I'm new to boating and just bought my first boat. My wife and I were watching Coast Guard Alaska and it brought up the question of what responsibility a recreational boater has to responding to a MAY DAY call.
I doubt I'd ever be in a situation where Coast Guard couldn't respond, but the question still remains. What responsibility to I have as a boater if Coast Guard couldn't respond, or I'm in a position to assist.
Here was my answer:
If you hear a mayday, wait to see if the Coast Guard answers. If they do, and you are near the MAY DAY, wait until they are off air and inform them of your location, and if you should assist. They may say yes, they may not. If they do not respond to the original MAY DAY, attempt to contact the Coast Guard and relay the information. Use the words MAY DAY RELAY. The person making the May Day may be out of the range of the Coast Guard. If there is no answer from the Coast Guard try to raise anyone who can relay the message. Try to contact the MAY DAY and get a position and description and relay that. Find out how far away you are from the May Day. If it is close, go there and assist if you can. There is no legal obligation to do so, but it is a long standing practice (going back to the beginning of sea faring) that you always assist if you can, but don't put yourself in imminent danger. The USCG doesn't need two boats to rescue. For instance if the other boat is in the surf, don't go there. If the other boat is rapidly sinking, take the people off but do not attempt to tow it.
There is no liability to you if you attempt to assist and something bad happens. You are protected by the law (It's called the Good Samaritan law) So don't worry about damaging the other boat. However, unless you have experience with towing, it is not a good idea to try to tow someone unless it is absolutely necessary. Towing can be very dangerous. Leave it to the pros.
Also if you are involved in an accident and the other vessel is in danger you are required by law to assist, if you can. It's the same as leaving the scene of an auto accident. You don't leave until you are sure everyone is ok and assistance has arrived, or the Coast Guard/LEOs tell you to go.
Chapter 4 of Chapman's Piloting, Seamanship and Small Boat Handling covers emergencies. I suggest you get a copy and read it. You would be best buying your own copy, but you can find it at most libraries.
This is also covered in most boating courses. If you haven't taken one I suggest you contact your local Coast Guard Auxiliary, the US Power Squadron, or your state boating authority, and take a course.
But, here is a link to the state Good Samaritan laws State Good Samaritan Laws. Also any query about state boating laws should be directed to the State Boating Law Administrator for your state. State Boating Law Administrators Directory
In addition, my comment about letting the pros do it was also a general comment. It all depends on the situation. If someone is in imminent danger by all means do what you can within your knowledge and skills. But if that is not the case take the people off the boat and standby until the pros arrive. Few recreational boaters have adequate towing equipment, dewatering pumps, or fire fighting equipment. Few recreational boaters have any training in using a proper towing bridal, how to rig one correctly, the size of lines to use, how to regulate the speed and how to establish a correct distance between yourself and the towing vessel. In addition snapped lines (especially nylon) are killers. This is especially true of a smaller boat trying to tow a larger, much heavier boat. Do you know how to and how to use the correct fire fighting agent for a gasoline fire? Do you know how to plug a broken through hull ftting, or even have the correct plugs on hand?
Yes, they may be happy to see you but when you pull the bow eye out of their boat, crush the rails while coming alongside, or other damage to their boat, they may not be so happy. I can tell some tales of "rescues" that went seriously bad, even with the pros. Plus that, far too many people have gotten themselves into trouble by going far beyond their own capabilities or their boat's capabilities. So caution and prudence are the rule of the day. How many people know how to approach a drifting boat in other than calm weather? How many know what the first thing is you tell the people in the distressed boat? (It's put on your life jackets! Now you know.)
The Coast Guard and other maritime agencies spend many days learning and practicing these things. So at least let them show what they can do!
PS: Title 46 United States Code Section 2304 does require the master of a vessel to render assistance so long as they can do so without endangering themselves:
Sec. 2304. Duty to provide assistance at sea
(1) A master or individual in charge of a vessel shall render assistance to any individual found at sea in danger of being lost, so far as the master or individual in charge can do so without serious danger to the master’s or individual’s vessel or individuals on board.
(2) Paragraph (1) does not apply to a vessel of war or a vessel owned by the United States Government appropriated only to a public service.
(b) A master or individual violating this section shall be fined not more than $1,000, imprisoned for not more than 2 years, or both.
You can read the whole thread at: http://forums.iboats.com/showthread.php?t=544793
There was also a lot of discussion of the difference between MAYDAY, PAN and SECURITE'
But the jist is for recreational boats under 16 feet you are not required to have a VHF marine radio, but if you do, and it is ON, you are required to monitor channel 16. You are required to assist if you can safely do so. You are not required to put yourself in danger. Vessels over 65 feet, vessels carrying more than 6 passengers for hire, and all commercial vessels are required to have a VHF Marine radio, and monitor channel 16.
For more info on this take a boating safety course.