A Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter, like this one shown during a rescue in the Channel Islands, was being used in the search for four people who reportedly abandoned a sailboat Sunday west of Monterey, Calif. / U.S. Coast Guard
SAN FRANCISCO - The Coast Guard, after scouring 20,000 square miles of ocean for two days, called off a rescue mission Tuesday for a mystery sailboat reported capsized off the Monterey coast with four people aboard.
"We weren't able to find any vessel, any signs of debris, we couldn't find anything that would indicate there had been an incident," said Thomas McKenzie, a Coast spokesman out of the Yerba Buena command in San Francisco.
The vessel was reported taking on water at 4:20 p.m. local time Sunday when a man sent a message on marine radio reporting that he, his wife, their 4-year-old son and his cousin were on a 29-foot sailboat with failing electronics.
Radio contact was lost after the operator of the sailboat said the passengers were abandoning ship.
The Coast Guard earlier released the audio of the distress call in hopes that someone from the public could identify the voice.
"Coast Guard, Coast Guard, we are abandoning ship," the operator of the sailboat says in the crackling recording. "This is the (Charmblow), we are abandoning ship."
The radio message was garbled but appeared to identify the boat as Charmblow. The Coast Guard, however, said it wasn't able to find a boat registered under that name and that no one had been reported missing, McKenzie said.
Cutters, patrol boats, planes and helicopters were involved in the round-the-clock search over an area the size of West Virginia.
McKenzie would not call the incident a hoax but he did note that making a false distress call is a federal criminal offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the cost of the search.
The Coast Guard handles, on average more than 20,000 calls for assistance a year. Of those, an average of are 18 intentional false distress calls and another 121 are suspected hoaxes, according to Coast Guard figures.
"When you look at the total picture of the Coast Guard's activities out there it's rare. But when it happens they pull out all the stops and it's infuriating for those of us who are boaters and taxpayers-payers when its confirmed it's a hoax. It takes resources away from coming to legitimate rescues," said Ryck Lydecker, who wrote about the problem in the December issue of BoatU.S., the magazine of the Boat Owners Association of the United States in Alexandria, Va.
The Coast Guard must treat "every call as a real case, we go out and put our lives on the line and our people in harm's way" to protect the public, McKenzie said. "We ran 34 searches, the Navy was involved, the Air National Guard, as well as 10 Coast Guard boats and helicopters."
They are "investigating" the case now, he said.
McKenzie emphasized that anyone going out into the water should file a float plan with the local marina or friends, telling someone on shore where they were going, who's on board and when they expect to arrive.
Having life jackets for all passengers "no matter what size your vessel is or how long you'll be out is crucial," he said. "You can drown in just a few feet of water." A vessel that size would be expected to carry life vests for everyone on board and possibly some type of life raft, he said.
The Coast Guard was able to pinpoint the area where the boat allegedly went down because it has a new radio program, called Rescue 21, which gives it a cleaner line of bearing from radio messages, making it easier for the Coast Guard to locate mariners in distress, McKenzie said. That put the sailboat at 65 miles off the coast of Monterey, about 100 miles south of San Francisco, in the open ocean.
Others had wondered whether the event had actually happened, citing some oddities of the reports. Brent Vaughan, who sails a 35-foot sailboat out of San Francisco, said it seemed strange for a sailboat to be so far off the coast by early afternoon.
"A 29-foot boat going on its fastest point of sail is going to go about 7 mph, so you'd have to sail nine hours to get 60 miles out," he said. "And that's sailing in a straight line, which sailboats don't do."
Vaughan noted, however, that a 29-foot sailboat wouldn't normally carry a lifeboat, which can be heavy and expensive. Such sailboats are mostly kept within sight of shore, precluding the need for a lifeboat, he said.
The Coast Guard dealt with two hoax distress calls last year, a false yacht explosion off New Jersey and a mayday call in Texas.
In May, the Coast Guard searched for six people reported missing after a mayday call saying they were abandoning their sinking fishing boat in the waters off Galveston, Texas. In the New Jersey hoax, a caller in June claimed there were three dead, nine injured and 20 in the water off Sandy Hook, N.J. Nothing was found, and authorities later determined the call came from land.
The two calls were similar and may have been from the same person. The Guard spent over $300,000 on the New Jersey search alone and has offered a reward of $3,000 for information that leads to the prosecution of whoever is responsible.
Contributing: The Associated Press
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