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At some point when you are out on the water, you may encounter another boater in distress. While life-threatening boating emergencies are rare (and would warrant an immediate call to local first responders), it’s not uncommon for boaters to run out of fuel, have trouble starting an engine due to a dead battery or take on water because they forgot to put in the drain plug. It is only human nature to want to help them.
“For the most part, people want to do the right thing. Boating is a very friendly environment,” said Mercury Marine Product Safety Manager Pete Chisholm.
When Mercury employees are on the water in pursuit of development and testing of company products, it is standard operating procedure to come to the aid of other boaters in need of assistance. Mercury technicians spend hours sea-trialing engines and other products in all types of weather and water conditions, including icy winter days on Wisconsin’s Lake Winnebago near the company headquarters. Over the years, they have come to the aid of many boaters, both in Wisconsin and near the Mercury test facility in Panama City, Florida.
Title 46 of the U.S. Code, Section 2304, states: “Duty to provide assistance at sea: 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.”
While Title 46 was written primarily to govern commercial maritime operations, its spirit applies to anyone out boating who observes another boater in distress. You have an obligation to render assistance. However, the type of aid you provide will depend on the circumstances.
In the most extreme (and rare) situations, when lives are in danger – for example, if the other boat is sinking or people are already in the water – you may need to transfer the passengers to your own boat. “The minimum is to give people a stable and a dry place to stand while they wait for additional resources,” Chisholm said.
If the boaters in distress have not already done so, use your VHF radio to call the U.S. Coast Guard for help and provide your GPS position. (If you are on an inland body of water that the Coast Guard does not monitor, radio the local authorities.) Take the victims to shore if you can do so safely, but if you are far from land, the best option may be to stay with them until help arrives.
“It’s important to note that using the VHF radio to call for help is taught in safe boating classes because not only are authorities such as the U.S. Coast Guard listening, but because your call for assistance can be heard by other good Samaritans who may be close by and able to provide additional resources,” Chisholm added.
As Title 46 states, however, being a good Samaritan does not mean you should put yourself, your crew or your own boat in danger.
“If their boat is going down, you don’t want to tie it off to your boat – it could flip your boat over,” said Capt. Kerry Kline, owner of Sea Tow Central Florida Lakes. “Put fenders between the two boats and hold onto the rail while you transfer the passengers.”
In situations where the other boaters’ issue isn’t life-threatening, but their boat is not operational, they may ask you for a tow. Before you respond, there are a number of considerations to keep in mind. If you are not an experienced towboat operator, towing another boat can be dangerous, especially at night. It also may violate the terms of your own boat insurance policy. A better solution may be to call a commercial towing service such as Sea Tow or TowBoatU.S., if available in your area, and stand by until it gets there.
“If someone is in peril, you have to render assistance, but nowhere does it say you have to tow them,” added Kline. “Rendering assistance can be calling the Coast Guard, handing the person a life jacket, taking them onto your boat, taking them to shore or just giving them some spare fuel if you have it.”
While the boating community is friendly and boaters typically help one another, you don’t want to end up needing a good Samaritan yourself. Here are a few steps to take to help ensure your boat stays safe and in good working order every time you leave the dock.
By being a boating good Samaritan – and avoiding needing one’s help – you can help everyone stay safe on the water and focus on having fun.