The U.S. Coast Guard is seeking help in identifying those responsible for a series of hoax distress calls in the last several weeks.
The Coast Guard reported this weekend that crews had responded to three separate radio distress calls since Sept. 14 that appear to have been false reports, including one on Saturday.
“False distress calls made to the Coast Guard needlessly place the lives of our crews and the lives of the boating public in danger and waste hundreds of thousands in tax dollars,” said Chief Petty Officer Christopher Wheeler, a command duty officer at Coast Guard Sector Northern New England. “We are reaching out to the community in hopes that someone will recognize the caller’s voice and contact us.”
At 1:25 p.m. Saturday, the Coast Guard command center in Boston received a distress call from a man who said he was on board a boat that had hit the rocks near Hampton Bridge in New Hampshire. The caller said the boat was sinking and there were people in the water.
A crew working on the bridge heard the distress call and notified the Coast Guard that, although they could see several small fishing boats from the bridge, they saw no signs of a vessel in distress.
Nonetheless, the Coast Guard responds to all emergency calls and launched two crews from the Merrimack River station in Newburyport, Mass., and another crew from the station in Portsmouth Harbor in New Hampshire. They found no signs of a boat in distress.
On Sept. 26, the Coast Guard launched five crews from three stations in response to a call. They found no signs of a vessel in distress. On Sept. 14, three boat crews and a rescue helicopter crew responded to a distress call and again found no signs of a vessel in distress. That search cost more than $54,000.
It is often tricky to classify a hoax call, even when the crews find nothing at the scene. Beyond the initial search, the investigation into the call can be lengthy, according to Petty Officer Lauren Jorgensen of the First District Public Affairs Office in Boston.
Although Jorgensen had no official tallies of the number of hoax calls the Coast Guard has responded to, she said it seemed that there had been an increase in those types of calls recently.
Beyond the cost and the potential danger to Coast Guard rescue personnel, hoax calls can make it difficult for mariners with real emergencies to get through to the Coast Guard. Channel 16 is the international hailing and distress channel used by mariners to contact other vessels and to alert authorities to emergencies.
“If someone has tied up that channel making a false report, a mariner with a real emergency would not be able to get through,” Jorgensen said.
Hoax distress calls to the Coast Guard are classified as felony actions punishable by up to six years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
Recordings of recent mayday calls are available at two Coast Guard sites: cgvi.uscg.mil, (click on “audio”) and www.uscgnewengland.com (click on “press releases”).
Anyone with information that can help authorities identify a hoax caller is encouraged to call the Coast Guard Sector Northern New England command center in Portland at 767-0303.