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Who Should Pay for Coast Guard Rescues?

The last few years have seen a resurgence of participation in sailing. Two primary drivers have been social media putting more sailing on display through video bloggers, Instagram and others, while the pandemic has kept people close to home and reconnecting with more outdoor activities, including sailing.

We think more people sailing is a good thing. However, more inexperienced people on the water means more accidents. According to the Coast Guard there were 26% more accidents in 2020 than in 2019. Inevitably, when we write about sailors getting into trouble and requiring rescue, there’s tremendous support for the Coast Guard, but also the occasional outcry from some suggesting that whoever is rescued should pay for the government resources required.

US Coast Guard Rescue
Coast Guard crew posing with survivors after a successful rescue in 2020.
© 2022 US Coast Guard

A recent story in the New York Times describes this phenomenon in hiking as well. The pandemic has inspired more people to take to the wilderness, with many of those getting in over their heads. The Times reports that New Hampshire, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Vermont and Oregon currently have varying laws on the books to seek reimbursement from offenders. This is obviously murky territory, as the skills, preparations and circumstances of each rescue vary widely. In a recent case in New Hampshire a family that misjudged the length of their hike is being billed $5,000 for the rescue. Though New Hampshire claims they don’t do it often, they will when circumstances warrant. There’s room for lots of gray zone there.

Conversely, the question is asked, “How do you behave if you know you’re going to be billed for a rescue?” Might you decline to call for help? Could that endanger innocent lives? There are endless situations where the fire department or other emergency services respond to accidents, some of which might be caused by negligence, though those rescued are not billed by emergency services. Like medical care, most perceived emergency situations don’t allow time for you to shop around for the best rescue price or to pull up a deal on Groupon.

Some readers responded ‘Yes’ to the question posed in the New York Times, “You Got Lost and Had to Be Rescued. Should You Pay?” with one reader adding, “This has been standard practice in Europe for decades. To hike in the Alps you buy insurance to cover you in case you need to be rescued. So strange that Americans think health care should not be provided by the state but rescues from recreation should.”

Go sailing
A quote attributed to Dr. Kerr L White says, “Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.” The only way to improve is to do more sailing.
© 2022 Latitude 38 Media LLC / John

We don’t see a clear answer that can be applied across all situations, but we do know we were all inexperienced sailors at one time, and even the most experienced sailors can get into trouble. Two guiding principles to be brought on board and learned while sailing are personal responsibility and self-sufficiency. We think we should all do all we can to welcome new sailors and help them and ourselves avoid any situation requiring the aid of the Coast Guard or other emergency services. And for new sailors, there are endless great sailing schools, mentors and others willing to help you avoid the worst.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

19 Comments

  1. Ken Brinkley 8 months ago

    Do you pay the cops when they come and save you from a burglar? Do you pay the fire department when they come and put out a fire at your house? Of course not ,this is part of society. We pay our taxes, most of us anyway and we form a social contract that the government has your back. I am grateful for all first responders who risk their safety for our rescues.

  2. Steven Bustin 8 months ago

    I think the example of police protection is a false equivalency. People usually call law enforcement when they are a victim of someone else’s bad behavior. Regarding rescues by the Coast Guard, I am hesitant to charge the rescued as this is something covered by taxes as noted by Mr. Brinkley, but also too often a result of negligent activity (not always of course). Additionally, thinking you may be charged may result in more lives at risk or lost, even those of first responders. What if we simply (simple is usually better) do this: If you have taken an accredited boating safety course, have your California Boaters Card (or one from any other state), and filed a Float Plan, well, then you are covered and will not be billed for your rescue. Publicizing this well may in fact increase those tasks and reduce the need for rescue. And it would reward those who do all those right things by not charging them.

  3. E Smith 8 months ago

    This could lead some people to not call the CG and could result in the increased loss of lives.

    • Steven Bustin 8 months ago

      I do agree Mr. Smith that this is a possibility. However, there has to be some personal accountability and responsibility and choosing to not take a class and get a boaters card (essentially, not adhering to the law) does have repercussions.

  4. Murphy Sackett 8 months ago

    I have been rescued by Coast Gaurd. A fishing charter I was Captain. Two boys oldest 12, Dad and Dads buddy. Starboard engine caught fire crew hit it with a extinguisher did nothing. I remembered training better to get out a May Day Than to wait too long. I made the May Day soon after my shoes were melting and we were in the water! Don’t think send it!!

  5. Robert Sayles 8 months ago

    A Few years back the coast guard used to run gas out to boats that run, motor quit, line tangled in prop, lost in the fog, & they towed them in. They quit doing that several years ago & only help emergency calls. Its the reason we pay taxes, police, firemen, coast guard & it benefits all people. The coast guard where I boat at say they liked to get calls for something to do & to get experience at rescue in real life situations. Now they hardly practice because of the fuel they use. It’s weird but the coast guard get their financing from (department of transportation & never get enough. If you get caught off shore in a full gale, or storm conditions & your taking on water, calling the coast guard is the last thing you do, when you see them coming you’ll think God sent his angels for you.

    • Steven Bustin 8 months ago

      The Coast Guard actually does a great deal of training and the only time that is restrained is when Congress is slow to approve the budget. Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security (years ago they were under Department of Transportation) and receive funding from them. And yes indeed, they will appear as angels when you see them come over the horizon heading to save you.

    • Andrew White 8 months ago

      A little background for you. When companies like Towboat USA started up, they sued the CG for competing against their business. Why would a mariner in trouble pay for a tow or gas when the CG would provide it for free. So the CG had to change their policy. When they get a call now, if it’s not a dire emergency, they put out a MARB (Marine Assistance Request Broadcast) on chnl 16. That gives commercial enterprises, or any Good Samaritan, an opportunity to answer the call and conduct business. If no one wants to provide assistance, then the CG will go out and take care of it. If there is an actual emergency situation, the CG will respond immediately with whatever asset can get there the quickest and provide the necessary assistance (boat, cutter, helo, etc). The CG never wants to bring money into the equation because then someone may not call until the crap really hits the fan and then you end up putting the rescuers in increased jeopardy. They would rather go out and tow someone in when it’s daylight and calm instead of waiting until after dark and the seas pick up. It’s never about funding or paying taxes. It is a service provided to ALL mariners.

  6. Sailorette 8 months ago

    Last I knew “we the people” paid the Coast Guards wages with our tax dollars. I thought the Coast Guard, for the most part, handed basic towing over to private companies and only handled the more involved Search and Rescue (SAR) missions and riskier situations for which they are well trained and qualified.

    As such, since the Coast Guard is already funded, I don’t think we should have to pay for a rescue. I’ve been boating for over 40-years and have never had to call for assistance but I’m comforted knowing should I require assistance it would be readily available. At no cost.

    Hats off to the Coast Guard for serving the people in times of need.

  7. ROBERT Walker 8 months ago

    Maybe the question is “who should pay for stupidity?” Rescue through no fault should be covered. Otherwise let’s not pay for stupidity. Boat US (just one of others) provides services such as towing, etc. Take out insurance and only call CG for dire emergencies (no charge). We were halfway between the Channel Islands and Santa Barbara with a plugged inlet valve which we could not unjam…Called Boat Us and saved $1800+ for the tow-in. This type of rescue is insurance covered; not one for the Coast Guard. Bless Their Souls.

  8. Robby Robinson 8 months ago

    No, I don’t think we should pay the CG for rescue. I think a requirement like that would lead to more bad outcomes. We do pay the CG via our taxes. I have
    Boat US tow insurance. I’ve twice participated in the SSS Transpac (82 & 88) and appreciated the support and briefings that gave us at the time.

    On a trip down the coast 18 years ago in a fishing trawler, I owned at the time, I asked the CG in Grays Harbor (WA) the bar conditions. They responded by sending out their boat and escorted me in, closing the bar, after we got in. Safety inspection, of course, but a bunch of great guys who invited us over to their station. Later on the same trip I called the Coos Bay CG station, who provided a similar service and also closed the bar after we got in. Their procedure was to position their boat behind me to break the incoming waves.

    About 7 years ago I was crew aboard a trimaran that was holed in one of the amas about 250 miles west of SF and the response from the CG command on TI was outstanding. They diverted a container ship to our location who provided us with Gumby Suits and that night one of the big CG cutters arrived and stood by. Our skipper was concerned they would order us off, but as the seas were moderating and we were sailing towards our destination with 4 experienced crew, they allowed us to proceed.

    To compare emergency services, The life boat service in the UK, provides rescue and is manned by volunteers and funded by donations. After crossing the Atlantic (2000) on my Boat, Rolling Stone, while going up the Irish sea, we asked for assistance entering Howth at 0-dark-30. I expected assistance by radio, but they told me to stand by and 20 minutes later two inflatables roared up. 3 or 4 guys jumped aboard, took the tiller, and brought the boat into the harbor. It was pitch black and a difficult entrance. We never passed a lifeboat collection container without depositing money.

    So thank you emergency services!

    • Steven Bustin 8 months ago

      Fantastic, wonderful stories. Hail to the CG and all other life saving rescue services. Just absolutely fantastic. Thanks for sharing these.

  9. Larry Bone 8 months ago

    Sometimes you get lucky. Over twenty years ago, in Oyster Bay, the skeg came off my windsurfer after I’d crossed the bay and I would not be able to get back to Oyster Bay Cove before nightfall. So some sailors on a 28 foot sailboat towed me back for which I was extremely grateful. Then one late afternoon a sailboat from Connecticut was staying the night on a mooring in the Cove and had a hard plastic 5 gallon gas tank that was giving off fumes that they worried were carbon monoxide. So I took the tank back to shore and made sure it completely evaporated. There should be an AAA shoreline or offshore towing insurance service for any and all marine emergencies even though traditionally if you see anyone in trouble out on the water you are supposed to help them.

  10. Butch Dalrymple Smith 8 months ago

    In principle the RNLI (Lifeboats all around the British Isles including Ireland) will save lives for free but charge for saving a boat.

    In the latter case the volunteer lifeboat crews technically charter the boat from the RNLI and then charge the owner of the boat they rescued for their own benefit and to pay the expenses. However, this is very seldom applied to recreational yachtsmen.

    Needless to say rescued yachtsmen generally buy the lifeboat crew a few rounds in the local pub once everything has been secured and both crews are dried out.

  11. Andrew Howe 8 months ago

    Here in NH, one can purchase what is known as a “Hike Safe” card for $25 a year (https://wildlife.state.nh.us/safe/) which covers you from the potential cost of most “rescues.” Considering that a rescue in the mountains could be for something as innocuous as a bum knee or ankle, or as major as a broken leg or worse, that is pretty cheap for what is a very enjoyable activity that does have some risk. A bit more complicated with boats offshore and the CG.

  12. Jack Karabasz 8 months ago

    When we kids were on our very first sailing lesson, the old salt instructor (he was probably 25 years old) told us even before we made our first tack in that old Lightning, that “we sailors” are responsible for ourselves on the water. We cannot ever depend on anyone else in an “ol’stinkpot” come out to save us. Forever, each of us is personally responsible to get back to the dock ourselves. To be rescued is a “FAILURE”! In my 65 years of sailing, that risk of failure has been enough to keep me and my crews safe all these years.
    That said, most boat insurance carriers include an amount for emergency towing services in their policies one way or another. (Not CG services but private towing.) Check with your agent or carrier. Many private towing services also do a fabulous job going above and beyond keeping the boating public safe.
    I also have to respectfully DISagree that we have a “Right” to be rescued on the taxpayers’ dime! Why should folks in Iowa or Montana have to pay for my problems or mistakes on the water in Florida or New Jersey? I think folks ought to be charged for the services they use/need.

  13. Jose Kanusee 8 months ago

    Remove the drug police element now charged to the USCG and they will have all the time and resources to assist in any emergency. Why they must send their cutters to South America for drug interdiction is beyond me! I was boarded by a RIB, dispatched from one of the big cutters, 50 miles off the coast of Mexico. I am a US Documented vessel AND a licensed captain.

  14. Anonymous 8 months ago

    I am glad to hear the majority of people on here in agreement that coast guard rescue should not be charged…EXTRA. As pointed out, coast guard is funded through taxes that you’ve already paid and the possible delay in calling out of money concern may mean the difference between life and death. I work for a rescue agency on the bay and train with coast guard regularly. I also work for a local fire department. People always assume that “you have something better to do than be here helping me” but the reality is if we are not spending tax dollars responding to an incident, we are spending tax dollars preparing to respond to an incident and no amount of training can replace the real call, even the simple ones. Interacting with people that have less experience in real world conditions can’t be replicated so to some degree we appreciate the reps.

  15. Tamera Durlley 7 months ago

    There needs to be a distinction between unavoidable emergencies and negligence. In the case of negligence, the boaters need to pay. Tax dollars pay for the coast guard, and when they provide security, it benefits all. However, recreational boats are used by only a few privileged people. If they behave irresponsibly or negligently, they need to pay for services. Most Americans will never own a boat, so they should not subsidize rich hobbyists who get into trouble.

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