One area of concern which I am constantly having to clarify for the boating public is why the U.S. Coast Guard can not always come to the mariner’s aid in every situation. This article is going to attempt to answer most of your questions concerning the Coast Guard’s Maritime Search and Rescue Assistance Policy (MSAP).
I can remember back some twenty years ago, when, as a young boat coxswain, at Coast Guard Station Moriches N.Y., I would report for weekend duty on a Friday morning and not stop towing recreational and commercial disabled vessels until Monday morning, when I was released from duty. Back then, no matter what the circumstances were, you could call the Coast Guard and we’d come and tow you. There was one Saturday afternoon in which I can recall twelve different boats all anchored in different locations within our area of responsibility, awaiting our towing services.
Since then procedures have significantly changed. Today, I can not simply send out my boats and crews to render assistance in every situation. In simple terms, we must first classify the case as an emergency or non-emergency situation. If your case is an emergency, every available asset will be dispatched to your position. We will also contact state and county search and rescue responders that are in your vicinity and request that they respond as well. In addition, we will also send out an urgent marine information broadcast on the distress channel 156.8 MHz, Channel 16 VHF FM notifying all boaters of your emergency. For bona fide emergency situations not much has changed from the way we operated twenty years ago.
The confusion and discontent results when the situation is classified as a non-emergency situation. How do we classify your situation? First, we must determine the degree of danger by considering ten factors. These factors include; nature of situation, reported conditions on vessel (medical, food, water, etc.), position accuracy or lack thereof, visibility, tide, current and sea conditions, present and forecasted weather, special considerations (age, health, etc.), reliable communications, degree of apprehension of people on board, and potential for situation to worsen. If we determine that any of these factors are applicable we will classify the case as an emergency situation and dispatch a boat to render assistance. If we are uncertain, or have any doubt, we will classify your case as an emergency and render assistance.
If we classify your case as a non-emergency situation we will switch you to our working channel 22A VHF FM and make the following statement, “According to the situation you have described, it appears that you are in no immediate danger at this time. It is Coast Guard Policy to defer such cases to an alternate means of assistance. The Coast Guard will, on your request, contact a friend, relative or commercial towing company to come to your assistance. It you do not have a friend, relative, or a commercial towing firm that you would like us to contact then we will make a marine information assistance broadcast (MARB) soliciting assistance from any one who would like to come to your aid.”
If you do not have a friend, relative, or prearranged assistance we will issue the MARB. If no one answers our MARB within about ten minutes we are permitted to render assistance. Often, several of the local commercial towing services will respond to our MARB. Channel 22A is a Coast Guard channel and we will maintain net control. It is important that you become an educated consumer and chose the responder which is going to provide the best service for the best price. It is important to understand that who ever tows you for compensation must have a Coast Guard license with a towing endorsement. If the operator is unlicensed they are not permitted to charge you for services. You can consider their service to be the actions of a good samaritan.
The Commandant of the Coast Guard has determined that who ever provides assistance that their estimated time of arrival (ETA) be no more than one hour. Of course there must he exceptions to this, for example, you’re disabled 50 miles offshore. It is unlikely that any one will be able to be on scene within an hour.
As I stated, the commercial towing vessel operators are required to be licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard to help ensure that they provide a safe service. We have authority to respond to unsafe practices. We do not have authority to respond to what you may consider to be excessive charges or unethical conduct. These issues must be taken up with the better business bureau and/or the civil courts.
Your best bet is to take actions which will reduce your chances of needing assistance. Maintain your vessel in top condition. This should include the hull, motor and equipment on board. Have the Coast Guard Auxiliary complete a free courtesy marine examination of your vessel. Also, ensure that you possess the basic safe boating knowledge and skills by completing a Coast Guard Auxiliary Boating Skills and Seamanship Course. You can obtain answers to many of your boating safety questions and find out the location of the next boating safety course by calling the Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Hotline at 1-800-368-5647. May all your boating be safe.