At least eight times a year, Coast Guard crews stationed at Bodega Bay launch their 47-foot lifeboat and an air crew takes flight in a Jayhawk helicopter from San Francisco to chase reports of a possible boat in distress.
The resource-intensive searches start with a call reporting a light in the sky — it could be a shooting star, a lit paper lantern or a distress flare shot from a boater in trouble somewhere on the Sonoma Coast's treacherous seas. They must assume the worst.
The details callers give can help save precious time for searchers trying to rescue people in seas that hover around an inhospitable 50 degrees year-round. Bad information can also launch a wild goose chase.
"The accuracy of information is critical," Petty Officer Second Class Ross Ellis with Coast Guard Bodega Bay said. "The ocean is a huge space and to try to communicate where they saw a flare is difficult."
On Friday night, Coast Guard Bodega Bay staff will be stationed at designated pullouts along the coast north of Jenner to help coastal residents, frequent boaters and others learn how to best describe the location and characteristics of lights in the sky.
A boat stationed off shore will shoot multiple kinds of flares, from commercial models to search flares used by the Coast Guard, as a demonstration.
"Did they see it rise and fall or just rise or just fall?" Ellis said. "Those two pieces of information can help us a lot."
Since September, the Coast Guard has launched at least three full-scale searches for flare reports off the Sonoma Coast. All have been suspended without finding anyone in trouble.
On Sept. 27, a caller reported seeing a flare somewhere off Tomales Bay and Dillon Beach. A boat and a helicopter began a grid search of the area that lasted until 1 a.m., Boatswain Mate Third Class Erik Dahl said.
The helicopter returned and searched again at first light but found nothing. The Coast Guard confirmed that no overdue vessels were reported in the area and the search was suspended.