Empty boats spur costly searches

Posted Aug. 11, 2010, at 6:52 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:07 p.m.

SOUTHWEST HARBOR, Maine — What does it mean when someone finds an unoccupied kayak or canoe floating in the water?

For the Coast Guard, it often means hours of trying to find out if someone might have fallen overboard, even if the empty boat just accidentally floated away from shore.

On Tuesday, the local Coast Guard station spent six hours responding to three reports of empty kayaks floating at sea, one off Cat Cove in Stonington, one in Seal Harbor and another in Hulls Cove. In each case, it turned out, the kayaks simply had floated away from shore without anyone on board.

Lt. Nick Barrow of the Coast Guard’s Sector Northern New England office in South Portland said Wednesday that the Coast Guard frequently gets such calls, both along the Maine and New Hampshire coasts and from Lake Champlain, which is divided between New York and Vermont. He said that in the past week, the Coast Guard has responded to seven or eight such reports, including one Tuesday about a drifting canoe in Lake Champlain. That also turned out to be a false alarm, he said.

“This is a pretty regular thing that we see,” Barrow said. “[Searches] cost money and expend limited personnel resources.”

When the Coast Guard recovers an unoccupied kayak or canoe, the agency checks for signs of whether they recently may have been occupied or may have been in the water for a while, he said. Indicators such as food on board, gear that is stowed away or marine growth on the bottom of the boats give responders an idea of whether anyone might need rescuing, he said.

Barrow said there are a few things kayak and canoe owners can do to help eliminate or reduce the time spent on unnecessary searches.

People should make sure their boats are properly secured when they are left on shore, he said, for whatever tide or weather conditions are in effect. Tide and weather information is readily available online and in newspapers, he said.

Also, contact information such as the name of the owner or a phone number should be on the boats so that responders know right away whom to call to find out if someone is in trouble. And any boats that go missing should be reported to the Coast Guard or local authorities so responders know how to react if and when they are found.

Barrow said that is it “very seldom” that the Coast Guard quickly determines that no one is in trouble.

“There’s often quite a bit of investigative work going on behind the scenes,” Barrow said.

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