PORTLAND — A quarter of the mayday calls that the U.S. Coast Guard responded to in the past year from midcoast Maine down the New Hampshire coast were phony distress pleas.
The Coast Guard stations in South Portland, Boothbay Harbor and Portsmouth, N.H., responded to 206 calls, including 45 hoax distress signals, between October 1992 and this month.
The year before there were 37 hoax calls.
False alarms cost taxpayers thousands of dollars and waste the resources of boaters who volunteer to assist in a Coast Guard rescue, said Lt. j.g. James Mathieu.
And just as the fairy tale warns, “crying wolf” could prompt rescuers to ignore real cries for help, he said.
While Coast Guard personnel must respond to every reported emergency, Mathieu worries that fishing and recreational boats may stop trying to help.
On Sept. 12, an elaborate false alarm sent the Coast Guard and four fishing boats hunting for an accident near Long Island.
Starting at 4 a.m., a man began to radio in a series of updates for a nonexistent accident. First he reported a distress call from a fishing boat. He called an hour later to announce that he rescued someone, but his boat had hit a “large piece of wheelhouse,” it was starting to sink and five crew members were in the water.
Throughout a lengthy search, the Coast Guard traced the calls to downtown Portland, said Petty Officer 1st Class Michael DaPonte. The caller stopped before authorities could pinpoint his location. The case has been under investigation.
While some boaters send the wrong signal by setting off emergency flares without cause, many pretenders radio in and say “mayday,” which is the international distress signal.
People who send out false notices of marine emergencies can be jailed for six years and fined $250,000, said DaPonte.
Coast Guard officials have asked the Federal Communications Commission to help trace calls because it has more precise tracking equipment.