I don’t get people hollering for help as quick as they do. I remember late nights in Maine where wizened relatives well into their cups would cut lobster lines free of props and continue carrying us children homeward; I’ve wrapped up wounds a combat battalion would consider serious with 3M’s blue masking tape; I don’t like to think about the time it was me, a sailboat and another guy in a very bad spot off a New England coastline in February; whenever the prospect of a powerboat charter arises, my wife reminds me of the hours I once spent lying between twin Lehmans in a long ways distant spot in the Gulf of Mexico bleeding fuels lines amidst the feted smell of diesel and stomach acids; I’ve got a picture in my head of me alone on a big Zodiac that took a wave funny and so flooded with seawater that all the lifebelt harnesses inflated and floated away as I bailed madly with a bucket. On a road trip in a lonely stretch in the middle of this country, I made too quick a comment to two too many strangers and danced quickly clear of a very ugly moment. I once suffered an hour of quizzing by a military officer who didn’t speak English in a faraway place and yet in each of these moments, I never thought of calling anyone for help.

Middling memories skittering the edges of real danger, you might rightly say. But they’re my memories and they’ll serve to make my point: sometimes you need to figure ship out. In most every other area of this world, people are very much alone and very much dependent upon themselves to find a fix. There’s some value in keeping that mindset. (I’m nearly finished reading Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari which gives you a sense of the desperately lonesome situation of so many. We of the lucky birthplace club, on the other hand, are a pampered lot puttering along the coastline in our fiberglass steeds comfortable knowing the Coast Guard and private commercial assistance is at the ready to help.)

All that said, what happens if you do call the Coast Guard and they hover above you with one of their whirly-birds and drop a rescue pump and maybe divert a cutter and maybe give you a tow about the coastline for eight hours – are you going to get billed?

Let’s start with the situation of a crewmember aboard a fishing vessel. He gets an arm snagged in a winch that worked wrong and he’s bleeding. You’d rightly want to call an ambulance, but I’ve seen similar situations where a girlfriend drives the poor sod to the emergency room to save the cost of an ambulance. Ambulances can be expensive. If you’re uninsured, I suspect it seems more expensive. (And yes, there are maritime remedies unique to crew working on vessels, but call me sometime and I’ll share my opinions on those remedies.)

And here’s another detour before we get to the answer: does the Coast Guard have to respond to you? You could likely mock-up a PhD dissertation on this topic, but in simple terms I’d say that if there’s actual peril, and there’s a Coast Guard asset available that can safely respond, then it will respond based on its search and rescue policy. For those of you wanting to dig into the hundreds of pages devoted to unpacking the Coast Guard SAR policy, use a search engine of your choice and hunt up the Coast Guard’s Office of Search and Rescue. (Choose wisely your choice of intoxicant, as it’ll be needed to successfully wade through the sheer volume of available information!)

As for getting billed by the Coast Guard, and without giving legal advice, I’m pretty certain you’re not going to get a bill because there’s legislation prohibiting the collection of any fee for search and rescue. That is, 46 U.S.C. § 2110 states: “The Secretary may not collect a fee or charge under this subsection for any search or rescue service.” I’m uncertain whether there are circumstances that might create exceptions to this prohibition, but I’ve yet to see an exception. Of course, if you’re aided by a commercial vessel that comes to your rescue, I could envision the vessel’s home office making a claim for the costs of the voyage deviation – that’s an interesting issue worthy of additional consideration for a future column.

I think the Coast Guard should be able to recoup its expenses to some degree, particularly in instances where you’ve not filed a float plan, you’ve failed to properly man and equip your vessel, you’ve disregarded objectively prudent seamanship, etc. Seems to me that knowing the Coast Guard is going to charge might change the shape and way people prepare for and handle emergencies. It might force people to deal with their ship instead of hollering for help at the sight of some seawater on the settee floor.

What do you think? Email me at john@saltwaterlaw.com. I’m curious.

Underway and making way. ■

John K. Fulweiler, Esq. is a Proctor-in-Admiralty representing individuals and small businesses in maritime matters including personal injury claims throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and with his office in Newport, Rhode Island. He can be reached at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293) or john@saltwaterlaw.com, or visit his website at saltwaterlaw.com.

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