flares, strobe, smoke signals.

---Prepare the boat as though anticipating a hurricane, keeping in mind that an HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter can send 60-70 knot winds straight down onto the deck.

--Start your engine. Drop and secure sails. Knot an extra sail tie around the roller furler to ensure it doesn't unravel during rescue. Put extra ties on the mainsail along the boom.

--Stow loose deck equipment such as fenders, cockpit cushions, coiled lines, anchors, fishing rods, gas cans, rail-mounted barbecue grills, man-overboard poles and LifeSlings, anything that might break free and damage the helicopter rotors or become a dangerous projectile.

--Lash down sports equipment – kayaks, canoes, bicycles, surfboards, liferaft pod, dinghy.

--Secure hatches. Lower flag staffs and antennae. If possible, remove bimini and dodger.

--Duct tape and plastic tie-wraps can help secure sheets and halyards.

--Remove your hat. It can be sucked into the helicopter engines and create problems.


Some things to consider from the rescue pilot's point of view:


--From an altitude of 500 feet, it's hard to spot a boat in a choppy sea.

--A swaying mast is always a danger.

--Wind direction is a factor.

--The pilot cannot approach if your dinghy is trailing off the stern. The helicopter's rotor wash will flip it like a kite, creating potential danger for the rescue crew and the sailors in distress. To remedy this situation, lash the liferaft to the deck or, at least bring it along the starboard side using a series of bow and stern lines.

--The pilot will likely approach from the stern with the nose of the helicopter positioned to port. This gives the pilot, who is seated to starboard, the most advantageous view of the sailboat. It also allows the rescue crew to view the boat from the open helicopter door.

--The pilot and rescue crew will assess how best to proceed, deciding whether to hoist the victims directly from the sailboat or from the water.

--Never fire a flare or shine a spotlight directly at the helicopter.

--Use a smoke signal in daylight and an incendiary flare at night.

--New night-vision goggles are capable of reducing glare from lights and aerial flares, but these can still make it difficult for the pilot to see when close to the boat.

--Listen for the pilot's instructions on your VHF radio. In most cases, instructions will first come from a fixed-wing aircraft such as a Falcon jet or C-130. It will be almost impossible to talk by radio once the helicopter is hovering over the sailboat because the jet engines are noisy.

--Ask yourself if abandoning ship is really necessary right now. (Atkins emphasized the risk of a hoist must be weighed against risk of remaining on the boat. He noted that sailboats are typically sturdy and won't sink if not taking on water. He cited the 1991 case of the 32-foot sailboat “Satori”, abandoned during the Perfect Storm and found washed up undamaged on a Maryland beach).

--Everything is easier in daylight. Night-vision goggles are a great tool, but nothing beats the human eye on its own. A hoist evacuation at first light will be much safer and have a greater chance of success than one conducted in the middle of the night.

--The pilot will tell you to maintain a certain course heading and speed. Assign someone to the helm. (Atkins recalled one rescue in which the helmsman repeatedly looked up at the helicopter as it approached, leaving the sailboat zig-zagging in the waves.)

--Don't depend on the autopilot. It can't correct course as fast as a human, especially when the boat is being blown by the helicopter's rotorwash.

--If the helicopter crew determines a direct hoist from the boat cannot be performed safely, you will be asked to get into your raft and cast off from the boat or enter the water. The rescue swimmer will be deployed to the water to help hoist you to the helicopter, either in the rescue basket or in a sling attached to the swimmer.

--If you are in the raft, you will be asked to get into the water one at a time so that the swimmer can assist you. Wait for a signal from the helicopter crew.

--If you are on deck, instructions will be given on when to enter the basket. --NEVER ATTACH A LINE TO THE BASKET OR HOIST WIRE or the rescue hook on the end of the hoist to any part of the basket. This could result in damage to the hoist cable, making it unusable or worse, cause a snag that snaps the hoist cable, possibly injuring people on deck or doing damage to the helicopter.

--Once the basket is winched to the helicopter door, wait until the basket is swung into the aircraft before attempting to get out.



Some things to consider from the rescue swimmer's point of view:


--Sailors can be too helpful. Let the swimmer board from the stern without interference. (Sayers said beefy sailors have overzealously hauled him aboard, sending him smashing into the steering wheel, binnacle or other unforgiving structure).

--Let the swimmer climb aboard from the stern. Swimmers typically wait for a wave to lift them close enough to grab hold the boat.

--If you want to help, put a ladder over the side and toss a heavy mooring line overboard with a lifering or lifejacket attached to the end. Thin poly line can cut through the swimmer's gloves and is difficult to grip.

--If the deck is spacious, the swimmer may be dropped directly aboard, presuming there is room to maneuver a Stokes rescue litter, in which a victim with neck or spine injuries can be strapped and hoisted.




What to Expect:


--If the boat sinks before the helicopter arrives, get into the liferaft with handheld VHF and EPIRB. If a raft is not available, stay together in the water.

--Helicopters can be unnervingly noisy when directly overhead and crank hurricane-force winds.

--Lights on the underbelly of the helicopter will illuminate the boat's deck and surrounding water.

--Keep in mind that conditions may make it impossible to deploy a rescue swimmer or basket directly to the boat.

--If seas are over 8 feet, the rescue swimmer will likely be dropped into the water and swim to the boat. Once the swimmer is in the water, stop the boat.

--Most hoisting evolutions begin with an orange poly-pro tag line (called a trail line by Coast Guard crews) lowered from the helicopter onto the boat. This line keeps the rescue swimmer or rescue basket from swirling as it is lowered or raised and allows the helicopter to conduct the hoist at a slightly offset angle from the boat, giving the pilot a better view.

--Helicopters produce. hoisted huge amounts of static electricity, so it's important that the tag line, weighted with a 5-pound bag of lead shot, is dipped into the sea or touches the boat before it's handled and brought aboard. Usually the hoist operator will do this. (As Atkins pointed out, it can give you a good jolt, though not injurious).

--Once the tag line is on board, coil the slack.

--The other end of the tag line is attached to the rescue swimmer or rescue basket (actually to a secondary hook on the hoist line).

--Once the rescue swimmer or basket is lowered and clears the wheel of the helicopter, pull the tag line smartly and help guide the rescue swimmer or basket to the deck.

--When the rescue swimmer or basket is being raised back to the helicopter, hold the tag line taut until the hoist operator has the rescue swimmer or basket in their grasp.

--The basket and hoist are rated for 600 pounds.

--Hoists are generally easier if the vessel is underway. Course and speed required will vary with wind and sea conditions. Generally, the helicopter crew wants to have the nose into the wind and the vessel bow 35-60 degrees to the right of the helicopter's nose.

--The helicopter will likely approach from the stern, perhaps at the boat's 5 o'clock position. Angling toward a sailboat with a 70-foot mast is more difficult than approaching a smaller boat because the geometry works against the pilot.

--In a MEDEVAC situation, depending on the injury, the rescue swimmer/EMT may stay aboard the boat and stabilize the victim rather than risk a hoist. Sayers put it this way: “If it's an appendicitis, or serious sickness or injury, if the person is going to die unless you get them off the boat, then you have to hoist.”

--Sailors getting struck by the boom during accidental gybes is not uncommon and often results in serious injury. A recent incident to which Sayers responded left one sailor with broken teeth, lacerated cheeks, exploded eye socket and potential head injury. The man had to be taken off the boat despite the pitching sea.

--Be honest. If you are elderly or frail and unable to assist the rescue effort, say so.

--One adult gets hoisted at a time. Small children should ride with an adult.

--Never try to stand up in the basket. Wait until the hoist operator pulls the basket into the helicopter.

--During the hoist, the hoist operator will focus on keeping the basket away from cresting waves or dipping it into the sea, which can cause the victim to fall out.

--The last person off the vessel should detach the trail line from the basket before being hoisted off the boat.

--Should the helicopter crash, it is safe to approach once the rotor has submerged and stopped turning. Assist the helicopter crew and try to account for all aboard.


NOTE: Lt. Commander Doug Atkins completed two deployments to the Persian Gulf as a U.S. Navy pilot before joining the Coast Guard. He spent six years as a rescue pilot in Alaska and has been assigned to Air Station Cape Cod since 2007, where he serves as operations training offficer.

 Aviation Survival Technician First Class Joel Sayers has been a U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer for 11 years.