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French Polynesian search and rescue

Jan 1, 2003
From Ocean Navigator #85
November/December 1997
When sailing in U.S. waters, mariners know that the search and rescue (SAR) authority to call is the U.S. Coast Guard. However, what if you are in the foreign waters of French Polynesia? Who do you call?

Well, I recently spent some time asking that question in Papeete, and here are the answers. First, there is no direct equivalent of the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard functions are divided among the Gendarmerie Maritime, the French navy, the High Commissioner's office, the Police Aerienne et des Frontieres, Radio Mahina, and to a lesser extent the Capitainerie du Port.

First, if you are in difficulty, you touch off your EPIRB (balise de detresse). Radio Mahina, a private organization, has a network of receivers that will triangulate your position and initiate a search. Although the responsibility for search and rescue ultimately resides with the High Commissioner's office, that responsibility is generally administrative. If you are near shore, the Gendarmerie Maritime will be notified. They have Zodiacs, rigid-hull inflatables (RHI), which will respond. If you are offshore, the navy gets the call (Marine). They have several patrol boats ranging from 60 to 100 feet or so in the archipelago, as well as major units such as frigates and destroyers. All of the patrol craft I saw were equipped with VHF direction-finders. As with any Mayday call, give SAR forces as good a position as possible, particularly if you aren't using an EPIRB. There are a lot of small single-engine fishing boats in Polynesia that sometimes get in trouble, so SAR forces (services de secours) do get some practice.

The second question is how to check on the status of a vessel. The short answer is that you call the Police Aerienne et des Frontieres (PAF) at Tahiti to find out if the boat has officially entered French Polynesia. When you enter Polynesia you stop at the Gendarmerie. The gendarme takes your crew list and customs declaration, and also initiates the process of your posting your repatriation bond. The crew list is relayed by radio, Mahina Radio, to the PAF. PAF, therefore, has a record of your entry. To a lesser extent, your movements in the archipelago are monitored by the Capitainerie du Port, through, again, the Gendarmerie and Mahina Radio. If you leave one island for another, you announce your intention at the Gendarmerie where you are at present and at your destination when you arrive. Obviously, if a search has been launched, Mahina Radio, Tahiti, will be aware of it.

Although it is possible to communicate, most of the time, in English, French is obviously the better choice.

The other Coast Guard functions, such as safety and law enforcement, fall principally to the Gendarmerie Maritime, which will occasionally board foreign boats. The experience is generally more casual than a U.S. Coast Guard boarding. Education is handled privately, or to the extent of public information posters, through the Capitainerie. Licensing is through the Capitainerie.

Does this sound complicated? Well, it is. However, this distribution of responsibilities seems to work for French Polynesia.

Chuck Warren is a sailor based in San Francisco who works as a real estate appraiser when not sailing in the South Pacific.