The uses and abuses of Search and Rescue services


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Dick
Dick
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Hi OCC members,
I write the following as I hear of too many boats, sail and power, reaching out and receiving, Search and Rescue assistance where, in casual reading of the details, one of the following was the case. They should not have been either: where they were (say off Cape Hatteras), or there at that time (say November off Cape Hatteras), or in that particular boat (a boat designed for coastal cruising and/or poorly maintained and/or not equipped for offshore passages) , or with that crew (inexperienced) or some combination of these. Now, I am clear that vessels can get into trouble even when the vessel was sound, the crew experienced for the trip, etc.: there can always be bad luck and the need for SAR assistance. In fact, that is the primary reason for SAR assistance: bad luck can occur even on a well-planned and well-prepared outing or passage.
What concerns me most powerfully in the above instances is the possibility that an SAR crew will be badly injured or die in one of these rescues. SAR call outs and responses are usually executed in conditions where injuries are more likely. Of far less importance, but not to be ignored, is that these rescues can be very expensive (and I believe some agencies are starting to charge).
I believe it is a skipper’s obligation to go to sea in a boat that is properly prepared and equipped for the wide range of conditions that it might meet and with a skipper/crew that has the experience to meet the reasonably expected challenges the passage might present. That seems to me to be our “deal” (if you will) with SAR services: they will be there to back us up and we go to sea with a vessel and crew that are prepared to make a call upon SAR resources least likely.
A recent OCC monthly bulletin reported on a member that is choosing to sail around the world and doing the primary navigation by sextant. This report gives me the chance to comment on the above.
I will use this report to comment specifically on my theme, but more importantly, to allow me to comment more generally on the areas mentioned above that I believe is (or should be) a concern for all sailors: the use of the world-wide Search-and-Rescue resources.
As said, any boat might experience bad luck and, I would contend, that is what the SAR resources are there for. But I hesitate to suggest that SAR personnel are obligated to put themselves in harm’s way for a boat/crew who has not met their obligations to put to sea in a boat that is prepared and equipped so as to make getting into trouble least likely.
I have no hesitation in wishing the above mentioned skipper good luck in his circumnavigation using only a sextant and paper charts for his primary navigation. I do have misgivings if the skipper is carrying an EPIRB and/or other communication devices that can call for help or indicate he is in trouble and where others can call in help.
I suggest this position because, as I see it, this skipper is choosing to go to sea equipped in a manner that most skippers no longer would choose: ie without a GPS. In other words, he is choosing to keep his boat out of trouble and off the hard stuff by methods that are universally seen as less accurate, less safe and have been relegated (largely) to museums and to navigation back-up on some boats.
Now I do not know where exactly to draw the line, but I would want to suggest that those going to sea with a boat that is depending on old fashioned and less accurate methods of navigation choose not to carry equipment that can call for help. Imagine, for a moment, the boat going aground because of a navigation error and an SAR rescue crew gets hurt or dies in the rescue attempt. Then imagine explaining to the surviving husband/wife and/or children that their loved one was sent out to rescue a sailor who had chosen to be at sea without gear that would have made it less likely to make a navigation error: less likely to have called their loved one for help.
Now, it is likely that, at some point (perhaps already) there will be a serious injury or death in a rescue attempt. They are often just plain dangerous operations. But let it occur to a vessel and crew who have held up their end of the deal and just experienced bad luck.
I believe in the “deal” we have with SAR world-wide resources and I worry that too many skippers/vessels are not meeting their obligations and are calling on SAR when they should not be out there in the first place. This is being recognized in various corners of the world already and I worry about injuries and I worry that there may be instituted regulations that are compromising to the cruising life we all now enjoy.
But all the above is just a bridge to a larger issue: that there are boats going to sea poorly prepared and then calling for help. We, as an offshore-promoting cruising club, I believe, have an obligation to ensure our boats and crew are well prepared and well equipped. I would suggest also that we promote reasonable standards which make a call for SAR services least likely.
That, it seems to me, is upholding our “deal” with world-wide SAR services.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

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