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Getting Help On The Water

Old 02-12-2019, 04:25 AM
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Default Getting Help On The Water

GETTING HELP ON THE WATER

If you boat long enough, chances are that at some point you may find that you need assistance on the water. Throughout my career I have noticed that people aren't real sure what to do when they find they are in need of assistance on the water. I'll take a moment here to remove some of the mystery.

First things first. If you think your life and/or vessel are in immediate danger, make a VHF mayday call giving your position and nature of distress, activate your VHF DSC distress button, turn on your EPIRB or call 911 depending upon what equipment you have and the whole of the circumstances. That'll get help headed your way immediately. But what if you don't think your situation is that urgent?

If you have a dead battery, you are out of gas, you are aground or otherwise unable to get going, you'll need some help. It's often as easy as flagging down another boat. If you can't get help that way, there are probably commercial options available. Your insurance, and you NEED insurance whether you realize it or not, will likely cover towing. Mine covers towing up to $2500. If your insurance doesn't cover towing, you can probably have it added to your policy or you can join one of the towing services if the operate in your area. Failing that, you'll have to get in touch with the Coast Guard or other response agency. I'll speak to what happens when the Coast Guard is involved.

The Coast Guard will go through a checklist of questions with you. We will need a good position (preferably a latitude and longitude) a good description of your boat, we will want to know how many people are on board, what the problem is, whether or not you can anchor. We will ask you to put on your life jackets if you don't already have them on. With that snapshot we can determine whether or not we should launch immediately. A boat that can't anchor may be in grave danger in certain circumstances. If we can't nail down your position, that can add to the urgency of the situation.

If after gathering that initial information we don't think an immediate launch is warranted we will gather some additional information. If communications are unreliable, there are age or medical concerns with your passengers or if bad weather is fast approaching, the Coast Guard may launch immediately. There is a decision making matrix we use. By law the Coast Guard cannot respond immediately if the situation isn't urgent. We are not allowed to interfere with commercial enterprise in a non-emergency.

If the initial determination is that your situation is not urgent we may ask if you have friends or family or anyone else we can contact to assist you. If not we will issue a radio broadcast inviting commercial service providers or good Samaritans to assist. If we don't get a response to that request or if nobody can get to you in a reasonable amount of time, we may launch to come help. Most Coast Guard units cover very large areas with small crews, so we may work with one of our partner agencies to help you.

Coast Guard policy is very restrictive when it comes to grounded boats. In most cases the Coast Guard will opt to remove you from the boat rather than trying to free your vessel. There are other times the Coast Guard may determine your situation to be salvage. By law the Coast Guard cannot normally engage in salvage operations. This would be one of the instances where the insurance I said you NEEDED would be important. Salvage operations are very expensive.

From the moment you get in touch with the Coast Guard until you have received the help you need, the Coast Guard will stay in touch with you. If for some reason or another you lose contact with the Coast Guard, or if a Good Sam helps, please let us know your status as soon as you can get back in touch with us.
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Old 02-12-2019, 04:39 AM
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The heart of the Coast Guard's SAR assistance policy is what we call the Coast Guard Addendum. The full title can be seen at the top of the following link t the Addendum.

https://www.dco.uscg.mil/Portals/9/C...0M16130.2F.pdf

Chapter 4 is the Maritime SAR Assistance Policy. It's a pretty easy read and it covers 99% of what most recreational boaters would want to know. When the Coast Guard is determining whether to classify a case as distress or non-distress, we use the flow chart on page 4-17 of the above link.

If the case is obvious distress (taking on water, fire serious injury, etc.) the flow chart sends the case to the distress side of the page and directs us to launch. If the vessel cannot anchor or the anchor isn't holding, the flow chart sends us to the distress side of the page and directs us to launch. There are other factors we take in consideration in making the determination as to whether to classify the case as distress or not. Those factors are commonly called the Ten Factors. Here they are.

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With that foundation laid out, I'll take any questions you may have.
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Old 02-12-2019, 04:41 AM
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Scenario - You are 85 miles offshore with few(if any) other vessels around. Your motor won't start for any one of 100 different reasons. There's no risk of sinking or threat to life. You've contacted your local TowBoat US and they won't respond. They only come to 50 miles.

Will the USCG offer assistance in such a scenario and to what degree might be offered? If any assistance if offered at all, might it be a helicopter for people and the boat stays where it is? USCG boat tows you to within 50 miles and the commercial tow vessel takes over from there? USCG tows you back to port? USCG says "not interested at all ........ we can't help at all ..... a good LSU v. Alabama football game playing"?
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Old 02-12-2019, 04:58 AM
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Originally Posted by chrisrack View Post
Scenario - You are 85 miles offshore with few(if any) other vessels around. Your motor won't start for any one of 100 different reasons. There's no risk of sinking or threat to life. You've contacted your local TowBoat US and they won't respond. They only come to 50 miles.

Will the USCG offer assistance in such a scenario and to what degree might be offered? If any assistance if offered at all, might it be a helicopter for people and the boat stays where it is? USCG boat tows you to within 50 miles and the commercial tow vessel takes over from there? USCG tows you back to port? USCG says "not interested at all ........ we can't help at all ..... a good LSU v. Alabama football game playing"?
That far out, I am going to assume that you cannot anchor. That elevates the case to a distress case. The Coast Guard will launch. At the same time they will issue an Urgent Marine Information Broadcast to see if anyone else willing and capable can get to you more quickly. Assuming they cannot, the Coast Guard will tow you to the nearest safe haven. Policy does allow us to hand the tow off. This from the Addendum:

Relief of Tow.
In cases involving towing by the Coast Guard or Coast Guard Auxiliary where no emergency exists, the assisted vessel may be released to another provider who appears capable, provided that:
(a) The SMC and coxswain of the assisting vessel determine that a hand-off can be carried out safely; and either
(b) Alternative assistance is desired and arranged by the operator of the vessel being assisted; or
(c) The operational commander has a higher need for the Coast Guard resource or Auxiliary facility
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Old 02-12-2019, 05:12 AM
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Get a sea tow membership. You may get a break from your insurance company also. $2500 won’t go far at all for a tow. And members get preference over non members if both need help at the same time. Not sure about tow us, but a buddy had sea tow bring them batteries near the middle grounds.
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Old 02-12-2019, 06:30 AM
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Originally Posted by USCG Safe Boating D8 View Post
That far out, I am going to assume that you cannot anchor. That elevates the case to a distress case. The Coast Guard will launch. At the same time they will issue an Urgent Marine Information Broadcast to see if anyone else willing and capable can get to you more quickly. Assuming they cannot, the Coast Guard will tow you to the nearest safe haven. Policy does allow us to hand the tow off. This from the Addendum:

Relief of Tow.
In cases involving towing by the Coast Guard or Coast Guard Auxiliary where no emergency exists, the assisted vessel may be released to another provider who appears capable, provided that:
(a) The SMC and coxswain of the assisting vessel determine that a hand-off can be carried out safely; and either
(b) Alternative assistance is desired and arranged by the operator of the vessel being assisted; or
(c) The operational commander has a higher need for the Coast Guard resource or Auxiliary facility
Thanks Paul.

What you outline is about what I figured would happen if there was an unexpected breakdown past the 50 mile limit offerd by BoatUS towing policy.
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Old 02-12-2019, 07:08 AM
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Originally Posted by chrisrack View Post
Scenario - You are 85 miles offshore with few(if any) other vessels around. Your motor won't start for any one of 100 different reasons. There's no risk of sinking or threat to life. You've contacted your local TowBoat US and they won't respond. They only come to 50 miles.

Will the USCG offer assistance in such a scenario and to what degree might be offered? If any assistance if offered at all, might it be a helicopter for people and the boat stays where it is? USCG boat tows you to within 50 miles and the commercial tow vessel takes over from there? USCG tows you back to port? USCG says "not interested at all ........ we can't help at all ..... a good LSU v. Alabama football game playing"?

My first question is this, if you are 85 nautical miles offshore and there are no other boats in your vicinity, unless you have a satphone or SSB radio, how the heck did you contact the USCG? Normal VHF is line of sight, so a two-hundred foot base tower and twenty foot high antenna on a boat will limit VHF communication to about 30 - 35 nm. Therefore, if your 85 nm from shore your best method of communcaition is satelite communications or EPIRB/PLB with no specifics. At 85 miles offshore the USCG will most probably dispatch an aircraft to the EPIRB/PLB signal and then proceed with VHF voice communications, if possible, and insert additional resources as the situation dictates.

My point is that we should not create the impression that VHF communications between a vessel 85 nm offshore and a USCG shore station is a common occurance! One does not just pick-up the mic. of a 25 watt VHF radio and call for assistance from a base station when more than 30 miles offshore. Even DSC messages will require additional DSC equipped vessels between shore and the distressed vessel to relay the DSC message to the shore station to effect communication. That said, if 85 nm from shore and in need of assistance, I will try channel 16 and 9. I will engage a DSC emergency call, but I will also activate an EPIRB or PLB.

Please let us be realistic about the capabilities of VHF radio systems.

Last edited by Bison; 02-12-2019 at 01:03 PM. Reason: typo.
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Old 02-12-2019, 08:43 AM
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Originally Posted by Saltygatorvet View Post
Get a sea tow membership. You may get a break from your insurance company also. $2500 won’t go far at all for a tow. And members get preference over non members if both need help at the same time. Not sure about tow us, but a buddy had sea tow bring them batteries near the middle grounds.
This may be of interest to some of the readers. When a commercial provider cannot be on scene within a reasonable amount of time, the CG may respond. This from the Addendum.

"4.1.5.3 Guiding Principles in Non-Distress Cases. When specifically requested assistance, such as a commercial firm, marina, or friend, is not available, a request for assistance will be broadcasted. If a commercial provider is available and can be on scene within a reasonable time (usually one hour or less) or an offer to assist is made by a responder listed in the previous paragraph, no further action by the Coast Guard, beyond monitoring the incident, will be taken. Otherwise, a Coast Guard Auxiliary facility, if available, or a Coast Guard resource may be used."
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Old 02-12-2019, 08:57 AM
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Originally Posted by Bison View Post
Please let us be realistic...
Originally Posted by chrisrack View Post
..... a good LSU v. Alabama football game playing?
I agree with Bison, let's try to present realistic scenarios...
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Old 02-12-2019, 11:06 AM
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Originally Posted by chrisrack View Post
Thanks Paul.

What you outline is about what I figured would happen if there was an unexpected breakdown past the 50 mile limit offerd by BoatUS towing policy.
When you break down that far out, CG assistance may be a little slow coming. That is beyond the range of the boats found at stations, so it will normally require a Cutter response. Cutters are fewer and further between and will take longer to get underway.
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Old 02-13-2019, 10:04 AM
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I wanted to post this yesterday but got involved in a few other matters. In the recent thread on breaking down further than 20 miles offshore, many people expressed concern about calling Mayday, activating an EPIRB or using some other distress signal. They were worried that it would spell trouble if the Coast Guard did not view the situation as distress. Using the above decision making flow chart you can see the factors the Coast Guard uses in making the distress determination. But you don't have to memorize the flow chart. If in good faith you think your life or vessel are in imminent danger and you send a distress signal, you won't find yourself afoul of the law. The Coast Guard has no intention of bringing charges against someone who acted in good faith. We have seen hesitation cost lives. Remember this too. If you make a distress call and end up solving the problem or getting the help you need, you should get in touch with the CG to let us know. We will be responding and will continue our effort until we know you are okay. Let me tell you a story here.

When I was stationed in Gulfport Mississippi we got a call of a red flare in the Mississippi Sound near the Gulfport channel. We were underway within 15 minutes. As I was idling out of the harbor, a pleasure boat was entering the harbor. Since they were coming from the area where the flare had been seen, I thought I'd ask them if they had seen it. The owner told us he had fired a flare because his engine quit and he was afraid a ship that was in the channel would run over him. Had we not stopped and asked him, he would have likely trailered his boat and gone home. We would have searched with boats and aircraft all night and into the next day.

He sent a distress signal, because he thought he was in imminent danger. Others in the same situation may not have. He acted in good faith though, so we certainly wouldn't have tried to prosecute for a hoax.

Here's the definition of hoax. It's in part C.

https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/14/88
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Old 02-13-2019, 10:11 AM
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What about at a dock? There was a big thread on here recently. Will USCG assist a sinking boat at a dock or within a marina? How does the decision making process flow apply? Thanks!
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Old 02-13-2019, 10:39 AM
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@mystery Follow the flowchart. I think you'll find your answer quite easily.
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Old 02-13-2019, 10:58 AM
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Originally Posted by mystery View Post
What about at a dock? There was a big thread on here recently. Will USCG assist a sinking boat at a dock or within a marina? How does the decision making process flow apply? Thanks!
I think I can give you a good answer. The answer is "it depends." An incident at a dock would normally be considered salvage. Section 4.3 in the above linked addendum touches on salvage. Here's part of that policy:

Section 4.3 General Salvage Policy (Other than Towing) The MSAP and General Salvage Policies were developed separately and remain distinct from one another. 4.3.1 General When commercial salvors are on scene performing salvage, Coast Guard units may assist them within the unit’s capabilities, if the salvor requests. When no commercial salvage facilities are on scene, Coast Guard units should only engage in salvage other than towing when limited salvage operations (e.g., ungrounding, pumping, damage control measures, etc.) can prevent a worsening situation or complete loss of the vessel. Any salvage operations shall be performed at the discretion of the unit CO/OINC. NOTE: Coast Guard units and personnel shall not be unduly hazarded in performing salvage.

There are a lot of considerations and variables that come into play. A lot of potential complexities as well. The Coast Guard would take any calls to assist a vessel at a dock on a case by case basis. I would think a best first call if life or property are in imminent danger would be a 911 call. There are a number of agencies that have dewatering pumps at their disposal, especially those with docks and marinas. Coast Guard small boats no longer carry firefighting equipment beyond a few portable extinguishers. Locals would be in a much better position to fight a fire. Most ports have fire boats at their disposal. Someone could always call the Coast Guard with the details and see what the Coast Guard can or is willing to do, but that should come after local notifications.

Let me touch on one of the complexities. Let's say a dock operator calls the Coast Guard because an unmanned boat there starts taking on water and attempts to contact the boat owner have failed. Obviously the Coast Guard has an interest in saving the boat and preventing a potential fuel spill, but the Coast Guard assumes some liability once they start pumping. What if there's bilge oil in the water they pump out. That'd look good on the 6 o'clock news. "Coast Guard Spreads Oil Sheen Across Harbor." If we started pumping, how long would we stay if the owner never showed up? When we are engaged in a salvage operation, we are in a compromised position to respond to distress.

The decision to engage in salvage lies with the unit Officer in Charge or Commanding Officer. Most will approach a request for salvage with great caution.

I have a call into a Coast Guard friend who knows more about that part of the policy than I do. If he tells me anything different when he calls back, I'll update the info I presented.

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Old 02-13-2019, 11:07 AM
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Originally Posted by USCG Safe Boating D8 View Post
I think I can give you a good answer. The answer is "it depends." An incident at a dock would normally be considered salvage. Section 4.3 in the above linked addendum touches on salvage. Here's part of that policy:

Section 4.3 General Salvage Policy (Other than Towing) The MSAP and General Salvage Policies were developed separately and remain distinct from one another. 4.3.1 General When commercial salvors are on scene performing salvage, Coast Guard units may assist them within the unit’s capabilities, if the salvor requests. When no commercial salvage facilities are on scene, Coast Guard units should only engage in salvage other than towing when limited salvage operations (e.g., ungrounding, pumping, damage control measures, etc.) can prevent a worsening situation or complete loss of the vessel. Any salvage operations shall be performed at the discretion of the unit CO/OINC. NOTE: Coast Guard units and personnel shall not be unduly hazarded in performing salvage.

There are a lot of considerations and variables that come into play. A lot of potential complexities as well. The Coast Guard would take any calls to assist a vessel at a dock on a case by case basis. I would think a best first call if life or property are in imminent danger would be a 911 call. There are a number of agencies that have dewatering pumps at their disposal, especially those with docks and marinas. Coast Guard small boats no longer carry firefighting equipment beyond a few portable extinguishers. Locals would be in a much better position to fight a fire. Most ports have fire boats at their disposal. Someone could always call the Coast Guard with the details and see what the Coast Guard can or is willing to do, but that should come after local notifications.

Let me touch on one of the complexities. Let's say a dock operator calls the Coast Guard because an unmanned boat there starts taking on water and attempts to contact the boat owner have failed. Obviously the Coast Guard has an interest in saving the boat and preventing a potential fuel spill, but the Coast Guard assumes some liability once they start pumping. What if there's bilge oil in the water they pump out. That'd look good on the 6 o'clock news. "Coast Guard Spreads Oil Sheen Across Harbor." If we started pumping, how long would we stay if the owner never showed up? When we are engaged in a salvage operation, we are in a compromised position to respond to distress.

The decision to engage in salvage lies with the unit Officer in Charge or Commanding Officer. Most will approach a request for salvage with great caution.

I have a call into a Coast Guard friend who knows more about that part of the policy than I do. If he tells me anything different when he calls back, I'll update the info I presented.
Thank you VERY much for the reply!
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Old 02-13-2019, 11:12 AM
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Originally Posted by mystery View Post
Thank you VERY much for the reply!
You are welcome. I am thrilled that some of you are taking the opportunity to ask questions. That was my hope when created this account. Education is a big part of my responsibility, and this forum affords me an incredible audience for communicating with the public on recreational boating safety issues. I would suspect that there were many others who had the same question you did. The value in using a forum to answer the question is that answer has unlimited exposure.
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Old 02-13-2019, 01:02 PM
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Thank you for making yourself available to us. These topics are seeming constantly debated, its nice to have someone who actually knows something about the subject. It is good to know someone who is knowledgeable and willing to answer questions if the need comes up.
Thank you!
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Old 05-01-2019, 06:07 AM
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I wanted to give this one a bump. I find myself answering a lot of questions about our response policy, so I may bring this message to the top to increase exposure and answer any questions from time to time.
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