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Does the Coast Guard Charge for Rescues or Assistance?

I am considering membership in a commercial assistance towing service for my boat, but 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? Does the Coast Guard charge a fee if they respond to a distress call? Do they charge for a non-emergency call? Do they have any discretion regarding whether to waive a fee?
The Coast Guard does not charge a fee to provide assistance to a boat at sea. Coast Guard fees are established by federal statute, and for the most part these fees are limited to documentation services, vessel inspection and mariner licensing. The Coast Guard is expressly prohibited by statute (Title 46 US Code, sec. 2110) from charging a fee for any search and rescue service, 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 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 with commercial enterprise. The Coast Guard responded with its Maritime Search and Rescue Assistance Policy (MSAP), which gave rise to the commercial assistance towing industry that we are familiar with today.

If you are interested in the details of the MSAP, it 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. This 580-page document is available through various resources on the Internet, but I’ll try to point out a few of the highlights here.

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 that are 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. And, as noted above, the assistance provided by the Coast Guard or the Auxiliary will be rendered free of charge.

The Coast Guard often receives calls from mariners for non-distress assistance, but they 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,” issued by the Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16.

The rules that discourage the rendering of assistance by the Coast Guard in non-distress situations are not absolute, and they may render assistance in those cases when no higher-priority missions exist and no other capable resource is reasonably available.

According to the Coast Guard’s MSAP, the following policy should be observed in a non-distress case. If a commercial provider is available and can be on the scene within a reasonable time (usually one hour or less), no further action by the Coast Guard, beyond monitoring the incident, will be taken. Otherwise, a Coast Guard Auxiliary unit or a Coast Guard resource may be used, and in those cases the vessel being assisted will normally be taken to the nearest safe haven.

Most coastal waters frequented by recreational boaters in the United States are serviced by at least one commercial assistance towing company. As such, the Coast Guard will generally not render direct assistance to recreational boaters, and a subscription membership with one of the towing organizations may be a good idea.

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