Coast Guard Auxiliary offers GPS class

When a call came in for a sinking boat near Seldovia, the Coast Guard took down the coordinates the captain read to them and took off for a rescue.

Unfortunately, the coordinates were to the wrong place.

Luckily, a good Samaritan boat was in the vicinity and could rescue the seven people aboard the sinking boat. But when he called the Coast Guard and they asked for his position, he said he did not know because his GPS was not working.

That incident is case in point for why boaters need adequate training on how to use a GPS, said Allan Christopherson, the flotilla staff officer for public education with the Kenai Coast Guard Auxiliary.

“The only right thing the guy did was call the Coast Guard, and that was it,” Christopherson said. “Everything else was pure dumb luck that they got rescued.”

Unfortunately, cases like that are common, he said. Even if people have the right equipment, many don’t know how to use it beyond its basic functions, he said.

“They basically look at the numbers and say, ‘OK,’” Christopherson said. “But what has happened is that some people use it to go to where their fishing hole is. But if they get in trouble and they call the Coast Guard, and the Coast Guard says, ‘What is your position?’ They’ll read the numbers, and they’re not specific enough.”

The Kenai Coast Guard Auxiliary, a volunteer organization, will host a class teaching the basics of GPS use at the Emergency Response Center on Wilson Street in Soldotna. The class, which costs $35, is focused on mariners but applies to snowmachiners, hikers, hunters and anyone else who uses a GPS, Christopherson said.

Christopherson, who said he has been teaching the class for three years, said oftentimes people are limited in their knowledge of helpful GPS features. For example, the backtrack feature — which guides users back along the same path they arrived by — is sometimes a new one for attendees, he said.

“The person who is the safe person is the person who’s always prepared for certain contingencies,” Christopherson said. “A lot of people don’t take the time to learn how to run their equipment even if they have it.”

There has been some concern about signal to GPS units, although Christopherson said loss of signal does not happen very often. The national U.S. Coast Guard put out a safety alert Jan. 19 warning mariners to report signal disruptions immediately. Multiple systems can rely on a GPS signal in some boats, and if the signal is interrupted, it can damage a ship’s ability to navigate, according to the safety alert.

The Coast Guard is in the process of implementing a new search-and-rescue program in Alaska called Rescue 21. Essentially, boaters will be able to press a button that will immediately send a signal to the Coast Guard containing all the information about the boat and its location, which relies on a properly connected GPS system. The installation in Alaska is slated to be complete by 2017, according to the Coast Guard.

The GPS class is the first in a series of classes the Coast Guard Auxiliary will offer this spring. In February, Christopherson will teach a boating safety class, and later in the spring, a basic boating class specifically for women.

The GPS course will run if there are at least four or five participants, he said. However, there hasn’t been as much response this year, which he said might be attributed to the lack of snow stopping snowmachiners from going out.

Registration for the class, which runs from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, closes Thursday. Those with handheld GPS units are encouraged to bring them, but they will be provided for those who do not.

Carrying the right equipment and being prepared can prevent risky situations, even if people think they know what they’re doing, Christopherson said.

“A lot of people always think, ‘I don’t have a problem. It can’t happen to me,’” Christopherson said. “A lot of people find out that yeah, it can happen to you.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at

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