A good friend asked me if we had some kind of real-time check in system when we are out on the high seas so that someone knows we are in trouble (if we are) and can come looking for us.
The answer is kind of yes and kind of no. Here is what I know so far on the topic.
First, checking in...
There are "check in" systems - most notably the radio nets that are operated by volunteers on land. Boats check in each day reporting position and the position can be published on a website. During those check ins there are all kinds of rules that I know about only from reading other people's blogs. We won't be using a check in net when we make the passage down the coast to CA and so all of this is too far away for us to have made time to learn about it. The rules are designed as a kind of triage - problems first, single handed boats get to check in before boats with more than one crew, etc. Being able to check in on one of these nets assumes our radio works, we know how to use it, we have the time to use it and our electrical-power system is working.
We also have the capacity to radio with other people and other boats (are any of our friends HAMs?), email, email-to-blog, etc while offshore. This assumes all of the above plus for the email our modem has to be working.
Not exactly a check in, but in an actual abandon ship emergency, we have two handy devices that we can trigger to send a distress signal with GPS coordinates to a satellite which relays the message to emergency services in the US. Emergency services has our coordinates and can route traffic in the area to look for us. Quite a few people have been picked up in this scenario particularly when you are in a relatively normal shipping area, even far out at sea. With that being said, it isn't something to count on by any stretch.
Now the other part, if we fail to check in, what happens? What should friends and family do?
NOTHING. If we have an electrical short or if our radio gets a little salt water on it, it could stop working. The odds are that if we drop off the radio/email world that our radio is broken. Nothing else. We would have to be way, way past our due date for anyone to assume something had gone wrong because long passages can be unpredictable and could easily take much longer than expected. If we abandoned ship or are otherwise in trouble, we will (hopefully) have triggered our call to the satellite. If we haven't done so, there isn't a whole heck of a lot anyone can do.
What is the moral of this story for us?
Crossing oceans in small craft is potentially dangerous and the safety net is thin. If you get in a bad place you need to figure a way to get yourself out of it. Don't expect rescue and preparation is key. With that being said, thousands of small boats, much less prepared, well built than ours and with less safety equipment, successfully cross oceans every year. It's not rocket science.
Did I scare you Mom?
Don't worry. Although I don't want to spend too much of my time in front of a computer during the experience of an ocean crossing, I'm sure that I will want to connect with people. But the important point is, if all of sudden there is silence the most likely thing is that the radio isn't working. Because of the installation it isn't really realistic for us to carry two complete systems -- meaning there isn't a back up.
And ultimately all of this is years from now...our first 7-10 day passage won't be until summer of 2011 and the biggie, the Pacific crossing is in 2012 at the earliest, probably 2013 if we spend a year in Mexico.