The largest disasters often begin with the most mundane and prosaic of details. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico began that way, with a simple VHF radio mayday broadcast.
When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig caught fire, a crew member broadcast a hasty made a call to the Coast Guard on VHF radio. At that time, the eventual scope and magnitude, the extent of the subsequent oil spill could hardly have been anticipated by anyone involved. Eleven crew members were dead; several others had jumped into the water. As the fire on the rig began to burn out of control. First responders, in this case the Coast Guard, had no true idea of what was unfolding or what would eventually ensue over the next six months.
As is often the case with mayday calls, the Coast Guard responded with a pan-pan call on Channel 16. Pan-pan calls are pretty much standard operating procedure for the Coast Guard, especially when they’ve received a mayday whose full details they haven’t yet been able to substantiate — typically because they’ve lost contact with the caller. The Coast Guard issues a pan-pan call request all area boaters to be on the lookout for the mayday situation they’ve caught wind of and are busy turning into a full-blown search and rescue case.
Soon after the Deepwater Horizon called in their mayday reporting the explosion on the rig and the fire, the rig lost power, and the Coast Guard lost direct VHF contact.
Here’s the Coast Guard’s pan-pan call almost imediately after. It’s notable for its calm brevity, by-the-book terse brevity and lack of excitement. In the watchstander asks area boaters for assistance:
Deepwater Horizon Coast Guard pan-pan call
One result of responding to a pan-pan is the possibility that you’re in a position to provide the Coast Guard with additional details and, possibly, taking on a role as a communications bridge between the Coast Guard and the boater in trouble.
Because the Coast Guard issues pan-pan calls as a matter of routine — mostly in jurisdictions where both radio and shipping traffic are frequent — the chances of your hearing a pan-pan in shipping port waters like Boston, New York, Los Angeles or Philadelphia is high. If, like any responsible boater who carries their VHF radio with its scanning function set to monitor your working channel and channels 16 and 22 alpha, they can be instructive. You’ll hear how mayday calls are escalated and handled, oftentimes with a shift to channel 22a between the Coast Guard and the boater in trouble.
Key to keep in mind is that pan-pans are often than not requests by the Coast Guard that anyone who has can see the boater in trouble, and who can report or provide communications assistance to the Coast Guard, has a legitimate reason to answer the Coast Guard on channel 16. Just be sure to identify yourself with a call sign.
Because VHF radio communications are open and accessible to anyone to listen respond to, everyone who’s carrying a VHF becomes a useful link in the matrix that makes VHF radio coverage — and communications — on local waters possible. By carrying a VHF you are a member of party line that VHF radio represent. So if you overhear channel 16 pan-pan call from the Coast Guard and have directly knowledge of what the watchstander is talking about, respond with your radio to high power. If you can see and identify and provide additional information or insights to the watchstander, do so.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf eventually developed into the largest environmental disaster in US history. Tens of thousands of Gulf of Mexico shoreline residents from Texas to Louisiana to Alabama and Florida were affected. What began as a series of explosions led to a catastrophic catastrophic fire the rupture of the massive wellhead two miles below the ocean surface and a virtually unchecked flow of oil.
The many thousands of cleanup workers who BP and the federal government called to the scene, the hundreds of large and small vessels of opportunity used for cleanup, the environmental engineers, geophysicists, scientists, and oceanographers who all converged on the Gulf in the weeks and months subsequent: all arrived in the wake of this terse routine and by-the-book channel 16 pan-pan call from the Coast Guard.