Four in a single day. That’s the number of calls that came in to the U.S. Coast Guard in Puget Sound this past January for boats adrift without operators, setting off 10 hours of search and rescue missions involving dozens of people. “We had a helicopter up for two of them,” says Lt. Cmdr. Brett Ettinger, chief of incident management for sector Puget Sound. “We had two more small boats from two different stations also go out to search for people. In Seattle, Washington, we have our operations center with a search and rescue controller. They’re making calls. If the vessel’s registered, we’re finding the owner.”
As it turns out—and as is usually the case with “vessel adrift” calls to the Coast Guard nationwide—the boats had simply drifted off their moorings. Owners had failed to secure the vessels properly, and when a storm with big winds moved in, the lines and boats broke free.
A boat on the loose may be a nuisance for the owner, but for the Coast Guard, it’s an emergency situation. When the agency learns of an adrift vessel, it must assume that at least one person has gone missing and is in the water, needing rescue. Enormous amounts of resources get used, and Coast Guardsmen get taken away from other duties, sometimes for hours on end.“We have to treat that as a search and rescue, because we’re looking for a person in the water,” Ettinger says. “Until we can rule out that it’s not distress, we’ll continue to search for a person in the water.”
In Washington state alone, Coast Guard personnel spend 600 hours every month responding to unmanned boats that are adrift—and those Pacific Northwest personnel are far from alone. In November, the Coast Guard engaged a Jayhawk air crew, Coast Guard Cutter and Ocean Sentry air crew to resolve the mystery of a 30-foot sailboat adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. Also in November, the Coast Guard spent nearly six hours searching Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island after spotting an unmanned 14-foot skiff and fearing the owner had gone overboard into the frigid waters. (He was safe and warm at home.) In late January, the Coast Guard sent out a 140-foot icebreaker and a 65-foot icebreaking tug to handle a half dozen vessels that had broken loose on the Hudson River near Troy, New York.
The best-case scenario with a vessel adrift, Ettinger says, is that the Coast Guard can locate the owner and focus solely on the boat. “If there’s a registration on a vessel, and the owner answers a phone, then the case is over in maybe 15 minutes,” he says. “We say, ‘Hey, we found your boat, is everybody OK?’ They say, ‘We tied it up last night,’ and we say, ‘Well, it’s not tied up anymore. You have to come and get it.’”
Agency resources also become strained when boats break free and create a pollution problem. “If a vessel is adrift with oil on board and ends up on the rocks and breaks apart, now you have oil in the water as well,” Ettinger says.
Basic seamanship can go a long way toward keeping a boat where it belongs, whether tied to a mooring ball or a dock. For starters, all boaters should regularly inspect lines and replace any that are worn or weathered. Also double-check the vessel’s registration, to make sure it contains updated contact information. If strong winds are in the forecast, go to the boat and redouble any standard seamanship efforts. “Before gale warnings come in, go down to your boat and make sure all your lines are properly tied,” Ettinger says. “If you’re using a bow and stern line, double those lines up. Another common thing for smaller vessels, many people just take them out of the water, bring them up on shore and flip them upside down. But the minute the wind picks up, those aluminum and wood boats are going to end up in the water. Take the time to tie it down, or take it into a shed for the winter.”
These measures will help the Coast Guard return a boat, and enable the agency to determine if a person is truly missing. “This is all prudent seamanship, but I think people get complacent,” Ettinger says. “We need a little vigilance, especially before the bad weather comes.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue.