Recently this column told about a Coast Guard plea for better communications between small boat operators and the organizations that can be called in an emergency, primarily the Coast Guard and the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

I should have written the column a week earlier and sent copies of it to two of my nephews and another almost kin, the husband of my grand-niece.  The advice might have made them avoid a sticky situation.

None of the three is a boating novice, and each owns or has owned a small boat.  All three are grown men with responsible jobs, wives, and children that I hope won't inherit their casual boating attitudes.

Bill Millar is a building contractor from Marmora, N.J., Chris Johnson is an electronics engineer from Los Angeles, and his brother Rusty is a computer expert from Tacoma, WA.  Supposedly, there is not a dim bulb in the bunch.

They and their wives and offspring were gathered with about 40 others for the Beecroft family reunion at my sister Barbara Johnson's place on the banks of the Wicomico River, about a mile from the Potomac.

There was water skiing, tubing, aquaplaning, swimming, horseshoes and croquet, not to mention bushels of Maryland steamed crabs, bowels of every imaginable salad, and homemade pies, cookies and cakes the likes of which would have made Pepperidge Farms, Keebler and Nabisco green with envy.

The messers Coors, Busch and Anheuser were also well represented, which may have had some influence on the not so ancient mariners who, after what may have been supper (it's hard to tell as everyone had been eating steadily since noon) set out for a cooling ride on the Wicomico.  (It had been 102 degrees all afternoon).

Darkness came and they had not returned.  Midnight came and they were still among the missing.  Most of the guests had returned to their motels because the Johnson cottage will only sleep about a dozen in reasonable comfort.  The Millar children had been temporarily bedded down at "Aunt Bob's" and the Johnson children, who are older, eventually hit the sack.

The authorities were notified and the Coast Guard filled out its myriad of forms in detail down to the last rivet (the boat was a Starcraft).  There was no immediate search for the trio because, the Coast Guard told their wives, their crews were all busy and unavailable until probably after daybreak.  They somewhat cheered the worried and also angry women by pointing out that the night was calm and the river as smooth as glass so no serious trouble need be expected.

Came the dawn and the little boat pulled into the family dock.  The trio had gotten lost, they said (although I don't know why because the Johnson men had spent most of their younger days on the river and had messed about in boats since being small fry.  Millar, a Jersey Coast native was in a similar category.) because it was a very dark night with neither moon nor stars.

Guess what?  They had no compass and no radio.  "I take it off the boat so it won't be stolen" was the explanation.  "We didn't expect to be out of sight of land," Millar said.

Neither did they have a radio to call for help.  Chris Johnson, a ham radio operator, had one in his car but didn't expect to need it, and Millar has a cellular phone, also left ashore.

They had been going along nicely creating the breeze they sought when a bow line trailed overboard and wrapped around the prop.  They were in shallow water so Millar hopped out and, after some struggle with the stubborn line, freed the propeller.  By then darkness had descended.

They ran out of gas and had no way of getting any so they drifted and slept in turns.  Came (as they say) the dawn and they had drifted up on the beach in front of another waterside home.  It had a big and loud, but not unfriendly, dog who awoke his master.  The three were given (or bought) a couple of gallons of gas and headed home.  By daylight they could see it across the river, only about a mile away.

Except for losing some sleep, as did everyone else, they were none the worse for wear.  But the welcome they received was less than that afforded troops returning from the Persian Gulf.  I didn't hear what the Johnson women said (which may be just as well), but Virginia Millar just looked daggers at her husband when he suggested that a hand-held VHF/FM would make a nice gift.

Her only comment aloud was "I don't care if you do miss a day's work, I want to stay another night at the motel and get some sleep."

But it was a great reunion, and I sent all three men copies of the column recommending the use of radios even on small boats.

Dick Not a dim bulb in the bunch