Air sea rescue

If you, and/or a member of your crew, requires emergency evacuation from your boat a Coastguard helicopter may be sent to air lift you off.

If you, and/or a member of your crew, requires emergency evacuation from your boat a Coastguard helicopter may be sent to air lift you off.

We talked to Tony Campbell, Chief Crewman at Portland Coastguard Helicopter Unit and Jon Mendez of Mendez Marine on the procedure, what to expect, and how you can help.

What happens first?

“Before the airlift, the helicopter winch operator will make contact with you by VHF and give you a brief on what is going to happen.

“If you have been involved in an air sea rescue before never assume that you know what is going to happen the next time. Every air sea rescue varies; the weather conditions or sea state will be different, the condition of the boat or the casualty(s), for example. So it is really important to listen very carefully to this brief - make notes if possible - especially as when the helicopter arrives you will find it hard to hear anything.

“Before the helicopter arrives, prepare your boat for its arrival and secure all loose items so that they do not get blown away by the helicopters down draft.”

Why will the size of my boat be important?

“When the winch operator makes contact with you he/she will ascertain the size of your boat. A smaller craft, approximately 7m metres and under, is usually attended with the boat stationary and the helicopter hovering overhead.

“Larger craft, 9/10m and above, will be given a course and speed to steer. The helicopter pilot will then keep station (normally on the port quarter) on the moving vessel. It is important to keep to this course, without deviating.

“A helicopter needs an enormous amount of power to hover so by keeping a steady course the helicopter can gain more air speed and therefore use less power. It is harder to see the bow on smaller craft and therefore difficult for the pilot to ‘format’ ‘. This means that the pilot cannot lock onto a steady course and speed which is why smaller craft are asked to remain stationary.

What happens when the helicopter arrives?

“In most cases the winch man will come down directly onto your boat. However, if the winch man is having trouble getting onto your boat then they may use a ‘high-line’.

“The winch man will lower a weighted line down to your boat. Let it earth on the deck to release any static. Do not attach it to the boat. Coiling the line in a bucket is very useful. You will be asked to pull on the line to guide the helicopter winch man in.

“Once the winch man has landed and unhooked he will assess the situation. He or she now has complete authority. This is really important to remember. Do exactly what they tell you; they are the experts.

‘’If a casualty needs to be removed from the boat the winch man will take the casualty off the boat first. You will use the weighted line to control his swing. Do not let it snag on anything.’’

Being lifted from your boat

“To lift you off the boat a strop will be placed over your head and under your arms. Keep your arms down to stop the strop slipping over your head. If you are injured then a stretcher may be used”.

Jon Mendez, from Mendez Marine has been winched up a few times on training exercise so I asked him what it feels like. “It’s a weird experience - when I was lifted out I had no sensation of going up. One minute I was on the boat and the next I was going up towards the helicopter. It was surprisingly smooth.

“When you get to the helicopter the crew will help you to get through the door. It feels odd not to do anything to assist and doesn’t seem natural but if you try to help you could be creating more problems. For instance if you lift your arms up to push yourself into the helicopter you run the risk of slipping through the strop, from a height! So it is best to let them do the work until you are safely sitting inside the helicopter.”

Last thought from Tony

“All Coastguard winch men are fully trained paramedics and are able to provide medical assistance at the time of the rescue. However, you shouldn’t be afraid to administer CPR if someone collapses on board. Every minute counts and the more you can do prior to our arrival the better for the casualty”.