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An anxious thought after watching the news yesterday: what do we do if we come across a dinghy full of distressed migrants in mid-channel? Do we follow our instincts and get them on board, put the heater on, wrap them in warm sleeping bags and offer sympathy? Or must we stand off, watch, and wait for help?
I am sure the very firm advice from the authorities will be to call the Coastguard on VHF/DSC, and stand by till the Border Force vessel (there is only one near Dover at the moment), a lifeboat or some other help arrives. But if the dinghy were swamped and people were in the water, nobody, surely, would hesitate before trying to get them on board: in the Dover Straits it would take only a moment to tell the Coastguard what we are up to and where, and professional help would come soon after.
It is more complicated further down channel, where often our VHF/DSC radio is out of range of the shore and so we could not call for help and ask for advice.
Will the smuggler gangs invest in bigger, faster boats, so they can cross further west? There has already been one case of a quite substantial catamaran arriving in Dover, (spectacularly, because it hit the harbour wall). The second shortest crossing is the 63 nautical miles from the Cherbourg peninsula to the Isle of Wight, which a motorised catamaran could probably manage even in inexpert hands. Might they even try the 100 mile crossings of the West channel? I heard a suggestion that a migrant boat had already made it to Plymouth, though I don’t know whether that is true.
So it is not at all impossible that next spring or summer we’ll come across a dinghy or a larger boat struggling along when we ourselves will be out of VHF/DSC range of the shore. We can hear the Coastguard quite a lot of the way between Cherbourg and the Needles, because of their powerful elevated transmitters, but they can’t hear us beyond about 15 miles, and maybe 25 in the very best conditions. The further west we cross the Channel, the longer we are out of touch.
What should we do if we can’t call the Coastguard?
If nobody ashore knew where we were or what we were doing, I would hesitate to take between six and a dozen desperate strangers onto a small yacht, even if we could physically manage to get them aboard – unless they were already in great danger, for example capsized or swamping, in which case excessive caution would be wrong.
Another reason to reflect carefully before acting is the non-negligible possibility of being mistaken for people smugglers if we take them on board and then encounter a patrol boat. (See the Cruising Association comments in a Mediterranean context at the end of this post). Yachts have already been caught people smuggling so are not above suspicion. It could be an unpleasant experience having to prove our innocence. So my first priority would be to get a message ashore.
How can we do that? The best bet in my view is a Mayday Relay call, on the migrants’ behalf – whether or not they ask for it – which would force all vessels in reach to pay attention. With DSC, the procedure is to send a digital ‘Urgency – All Ships, All Stations” alert and then use VHF on Channel 16 to speak the Mayday Relay message. (I had to look up the procedure – it is so long since I did the DSC course I had forgotten the digital urgency message should be first). I read that DSC has a 15 per cent greater range than a voice call, so it is possible the digital alert at least might be picked up by the coastguard, if not the voice message. But in the crowded channel, there is bound to be a ship in range, and when one replies it could be asked to pass on the position and the circumstances to UK coastguard.
An alternative to a Mayday Relay would be to check our chartplotter’ s AIS function for the nearest ship’s MMSI, call them direct on the VHF/DSC, and ask them to give the details to the Coastguard, but I think that would be slower and less reliable than a Mayday Relay.
Once a message about our position and actions is through to the shore, we could follow whatever advice comes back through the same route, which may be to stand by the migrants’ boat. But we would not feel so nervous about taking people on board if we then absolutely had to rescue them. That would be extremely difficult from a small yacht in bad conditions, of course, but that’s another story.
This is what the Cruising Association said three years ago about yachts in sensitive areas of the Mediterranean: