Boaters' abandon concerns those who would have to rescue them

Public's expectations may be too high, warn Coast Guard officials

April 23, 1999|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

As more Americans move to coastal communities and frolic in sailboats and personal watercraft, the Coast Guard and Air National Guard are becoming increasingly worried that their elite -- and expensive -- search-and-rescue teams will be called upon more frequently to help troubled boaters.

"We're frightened by it," said Adm. James Loy, commandant of the Coast Guard, at a seminar yesterday at the Naval Institute in Annapolis.

Those fears have prompted some in the search-and-rescue field to begin asking whether it is prudent to risk many lives to save one.

In an effort to answer that, Coast Guard Capt. Jimy Ng told a crowd at the seminar about a recent search-and-rescue operation he oversaw as commander of the Coast Guard Air Station in Kodiak, Alaska.

A fishing boat with a four-man crew, caught in high seas, snow and wind, had sent a "mayday" over the radio. Ng ordered a helicopter and a C-130 airplane to lift off, which first required plowing a foot of snow off the tarmac. Halfway to the sinking ship, the helicopter began struggling to keep its altitude. The driving snow had encased the helicopter in a half-inch sheath of ice. Visibility was near zero.

"The helicopter crew was faced with the question we're here to ask: What's a life worth?" Ng said.

New satellite technology and improved emergency radio transmitters have made it easier in recent years for search-and-rescue crews to locate lost or troubled ships. But this has also created a higher -- and often false -- expectation that the Coast Guard is available to bail out sailors if a trip turns sour. With the Coast Guard seen as a safety net, recreational sailors and participants in some racing events are taking greater risks.

Ng said he sometimes shakes his head in disbelief at the lack of preparation by some boaters, who head to sea without flares, a radio or even food.

Pub Date: 4/23/99

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