Tag Archives: VHF

Rescue services

With the VHF on Channel 16, I can hear the Coast Guard but not (usually) the boats talking to them. As a result, I get one side of the conversation and have to piece the story together from that.

One day, the Coast Guard acknowledged a message from a private boat which had reported a cruiser aground at a named part of Lough Ree. The Coast Guard didn’t have a map of the lake and didn’t know where that was [why not?] but it seemed that the private boat was able to explain matters. It was also able to say, in response to questions, that three people were visible on board and that one was wearing a lifejacket or buoyancy aid.

The Coast Guard, after a while, reported that it had asked the Lough Ree RNLI lifeboat to go to the rescue, gave an estimate of when it would get there and asked the private boat to remain on station. The private boat evidently agreed to do so.

Some time later the Coast Guard reported that the lifeboat was on its way.

And some time later again the Coast Guard called the lifeboat and told them they were being stood down and could return to base, as the hire firm was arranging for a boat to be sent to the rescue. The private boat was told that it could leave the scene.

If I were the skipper of the private boat, I would be very pissed off and, next time I saw a boat aground, I’d be inclined to ignore it. That would not be good.

The problem here is that there are two competing rescue services. The official service [PDF] is the one that was called into operation by the private boat, which did the right thing in reporting the grounding. And the system worked perfectly after that.

It should be noted that a private boat cannot know what, if anything, is happening through the unofficial rescue service operated by hire companies on the Shannon: “unofficial” in that its boats are not Declared SRUs (Search and Rescue units), the hire firms (and IBRA) are not listed as Irish Search and Rescue Organisations and their operations are not coordinated by the Coast Guard.

According to the Carrick Craft Captain’s Handbook [PDF/Flipbook]

You will be given breakdown and emergency telephone numbers when you check in.

It also says

Running aground

In all cases immediately contact your hire boat base for advice using the number provided. In the interests of safety do not accept an offer of help from a passing boat. If needed, assistance will be quickly available either from your hire boat company or one of the associate hire boat companies who may be located closer to you. Your hire boat company will alert the necessary authorities to deal with any incident that may arise.

The bit about not accepting help from passing boats is OK, I suppose, until the water reaches your ankles.

But I suspect that the advice to hirers is based on experience: groundings are probably the most common form of accident, it is unlikely that the boat will sink, it is likewise unlikely that anyone will have been injured and it is probable that a dory or other workboat will be able to make any necessary checks and repairs, haul the boat off and admonish the crew.

However, there may be an element of self-interest in this too: if the hire firms look after these incidents themselves, they won’t find them covered in press releases from voluntary rescue bodies, with videos shot by boat-mounted cameras. I have heard it said that some folk — including private boaters — feel that rescuers’ press releases give the wrong impression of the inland waterways, suggesting that they are more dangerous than they really are, especially given that few rescues involve any threat to life. [That’s something I’ve heard, not my own view.]

It is entirely possible that I misunderstood, and have thus misrepresented, what was happening. But if I haven’t, it seems to me that there is a problem in the relationship between the official and unofficial rescus systems for hire boats. If hire company staff, who are paid for the job, can rescue afflicted boats, without having to impose on the volunteer rescue services, then that’s a good thing. But it would not be good to have private boaters ignore all hire boats in trouble because, some day, the trouble might be serious.

I do not know whether the hire firms and the Coast Guard have discussed these matters and reached some understanding or produced some protocol about when the firms will call in the official services. If they haven’t, it might be nice if they did.

And, in individual instances, the firms might tell the Coast Guard, and ask them to broadcast the fact, that there is a boat aground and that they’re on their way, perhaps asking private boats to keep an eye out just in case. Everyone with VHF will hear the news, but that’s still more private than having press releases and videos on websites.

 

Weather

I had not realised that the times of the Met Éireann inland lakes weather forecasts, broadcast by the Coast Guard on VHF, had been changed. The times are now

06:15
10:15 repetition
13:15
16:15 repetition

MRCC Dublin, to whom I am grateful for confirming the new times, says

Standby on VHF Channel 16 for your local working channel.

In bygone days the Lough Derg and Lough Ree forecasts were five minutes apart, but now the initial call on Channel 16 is at the same time everywhere.

I found the new 10:15 broadcast to be particularly convenient.

Forecast format

However, one aspect in which I thought the Met Éireann forecasts (also available here) less useful than those from other sources (eg Windguru) is the absence of a forecast for wind gusts. On several occasions this year, the gusts were (a) almost continuous and (b) much stronger than the forecast wind speed. They thus had more influence on our trip planning than did the base wind speed. It would be nice if Met Éireann, and thus the Coast Guard, could include a forecast for gusts.

Hire boats

The hirers’ training materials I mentioned here give good advice about rough weather on lakes but, after seeing several hire boats cross Lough Ree in weather that kept us in harbour, I wondered whether the lakes forecasts are readily available to hirers. If they’re not, perhaps they could be transmitted daily by text message?

I should stress that I did not hear of any accidents caused by stress of weather, but some folk may have had uncomfortable trips.

 

 

Waterproof wireless telegraphy

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about wireless telegraphy, concluding that:

At present, the rational decision for a boat-owner is to buy a cheap VHF without bothering to get either a certificate for the operator or a licence for the vessel. This is the rational decision because the official channels for getting certificates and licences are slow, expensive and cumbersome. It may therefore be — who knows? — that the populace has already decided to ignore the regulations.

For leisure boating within some sensible distance of the shore, I suggest that the current regulations be either drastically simplified or, perhaps better, scrapped altogether. That might mean giving the International Telecommunication Union a kick up the transom, but the present system is counterproductive: it seems to limit the use of handheld VHFs in cases where they could be very useful, if only to allow search and rescue volunteers to stand down earlier.

Two reports published today by the Marine Casualty Investigation Board have caused me to reconsider that conclusion.

In the Brownstown Head case [Report no MCIB/229; no 11 of 2013] [PDF], two occupants of a 16′ punt were thrown into the water when the boat capsized. They had a handheld VHF in the boat, but it sank when the boat capsized; one occupant put his mobile phone in his mouth to keep it above the water but it was knocked out. As a result, they were unable to summon assisstance. They eventually tried to swim to the shore, but only one made it; the other was drowned.

In the MacDara’s Island Currach case [Report no MCIB/215; no 10 of 2013] [PDF], a fisherman seems to have fallen overboard from a 6.15m open boat, in which he was alone. It was equipped with flares and a VHF in a watertight container, but as the report says:

5.6. There are unique problems with fishing operations from small open boats by lone fishermen. Once they become separated from their vessel their means of communicating their distress are on board their boat and not accessible to them.

In neither of these cases was the possession of a handheld VHF of any use. The VHF sets would have had to be (a) waterproof and (b) securely attached to the boaters’ lifejackets. The report on the MacDara’s Island Currach case recommends:

6.5. That the “Code of Practice for Fishing Vessels under 15 LOA” section 9.5 Radio Equipment should be amended by the addition of a requirement for undecked vessels where there is a lone occupant that an appropriate beacon should be of the type worn on the person.

In fact, the same recommendation could be applied to cases like Brownstown Head, where there were two people in the boat. That is broadly in line with the actions announced by two ministers on 8 July; note Simon Coveney also said:

I am also establishing a new high level working group on safety in the fishing industry, to look at all aspects of safety on fishing vessels and to report to Minister Varadkar and myself with recommendations before the end of the year. The new working group will be chaired by Mr John Leech current CEO of Irish Water Safety. Because a common thread of comment in recent times has been the need to pay particular attention on issues surrounding the number of small inshore boats that get into difficulty, I have charged the group with focussing to a large degree on this aspect.

So the wider use of handheld VHFs won’t solve every problem. I still think, though, that such wider use should be encouraged by the removal of unnecessary barriers.

Wireless telegraphy

I mentioned here that I thought that, during the major search operation on Lough Derg on 21 June 2013, life would have been easier for everybody if each boat had had a handheld VHF and someone able to operate it. However, I should make it clear that I don’t know what equipment and what sort of organisation and safety procedures the rowing group had, so I’m not going to comment on them. Instead, I’m going to make a general point about what I think are obstacles to the more widespread use of VHF.

Buying a set

Handheld VHF sets can be bought for as little as £50 in the UK or €75 in Ireland. So the technology is now very cheap and, for short range work as on Lough Derg, a handheld VHF should be adequate.

So let’s say you do a bit of searching on tinterweb, say half an hour or so; you find a cheap set from a reliable retailer, give your credit card details and then sit back and wait for the set to be delivered. Elapsed time less than a week, your time say half an hour, the price from say €75 upwards. Getting the hardware is easy and cheap: quite a change from when the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1926 (still applicable) was passed.

But if you want to be legally entitled to use a VHF set, matters are much more complicated.

Hunt the department

Let us suppose that you are a poor benighted foreigner who has decided to hire a boat on the Shannon. You know there is Coast Guard VHF cover there and you think that it would be sensible to bring your handheld set and use it while in Ireland. But, being a poor benighted foreigner, you want to do it all legally.

Your first challenge is to find which Irish government department deals with the matter. Maybe it’s the Department of Communications? You have an old booklet somewhere saying its full name is the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, which sounds promising. However, you notice that the department seems to have dropped “marine” for “energy” and searching its site for “marine vhf” returns no results.

If, at this point, you were tempted to look at the website of the Commission for Communications Regulation, and thought of looking under Radio Spectrum/Licensing, you would find a link that took you to the right place. But let’s suppose instead that, in reviewing an official list of Irish government departments, you noticed that the word “marine” is now (for some reason) part of the title of the Department of Agriculture, along with “food”.

So you troll on over to the farmers’ friends. The main headings on the site’s front page don’t include marine, though; fisheries is the closest topic. If you use the search facility to find “marine” you get 10800 results, which is rather too many to be useful, but you find that there is a Marine Agencies and Programmes Division, which has a list of Useful Links. Unfortunately none of them are to the department that actually deals with most marine matters: the Department of Transport [and Tourism and Sport], which is at both www.transport.ie and www.dttas.ie.

Things are looking up.

Hunt the unit

Your next challenge is to find the section or unit within the Department of Transport Etc that looks after marine VHF. You could use the department’s search engine, which (at least on my computer) is great for showing the word “Loading” but not for anything else. Or you could click on the word “Maritime”, which takes you to a page whereon you read:

Maritime Safety Directorate (MSD)

The Maritime Safety Directorate (MSD) is comprised of two main sections; the Marine Survey Office (MSO) which includes the Marine Radio Affairs Unit (MRAU) and the Maritime Safety Policy Division (MSPD).

Sure enough, clicking on Maritime Safety Directorate in the left-hand column gives you another page whereon you read:

The Maritime Safety Directorate comprises of two main sections: the Maritime Safety Policy Division (MSPD) and the Marine Survey Office (MSO), which includes the Marine Radio Affairs Unit (MRAU). The Mercantile Marine Office (MMO) also works to the Directorate.

This doesn’t quite correspond to the list of headings in the left-hand column on that page, which makes no mention of a Maritime Safety Policy Division and has lots of other stuff that doesn’t seem to fit in the two (and a half?) main sections, but at least there is a link for the Marine Survey Office (MSO), and on that page there is a link to the Maritime Radio Affairs Unit (MRAU), so you click that and finally you’ve arrived.

Hunt the information

The MRAU has a top-level page and two lower-level pages. The top-level page has an email address, which is good, and a list (dated 6 April 2011) of nine PDFs of Marine Notices relevant to radio. They are identified by numbers rather than by names: there is nothing to indicate what any of them is about,  so the eager seeker after knowledge will have to read all of them. Some are about EPIRBs and suchlike; as far as I can see, the only three relevant to our poor benighted foreigner, wanting to use a handheld VHF, are this one [PDF], that one [PDF] and the other one about fees [PDF].

Selecting the Contact Us page gives you names and phone numbers as well as email addresses. So the page with the detailed information must be the other one headed Forms (and not this one, which seems to be orphaned). Each of the links on the Forms page takes you, for some reason, to another page, from which you can download a document: most are indeed PDFs but two are Word DOC files.

The documents cover three topics:

Thre is also e FAQ [PDF], which outlines the rules. It also suggests that one document is missing from those downloadable: it may be called Ships Radio
Operators Certification and may be an application form.

The FAQ does not explain the different types of licences that are mentioned in Marine Notice 35 of 2010:

An Irish Certificate of Equivalent Competency (CEC) or Irish Certificate of  Competence (COC) issued by the Department of Transport, Ireland, when such
certificate states that the holder has a valid Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), General Operator Certificate (GOC) or Restricted Operator Certificate (ROC) qualification. An Irish CEC or Irish COC must be accompanied by the persons separate valid GMDSS, GOC or ROC qualification.

I have no idea whether I have a CEC, a GOC, a ROC or a … the other thing. And I can’t make out which of them a new applicant (or a poor benighted foreigner) should apply for.

Then Marine Notice 12 of 2004 adds another variant, the SRC:

Radio Operators on board Irish recreational craft, and on board certain other Irish craft  that are required to comply with Merchant Shipping legislation regarding the carriage of maritime radio equipment, must hold as a minimum qualification the Radio Operator’s Short Range Certificate of Competency(SRC) issued by the Commission for Communications Regulation, or an equivalent certificate that is recognised by the Commission as being the equivalent of the Irish SRC.

Is ComReg still involved? I didn’t think so.

But the main point of this marine notice is to say that the only poor benighted foreigners whose short range certificates of competency are recognised in Ireland are the Finns and the Germans; only they can get the Authority to Operate. What should other foreigners do? I don’t know and I can’t see the answer anywhere.

Information

So far, then, it seems to me that (for someone outside the system) it is hard to find the bit of the Irish government web presence that holds the information. (That, of course, is not the fault of the Department of Transport.) Once you’ve got to the relevant part of the Department of Transport website, you have to read far too many documents to find the information you want; it’s not easy to understand and it may be incomplete.

Getting a certificate and a licence

As far as I can see, the process is this:

  • attend a course from one of the approved providers [DOC]. It’s not clear to me which course our poor benighted foreigner [or other would-be operator] would have to do; BIM offers courses ranging from two to ten days, but doesn’t show the costs; I suspect that courses for pleasure-boat operators, especially those from private-sector providers, take rather less time, but I don’t know the cost. The elapsed time could be several months, depending on local supply of and demand for courses
  • take an exam from one of the approved examiners [DOC]. Again, I don’t know the duration (it used to be less than half a day), the cost or the elapsed time (how long you would have to wait until a course is available locally). As far as I can see, the syllabus is not published, so you have no choice but to go to one of the approved providers; that sounds like an anti-competitive practice
  • apply to the department for a certificate. That, it seems, has to be done on paper; the fee [PDF] depends on the certificate you need, which I don’t know, but is either €50 or €60
  • when you’ve got the certificate, you apply for a licence for your, er, ship, using this form [PDF] and paying €100. You give details of the radio operator’s certificate; if it’s a non-Irish certificate you provide a copy, and I guess that you have already applied for an Authority to Operate [PDF].

So your cost is €150 or €160 plus the course fee plus the exam fee; the elapsed time could be several months. All for permission to operate a piece of equipment that is rather less complex than a modern smartphone.

Costs and benefits

Years ago, there was some abuse of VHF channels, which were sometimes used for casual chit-chat. From what I can hear, that is no longer a problem; folk probably send text messages instead. I don’t see any reason to fear an increase in the number of VHF users, and indeed I see many reasons to promote such an increase.

Some of the recent reports of the Marine Casualty Investigation Board on small-boat accidents describe cases in which handheld VHFs could have summoned assistance faster — and would, I think, have been more useful than orange smoke flares. In other cases, folk summoning assistance have relied on mobile phones.

It seems to me that the present system, designed almost ninety years ago for an entirely different context, for large and cumbersome equipment on large vessels, is unsuited to modern leisure boating, with large numbers of small boats that could carry small, cheap, battery-powered handheld VHF sets.

At present, the rational decision for a boat-owner is to buy a cheap VHF without bothering to get either a certificate for the operator or a licence for the vessel. This is the rational decision because the official channels for getting certificates and licences are slow, expensive and cumbersome. It may therefore be — who knows? — that the populace has already decided to ignore the regulations.

For leisure boating within some sensible distance of the shore, I suggest that the current regulations be either drastically simplified or, perhaps better, scrapped altogether. That might mean giving the International Telecommunication Union a kick up the transom, but the present system is counterproductive: it seems to limit the use of handheld VHFs in cases where they could be very useful, if only to allow search and rescue volunteers to stand down earlier.

 

Searching Lough Derg

Last Friday evening, 21 June 2013, was not a good time to be out on Lough Derg. We were heading north, with the waves behind us, and had little difficulty until entering port, but we could hear on the VHF what must have been one of the biggest search and rescue operations on the Shannon in recent years.

We had switched on at what seemed like a fairly early point in the proceedings, and kept listening until the Coast Guard were assured that everybody was accounted for. We weren’t able to attend to the whole thing, as manoeuvres during and after berthing occupied our attention for some time, but we got a pretty clear picture. The Irish Times report (which will probably disappear behind a paywall at some stage) is here; I think it has some minor details wrong but the gist of it is correct; its later report is here. The Clare Herald has a very detailed account here, the Clare Champion account is here and the Limerick Post adds some information here.

The event was said by the Irish Times to be “hosted for FISA in Ireland by St Michael’s Rowing Club of Limerick” but I can’t see anything about it on either organisation’s website. I presume that the boats were something like this one.

Quad at Clonlara in 2011

It’s a quad, with each rower using two oars; it carries a cox and it’s used for touring rowing, so it’s not as slim as a standard racing shell.

By the way, just to be clear, none of the photos on this page were taken during last Friday’s operation.

RNLI Lough Derg lifeboat

From what we could hear, the operation involved volunteers from Killaloe Coast Guard, the RNLI at Dromineer, the Community Rescue Boats from Mountshannon and Limerick and at least one yacht, which (I think) took one of the rowing boats in tow; that yacht’s participation and careful provision of information to the Coast Guard was admirable.

Killaloe Coast Guard RIB

Killaloe Coast Guard RIB

We heard discussion of proposals to ask the Civil Defence to participate as well, and the Clare Herald confirms they did turn out. It seems that the University of Limerick Activity Centre boat was out too, as was Peter Hooker of RNLI in his own boat.

Limerick Marine SAR Land Rover

Limerick Marine SAR Land Rover

That’s just the volunteers, and if I’ve left anybody out I’m sorry; let me know and I’ll amend this.

Then there were the professionals: the Coast Guard staff on VHF, the Gardaí on shore, the helicopter crew. And, again, the Clare Herald makes it clear that lots of other people were involved too: fire brigade and ambulance units, paramedics and a hospital consultant.

All in all, this was a major operation and a lot of people put in a lot of effort that night, in bloody awful weather.

Communications

I formed the impression that communication amongst the members of the rowing fleet, and between them and the rescue services, was poor. It was difficult to establish what rowers were where and how many were unaccounted for. The Clare Herald story seems to support that conclusion: it says that Gardaí had to travel to the rowers’ hotel to make sure that everybody had turned up and that the search was not formally stood down until 11.30pm.

I don’t know what communications equipment and what sort of organisation and safety procedures the rowing group had, so I’m not going to comment on them. Instead, I want to go off at a tangent. It struck me that life would have been easier for everybody if each boat had had a handheld VHF and someone able to operate it. Such sets can be bought for as little as £50 in the UK or €75 in Ireland.

So the technology is now very cheap and, for short range work as on Lough Derg, a handheld VHF should be adequate. But if you want to be legally entitled to use a VHF set, matters are much more complicated. I’ll discuss that in another post.