Need help? Wave your arms

October 2021

By Randy Randall

The call was urgent. The outboard had conked out, and they wanted us to give them a tow. They had managed to snag a mooring and were marooned at the mouth of the river. They couldn’t get the outboard started. Could we come to get them? I hate calls where we have to say “no,” but helping them would mean closing down our marina and fuel dock; and besides, we’re not in the towing business. On the phone, we tried to cover the basics: Is everyone okay? (Yes). Are you in danger? (No, not really.) Can you call a friend? (No). There’s always SeaTow – they come from Portland. (Yeah, but if you’re not a member, that will cost more than the boat is worth.)

So, wave your arms at a boat heading our way. (Can we do that?) Sure, flag down a friendly boat. (The Maine Boaters Guide illustrates waving your arms to get help.) They did reach someone, and an hour later, the “good samaritan” boat tugged them up to their home mooring. These situations pop up throughout the summer. The motor quits – they ran out of gas – they sheered a propeller – simple stuff. Not life-threatening.

So, are other boaters obligated to render assistance? Well, if you’re the captain of a ship, the “law of the sea” and Federal Statute 46 USC 2304 say, “You must render assistance so long as you can do so without endangering your vessel and crew.” However, a small uninspected recreation boat is not legally required to render aid like a ship’s captain is, but if they do decide to help a boat in distress, the Good Samaritan laws protect them from suits and damages.

This also is covered in the Federal Boating Safety Act. If you went to help a sinking boat and people were in the water, then, by all means, you have a “duty to rescue” in the safest way possible. Throwing someone a tow line may not be an obligation, but it’s a nice gesture, and so long as you demonstrate good seamanship and intent, the rescue should be a success.

Please be aware of the enormous strains that result from one boat towing another – and go slow. We seldom think about the legalities of doing a good deed. Being mostly good caring folks, we’re ready to lend a hand to a fellow boater in distress. But still, it would be worth your while some evening to spend a few minutes searching for things like “duty to rescue” and “Good Samaritan Laws,” just to get an idea of the regulations in your state.

You can always check with the Coast Guard, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, or the Marine Wardens if you’re unsure. (That’s what I did.) Here on the Saco River estuary, the Saco Fire Boat at Camp Ellis is sometimes used to rescue boaters in trouble, and SeaTow comes from Portland, as do the marine wardens.

It probably goes without saying – boat owners should plan ahead for their self-rescue, as well, by practicing good seamanship and having sufficient skills so they could troubleshoot a stalled motor or cut loose from a lobster trap line. Most times, these non-life-threatening emergencies are merely annoyances and usually end well. A little common sense and understanding of the laws will keep us all safe.

Frequent contributor, correspondent and friend. Randy Randall is co-owner of Marston’s Marina in Saco, Maine, and a dreamer and waterman of the first order.