It’s clear he has mental health problems. No rational person would pick up a radio microphone, put out a fake “mayday” distress call, and then sit back and watch as Coast Guard search-and-rescue crews risk life and limb to find trouble that doesn’t exist.

Still, after just such a hoax led to just such a scramble last week off Spruce Head on Maine’s midcoast, it’s impossible not to wonder why someone would do such a thing. And with the call coming a mere week after the Portland-based fishing boat Emmy Rose sank off Provincetown and all four fishermen aboard perished, it’s equally impossible not to want to throttle the miscreant who did it.

But first investigators need to find him.

The call came in around 6:30 a.m. Thursday on VHF radio channel 16 – the one used the world over to plead for help.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” says the voice with the thick Maine accent in an audio recording released by the Coast Guard Sector Northern New England. “We lost our rudder and we’re taking on water fast. I just don’t have enough pumps to keep up with it. I’m going to try to get it to Atwood’s,” an apparent reference to Atwood Lobster Co. in South Thomaston.

By early afternoon, after the Coast Guard and Maine Marine Patrol responders scoured the area by sea and air and found nothing, the search was called off and declared a hoax.

The voice in the recording sounds eerily similar to the one in another fake distress call that went out in October of 2019. In that case, which kicked off a 22-hour search, the purported “emergency” involved a man and three children and a capsized boat off Kennebunkport.

Stories like these particularly rankle Peter Hancock, a professor at the University of Central Florida who wrote the 2015 book “Hoax Springs Eternal: The Psychology of Cognitive Deception.”

In a phone interview Friday, Hancock recalled that early in his 40-year-plus academic career, while teaching at the University of Southern California, he had a young “coastie” in a two-week course on aerospace physiology. Not long after the course ended, Hancock learned that the young seaman had perished in a Coast Guard helicopter crash during a search off Santa Catalina Island for a vessel reportedly in distress.

The official cause of the crash was crew fatigue, Hancock recalled, but the real tragedy was that “they were searching for something that simply wasn’t there.”

Hancock’s book focuses on the victims of hoaxes – people who over the ages have believed false narrative concoctions ranging from the Cross of King Arthur to the Piltdown Man. Based on a concept called signal detection theory, he examines the processes people go through in determining what is true and what isn’t, what to believe and what to disregard.

The Coast Guard, of course, enjoys no such luxury when it comes to mayday calls. If there’s even a shred of possibility that someone is truly in distress, they must respond.

As for the creator of last week’s hoax and those responsible for the more than 150 other such calls the Coast Guard gets each year, Hancock said it’s not unlike the arsonist who sets a building on fire for the thrill of watching firefighters – again, at much risk – battle to extinguish the blaze.

“I think there’s a sense of being able to manipulate things in the world that they probably can’t do in their own personal world,” he said.

At the same time, Hancock noted, “there’s a tendency for them to not understand the long-term consequences. It might be something as puerile as watching a helicopter go over – they might enjoy seeing that event, not realizing that they’re putting people into extremis when they do so.”

Given the fact that the calls go out over a radio frequency rather than, say, a traceable cellphone, the hoaxers also likely feel a sense of impunity. How can they be caught when the call could have come from anywhere, right?

Not quite.

Three years ago, the Coast Guard completed implementation of Rescue 21, a 20-year project designed to greatly enhance marine search-and-rescue operations throughout the United States and its territories. The new system of sophisticated radio towers provides higher-quality reception and helps searchers better pinpoint where a distress call originated, thus shrinking the search area and the time it takes to locate the vessel.

Or, in the case of fake distress calls, making it easier to catch the hoaxers.

Senior officers at the Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center in New London, Connecticut, where Rescue 21 was developed, did not respond Friday to requests for interviews on the Spruce Head hoax call.

But in a 2017 interview with National Public Radio, program director Chief Alan Arsenault said the Coast Guard has come a long way in a short time in its ability to track down mayday hoaxes.

Working with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, he said, investigators have come up with ways to not only home in on where the calls originate, but also who is making them.

“As far as the forensics goes, the Carnegie Mellon team can actually tell us the age of the person, weight, height, country of origin,” he told NPR. “And they can also give us some information on the surroundings the calls were made from. For example, is there a lot of concrete in the area? Are there a lot of windows?”

As for accents real and assumed – the Down East drawl of last week’s caller comes to mind – they’ve got that covered, too.

“Basically, everybody’s windpipe acts differently than somebody else’s,” Arsenault said. “So even though they try to imitate, their windpipe responds differently when they’re actually talking. For example, sometimes these people are at different levels of intoxication. And we’re able to pinpoint the calls to the same person even though … if I was listening to him, I would say there’s no way that’s the same person.”

We can only hope they’re using that technology now to unravel who perpetrated the most recent hoax – and, for that matter, the one that preceded it last year.

As professor Hancock put it, “I have great sympathy and respect for the folks who do those responses. They voluntarily go out there and put themselves in harm’s way.”

You’d have to be a fool not to see that.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: