How do the U.S. Coast Guard, SeaTow and Vessel Assist respond to distress calls?

I am researching the services offered by commercial assistance towing companies (such as SeaTow or Vessel Assist), and I am a little confused about the interaction between these services and the U.S. Coast Guard. Under what circumstances will the Coast Guard respond to a call rather than deferring to a commercial service? And, does the U.S. Coast Guard ever charge a fee for responding to a distress call?

Coast Guard fees are established by federal statute. For the most part these fees are limited to documentation services, vessel inspection and mariner licensing. However, it does not charge a fee to render assistance to a vessel at sea. In fact, Congress enacted a statute in 1983 (46 U.S. Code sec. 2110) expressly prohibiting the Coast Guard from charging a fee for search and rescue services, so this is not something that is subject to a discretionary waiver.

The fee question is therefore very clear. However, the question of whether the Coast Guard will respond to a particular call for assistance is a lot more complicated.

In 1982, Congress directed the Coast Guard to review its policies for towing and salvage of disabled vessels, to conserve valuable Coast Guard resources and minimize competition between the Coast Guard and commercial towing and salvage companies. The Coast Guard responded with its Maritime Search and Rescue Assistance Policy (MSAP), which gave rise to the commercial assistance towing industry we are familiar with today.

The MSAP is published by the Coast Guard in section 4.1 of a document known as the U.S. Coast Guard Addendum to the United States National SAR Supplement to the International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue Manual. This 746-page document was last updated in 2013, and it may be downloaded from the Coast Guard’s website at All of that is a lot to chew on, but we can focus on a few of the highlights through the use of a “Maritime Assistance Decision Flow Chart” that is included in the MSAP.

When a call for assistance is received by the Coast Guard, a determination is made by the “SAR Mission Coordinator” as to whether the emergency is a case of “distress.” Distress is said to exist when grave or imminent danger, requiring immediate response, threatens a craft or person. The Coast Guard will always render assistance to persons and property in genuine distress, so long as the resources for the rescue are available and the assistance can itself be rendered safely.

The Coast Guard Auxiliary is authorized to perform most of the duties of the regular Coast Guard, so the scope of assistance provided by the Coast Guard may also be provided by the Auxiliary. As noted above, the assistance provided by the Coast Guard or the Auxiliary will be rendered free of charge.

The Coast Guard generally will not provide assistance in non-distress cases if alternative assistance is available. These cases are usually referred to a commercial assistance towing company through a “Marine Assistance Request Broadcast” (MARB) issued by the Coast Guard on VHF channel 16. Depending on the response to the MARB, the Coast Guard may render assistance in non-distress situations if commercial assistance is not available within a reasonable period of time, and if no higher priority missions exist at the time of the incident.

Most coastal waters frequented by recreational boaters in the United States are serviced by at least one commercial assistance towing company (Southern California, for example, is serviced by both Vessel Assist and SeaTow). As such, the Coast Guard will generally not render direct assistance to recreational boaters except under circumstances of genuine distress. Boaters should therefore seriously consider a subscription membership with one of the towing organizations.

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