A long string of nonsensical franco-sounding syllables bursts from the VHF startling the entire family out of our familiar and comfortable bickering at the dinner table. The only sounds that are clear to all members of the family are the mariner's knell of "pan pan pan."
Everyone knows about "mayday". You say mayday when things have gone completely to hell and you need help… like ten minutes ago. In all our years out cruising, we've only heard one mayday. We were somewhere up in the Pacific Northwest near the San Juan Islands. The mayday was issued by a woman on a powerboat. The captain had been injured -- it was never clear how but he was incapacitated and unable to come to the radio -- and the woman was helpless. She could barely operate the radio, let alone operate the boat itself. We listened with an odd mixture of horrified fascination and worry as the US Coast Guard attempted to first get the woman to change from 16 to another channel, and -- failing that -- tried to assist the woman to secure the vessel. The craft was drifting ashore and perilously close to running up on rocks before we gratefully heard the Coast Guard announce on 16 that they were within sight of the vessel. Not long after, 16 went silent again as the Coast Guard took over the boat and apparently got the women off channel. Ever since, we have enforced a family policy that everyone on the boat knows how to operate the radios as well as drive the boat solo in the event of an emergency. It is hard to overemphasize how frustrating it was to bear witness to this woman's helplessness.
"Securite securite securite" is another VHF radio alert. In the United States and Canada, you'll hear the securite message frequently. Generally, it is used by officials such as the Coast Guard to make non-emergency announcements such as navigational hazards as well as by weather services to alert boaters to the pending delivery of an updated weather report. Interestingly, we never heard the securite message in Mexico. This is no doubt due to the fact that outside of a few very select areas, Mexicans do not broadcast marine weather reports via VHF. In French Polynesia, our memory of the securite messages was refreshed upon arrival in Tahiti. For the Tahiti and Bora Bora areas, Meteorologie France regularly broadcasts weather reports on 26 and 27. Of course, the alert is "seh-kyu-reh-teh" and in French, but it's nice to be back in a country which keeps its mariners apprised of the weather.
Somewhere between "mayday" and "securite" is the "pan pan pan." A pan message indicates that someone or something is in trouble, but the trouble is not necessarily immediately life threatening. There is such a broad range between mayday and securite, that any time you hear a pan, the ears perk and the heart starts to beat a bit faster. To some mariners, anything short of a ship actually banging on rocks and sinking is merely a pan, whereas other folks think a pan is when you run out of fuel and are drifting slowly down the Straits of Juan de Fuca with an estimated landfall three or four days hence. One of the laws of the sea -- sometimes literally a legal requirement and at others merely a custom -- is that all vessels hearing a request for assistance such as a pan alert are required to render assistance if at all possible. A pan alert on channel 16, in other words, could literally mean the end of dinner and a very rough few hours while you do what you can to save the property and life of a complete stranger.
The vessel that has garnered the most positive karma in pan situations on the puddle jump this year must be Loose Pointer. While preparing our boats, we all simply stopped counting the number of times that Dan and company piled into the dinghy and went out to save another vessel. Usually, it was a boat dragging in a norther or poorly anchored boats that started banging into each other in the typical Magote waltz. At least once, he zoomed out all the way to Costa Baja to tow in a completely disabled vessel. Dan has supplied endless tools to repair Don Quixote and other boats, loaned us a critically needed outboard motor, and been the best companion boat a cruiser could ask for. They also towed Star Gap 12 miles into Papeete when it looked like that benighted vessel was going to extend its 7 week Galapagos journey another few weeks and go all the way to Tonga. I am sure there are other rescues. Dan and Kathryn are considering renaming their vessel "Triple A".
Tonight's pan alert, however, is completely incomprehensible. I am considerably more sympathetic now over DrC's protests that he could never understand the Mexicans chattering on VHF. Heavily Tahitian accented French over VHF is about as close to complete babble as it gets. What I am able to translate is something having to do with a very large thunderstorm, lightening, no power, and near Papeete. Even the words I am able to grasp in the stream of nonsense is enough to worry all of us. Deep in Oponunu Bay, we're getting hammered ourselves by incredibly heavy rain and intermittent gusts in the 25 to 30 range. It's not hard to imagine a boat getting hit by lightening just outside of Papeete harbor and now drifting towards the barrier reef. We are not, however, in any position to help even if this is the case. We're a minimum of three hours away and on the hook. Someone else needs to respond to this pan.
We watch each other chew in dead silence while we await a response. The pan message is issued a second and then a third time with no reply. Each time, I'm able to decipher just a few more words, confirming my initial impression and adding the knowledge that the vessel is out of the Tuamotus, power, and large. It might even be one of the cargo ships or ferries. Finally, someone responds in a version of French even more incomprehensible than the vessel in distress. Now, I am completely unable to figure out what is going on. However, the knowledge that someone is interacting with the disabled vessel dramatically reduces the tension on Don Quixote. Bickering over the division of the pumpkin pie resumes punctuated periodically with squawks from the radio which sound like negotiations on how and where to tow the disabled craft. Eventually, DrC has had enough, and we turn of the radio for the remainder of the emergency.
Someday, we may "pull a Loose Pointer;" We may be the rescuer, motoring out of our way to help a fellow mariner. Sadly, it is also true that we could be the rescuee, needing the assistance that only another boat can render. The constant chatter on the hailing and emergency channels is a part of our lives, a constant reminder to us that bad juju can happen at any time on the sea. At the same time, it reassures us that there are also helpful strangers out there who are listening for our mayday, pan or security, ready to lend a hand.