Unsecured, adrift vessels draining Washington U.S. Coast Guard resources

The Coast Guard answers multiple distress calls to unmanned boats floating in the water.

SEATTLE — Local Coast Guard crews are dealing with a big problem in our waters.

So far this year, Washington search and rescue crews have already responded to 21 cases of adrift vessels with no one on them. In each case, the United States Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound must assume that someone could be overboard.

The Coast Guard says these adrift vessels – boats, kayaks, canoes - waste valuable resources and tie up the teams for people who actually need their help.

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“It is a big problem. The Coast Guard frequently receives reports of unmanned and adrift vessels,” said Lt. Cmdr. Blair Sweigart. Sweigart currently serves as the chief of the Enforcement Division for USCG Sector Puget Sound, where he is responsible for federal maritime law enforcement and security operations.

People will call in one of these boats floating in the water, and it comes in as a distress call – which requires a full search and rescue team with a crew of four to six people responding to a boat adrift.

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​So far this year in 2019, the USCG has already responded to 21 cases in Washington. As the weather warms up, the problem will likely get worse.

“Especially with the water temperature here, we treat each case as though there might be someone in distress- someone who has fallen off of that vessel. And we need to have a rapid response because we just don't have a lot of time before hypothermia sets in,” Sweigart said.

There is often also a helicopter crew with four people in the air joining the search crew on the water.

“Every time we send assets out, there's risk. There's risk to our crews and the helicopters and on the boats, and there's risk because those assets are not available to respond to other mariners that might actually be in distress,” Sweigart said.

Once finding the boat the search and rescue team will pull the vessel out of the water if possible, start the search, and effort to contact the owner.

On average, they search two hours per response. Plus, the Coast Guard command center and 911 center spends an additional four hours investigating each case.

It adds up to about 600 search hours per month for Washington-based Coast Guard personnel.

Most of the time we are responding to these vessels, there is no one associated. These have just drifted free,” Sweigart said.

The Coast Guard is asking people to properly secure vessels, and clearly mark them with contact information, including a name and phone number.

"Coast Guard officials encourage all paddlecraft owners to label their vessels using a permanent or waterproof marker covered with clear, waterproof tape for increased durability. You can also check with a local outdoor recreation retailer or Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla to obtain a Paddle Smart Identification Sticker. At the very least, the label should include the name of the vessel's owner, a number to reach them and a secondary point of contact," the USCG said on its website.

“If it had markings on the boat, it would cut the time we're out here doing search and rescue. If they had registration, we could contact that person and make sure they're at home and safe,” said USCG Petty Officer Mark Chua.