Former USCG Rescue Swimmer on Offshore Safety

31 October 2014

Mario Vittone, former USCG Rescue swimmer, spoke to the Caribbean 1500 rally this morning for a morning safety seminar prior to Sunday's planned departure from Portsmouth, VA. Below are some highlights of his hour-long talk.

“Every incident offshore could have been prevented before they ever left the dock. It’s all about preparation. Even in bad weather, it’s the preparation that will determine the outcome.”

The five rules of boating:

1. Keep the water on the outside of the boat
2. Keep the bad stuff inside the boat (oil, etc).
3. Keep the boat from catching fire or blowing up.
4. Keep everyone on the boat, on the boat.
5. If any of that stuff goes wrong, call us!

“Sailors get into trouble primarily for this – the failure to recognize when they’re in trouble.”

On Calling a ‘MayDay’

“You don’t have to call Mayday first - I’ve never heard a mariner of any variety say ‘Pan Pan’ over the radio. It was my job for 15 years to listen. I’ve never heard it. ‘Pan Pan’ simply means, ‘You know, I have a problem. I’m not really sure. But I just wanted to let you know that I’m working the problem’. I’ve never had to go out and rescue someone who’s issued a ‘Pan Pan’.”

On PFD’s & PLB’s (Personal Locator Beacon’s)

“Anytime you go ‘Eh, I don’t like this’. Or maybe smoke is coming out of a piece of gear. That’s when lifejackets go on.”

“If you bought an inflatable, and have never had it on inflated, you have no idea what you’re in for.”

“I’ve found a lot of EPIRB’s not tied to people. You can’t hold it up beyond two or three satellite passes. Velcro it to you so the antenna can transmit without you holding it up. Put the hook side [of the Velcro] on your device, the soft stuff onto the PFD.”

“Round flashlights – they’re round – I can’t put velcro on it. It’s a great handheld, but I can’t take it with me in the water because I can’t attach it.”

“Attach a small flashlight. It’ll fit in the PFD. It won’t run out like a flare will. Tie it in with nylon cord, 36”. Give you room to maneuver it. If I drop it, I can find my line, find my light, in the dark.”

“For god’s sakes their batteries! Change them every March! Forget the expiration date. Be logical and smart.”

On rescues offshore:

“No one’s gonna write another Adrift - it was the worst six hours of my life! If you have the proper technology – EPIRBs and sat phones. 267 minutes is the average time to rescue if I know where you are!”

On Cheeki-Rafiki and EPIRBs

“Your hydrostatic release on the EPIRB cradle is set to go off at 30’ deep. Cheeki Rafiki never made it to 30 feet. It flipped, and it floated, full of water. The ship’s EPIRB never activated.”

“There is a misunderstanding about EPIRB’s. Everyone’s are registered right? What have you got in your ‘other’ data field? Float plan? Nothing? Don’t know it’s there? You know what mine has? My website - – and the password. Everything about the boat. Photos of the boat out of the water. Photos of all the safety gear. Unlimited on the data.”

On Preparation

“I’ve never seen a float plan. The kind of people that make them don’t call ‘Mayday’! Everyone prepares for what they’re doing - prepare like you KNOW you’re going to sink. Prepare for failure. Where are my bailout points? Spend some time planning for failure. Take extra time. And plan on screwing it up - that KEEPS you from screwing it up.”

“The USCG boat is small. You know what it has? A 6,240-item maintenance check, done annually. Weekly, daily, pre- and post-SAR, monthly, semi-annually and annually. How long is your maintenance list? Think the water’s different for you, huh?”

On Drills

“Step away from the wheel and say ‘I fell off.’ See what happens. Create something like that. Captain emergencies are the worst if the crew isn’t trained right.”

On Flares & Signaling Devices

“Flares you carry. Smokes, flares and parachutes, right? Don’t aim them at the helicopter! They’ve come right up through the rotor arc in the past. Don’t shoot them at us! Know where we are looking. Nobody in the helicopter is looking much past 7 or 8 o’clock. We’re looking in the FWD ⅔ of the aircraft. Don’t signal the back quarter.”

“The best signal is really a flashlight. If I had both, I’m using the flashlight. If you’re EPIRB’s going on, they’re DF-ing [direction finding] on you. The DF-ing is not what you think it is.”

“Flares are burning phosphorous. They’re really bright for 30-40 seconds. You know what? It’s really bright to us in the helicopter for 12 minutes. We have nightvision and FLIR [Forward-Looking InfraRed]. It detects a 1ºF difference in anything in the water. The end of that flare stays hot. Until you can safely touch it, we can see it.”

“How about those orange smoke flares for daytime? They’re really, really hot orange smoke! They make a better night signal than the night flares! The USCG won’t ever say that. But I’m saying it from experience. I’m looking for you with FLIR goggles. Long after that flare burns out, the smoke is still hot, and it’s pointing straight back where it came from, and it lasts a long time. Out of night flares? You’re not done! Light off the smoke!”