Recreational Boating Safety – Good Samaritan Rescue

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
The US Coast Guard relies heavily on private boaters to assist other boaters in distress. Often the nearest boat to a vessel in distress is a private boat. When time is of the essence, it is often the private vessel operator that comes to the aid of a fellow boater, and these private boaters often make the difference between life and death to the individuals on board of the distressed vessel. The following information is based on a brochure developed by the US Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center in Juneau, Alaska. It is pertinent anywhere on the open sea or on inland waters. The title of the brochure is “Guidance for ‘Good Samaritan’ Vessels Assisting in Maritime Search and Rescue.”

What is a Good Samaritan Vessel?
A Good Samaritan vessel is a private vessel that renders voluntary aid without compensation to a person who is injured or a vessel in danger. Good Samaritans are expected to exercise reasonable care to avoid negligent conduct that worsens the position of the victims and to avoid reckless and wanton conduct in performing the rescue.

Is There a Legal Duty to Assist?
For centuries, sailors have voluntarily assisted others in distress. This maritime rescue doctrine encourages seafarers to go to the aid of life and property in distress. Good Samaritan vessels are usually the first to arrive on scene, and are often critical in saving lives. Federal statute 46 USC 2304 requires a master to render assistance if the master can do so without serious danger to the master’s vessel or individuals on board. Although some Good Samaritan rescues come about when one vessel happens upon another vessel in distress, many rescues are due to private vessels responding to a request for assistance via VHF marine radio from the Coast Guard or from a mayday call from the vessel in distress.

Mayday Distress Call Origin
Mayday got its start as an international distress call in 1923. It was made official in 1948. It was the idea of Frederick Mockford, who was a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London. He came up with the idea for “mayday” because it sounded like “m’aider,” which is French for “help me.” Mayday signals a life-threatening emergency, usually on a ship or plane, although it may be used in a variety of situations. Procedure calls for the mayday distress signal to be said three times in a row- Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!- so that it won’t be mistaken for another word or phrase that sounds similar under noisy conditions. After giving the mayday signal, continue transmitting all the relevant information that potential rescuers would need, including the type and identity of the craft involved, nature of the emergency, location or last known location, current weather, fuel remaining, what type of help is needed and number of people in danger. Do not wait for a response to the mayday; transmit the emergency information assuming that another vessel will hear the transmission. Sometimes a mayday distress call is sent by one vessel on behalf of another vessel in danger. This is known as a mayday relay. A mayday relay is sometimes necessary if the vessel in danger loses radio communications. If a mayday call is repeated and not acknowledged, another vessel hearing the call may attempt to relay it again and again until help is reached. It is illegal to make a fake distress call.

If You Hear a Mayday or Distress Signal:

  • Remain silent, listen, and write down information about the boat in distress, especially the specific location: latitude and longitude coordinates and geographic reference point preferred.
  • USCG should respond immediately. Listen for direction from USCG to assist.
  • If the USCG or other rescue authority does not respond, attempt to reach the USCG while traveling toward the distressed boat. Once contact is made with USCG, relay MAYDAY information. Follow USCG directions.
  • Notify distressed vessel that MAYDAY was heard and is being relayed.
  • If you cannot reach the USCG, continue to communicate with the distressed vessel and assist to the best of your ability while not placing yourself or your passengers in danger. Continue efforts to contact USCG.
  • As long as the Mayday situation is ongoing, other vessels are required to stay off Channel 16.

Responding to UMIB
The Coast Guard issues Urgent Marine Information Bulletins to alert potential “Good Samaritan” vessels of an emergency in the area. If you are in position to assist, respond to the Coast Guard and follow their instructions. UMIBs are made on VHF channel 16. All vessels that have marine radios are required to monitor channel 16 at all times. It is a simple procedure to place your radio in the scan mode. Be sure to select channel 16 as one of the channels you choose to scan. I typically only scan 5 or 6 channels out of the 88 marine VHF channels.

If You Are the First Vessel to Arrive On Scene:

  • Rescue people from the water. Persons without life jackets are high priority.
  • Establish contact with the vessel master and assist as requested within the limits of your vessel and crew capability.
  • Establish and maintain contact with the Coast Guard.
  • Assume the On Scene Coordinator (OSC) role. Take control of other arriving vessels until relieved by the Coast Guard SAR Mission Coordinator (SMC).

Good Samaritan OSC Duties:

  • At the direction of the SAR Mission Coordinator (SMC), coordinate on scene SAR operations until relieved by USCG.
  • Coordinate on-scene communications with master and maintain communications with the SMC.
  • Track on scene arrival and departure of rescue assets. Assign tasks as required.
  • Maintain detailed record of operations: areas searched, sighting, actions and results obtained.
  • Request additional rescue resource and SMC assistance as necessary.
  • Recommend to the SMC the release of resources not required.
  • Track number and location of survivors. Report to SMC.

On Scene Best Communications Practices:

  • Use VHF CH 16 only as hailing/emergency frequency. Switch to an alternate channel for on scene operations and reports to Coast Guard.
  • On Scene Coordinator (OSC) should serve as sole communicator to distressed vessel master. Remember, master is dealing with the emergency. Do not overload with unnecessary communications.
  • Rescue vessels must check in with the OSC on arrival and check out upon departure.
  • The OSC must maintain communications with the SMC. This is critical. Provide regular updates on:
  • Weather/sea state.
  • Visual description of distressed vessel: draft, visual damage, list, fire/smoke, location of passengers, number recovered, etc.
  • On scene search actions, resources, recommendations and potential problems.
  • Significant events and changes in distressed vessel condition.
  • Name and contact information of rescue vessels with survivors on board.
  • Number of survivors on each rescue vessel, and destination of each vessel upon release from scene.
  • It is critical to track the location of all evacuees from the distressed vessel. The Coast Guard will continue search and rescue operations until all persons are accounted for.

Rescue Safety:

  • Do not attempt a rescue that exceeds the limits of your capabilities, your training, or your vessel.
  • Do not place your vessel, crew, or passengers in serious danger.
  • Have a plan prior to action. Communicate the plan and your expectations to your crew, and if possible to the distressed vessel. Keep Coast Guard informed of your actions.
  • Have a plan for recovery of survivors onto high sided vessels.
  • Ensure all your crew is wearing life jackets and safety gear when working at rails or on small boats.

We all hope that we never have to be rescued on the water, and likewise we hope that we are not called upon to rescue another. That said, we should be prepared to be on either end of the emergency help situation. There are some things we can do to be prepared for either situation.

As the potential provider of emergency assistance, here are some things you can do:

  • Analyze your situation (size and type of vessel you own, abilities of persons aboard and rescue equipment on board) each time you venture out onto the water.
  • Carry potential rescue equipment such as extra life jackets, man in water (MIW) kits consisting of a line and float that can be tossed to persons in the water, extra fire extinguishers, extra lines, a towing bridle, and a good first aid kit.

As the potential recipient of emergency assistance, here are some things you can do:

  • Always have a marine VHF radio on board and know how to make a mayday distress call; make sure your passengers also know how to make a distress call.
  • File a float plan with a relative or friend.
  • Carry visual distress signals such as flares, flags, and rockets.
  • Have sufficient life jackets in good condition for each person on board
  • Wear those life jackets when underway.
  • As master of the vessel, keep a cool head when an emergency occurs.

I am sure you can think of many other things you can do to prepare for an emergency. The most important thing is that you actually do prepare.

[BC: Dec-5-2023]

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