“Good Samaritans”

Rules and risks for helping another boater

Published in the September 2018 Issue October 2020 Feature

Ever find yourself needing onwater assistance due to a mechanical breakdown, running aground, taking on water from striking a submerged object or floating debris, having a mishap with another vessel, or have a medical emergency, and the authorities are not near, but another mariner nearby answers your mayday? Or perhaps observes your predicament? So there is the possibility of aid being rendered, but will, or should, that person volunteer to do so perhaps at his or her peril? What if you were that pleasure craft operator?

Law Of The Sea

A vessel’s master was considered obligated to provide assistance to any person in danger at sea, or in danger of being lost at sea, with possible penalties for a failure to do so. Known to sea captains as basically the “Law of the Sea,” it set a model of moral behavior by mariners. This centuries-old maritime tradition remains very much alive though today is supported by admiralty and other legal authority requiring assistance be rendered but only if such can be done without serious damage to each of the vessels or individuals aboard. In other words, safely done.

‘Good Samaritans’ are those boaters arriving on the scene when a skipper has a problem and are defined as those who render voluntary aid, without compensation, to a person or vessel in distress.

The Federal Boating Safety Act says: “Any person…who gratuitously and in good faith renders assistance at the scene of a vessel collision, accident or other casualty without objection of any person assisted, shall not be held liable for any act or omission in providing or arranging salvage, towage, medical treatment, or other assistance where the assisting person(s) acts as an ordinary, reasonable prudent person would have acted under the same or similar circumstances.

The second rule after reading the foregoing could be said to do no harm. Numerous similar state laws applying to recreational boaters contain a ‘standard of care’—reasonable care and avoiding conduct that worsens the situation.

Coast Guard Comments

Joe Carro of the Boating Safety Office at CG Headquarters (previously with 25 years of active duty) told me that technically for a pleasure boater to be required to render aid it is necessary to have found the distressed boater at sea and in danger of being lost, so most boaters would not be legally obligated to attempt assistance. He advises to call an alert with the disabled boat's position, it’s the responsibility of the captain or guest to operate the boat if in U.S. territorial seas. (When in state lakes and rivers this is good advice too.)


What about, for example, rigging a tow rope ‘if safely able’ to a disabled craft? Virtually every boating educator emphasizes that special care is required for towing since towlines can get tangled around prop shafts, another boat could hit the line if at night, plus there can often be other conditions of reduced visibility, or areas shared with heavy boat traffic. One helpful boater stopped to tow a boat that had developed engine problems on a busy bay about a half mile back to shore in a light chop. Other vessels were speeding by, a few in very close proximity barely slowing down. This ended well, although there were anxious moments by both boat owners about safety during the endeavor, and later damage liability conversations if something had gone wrong. In most cases as a general rule it’s best just to be left to the towing services.

Boat Insurance

Many owners today are understandably concerned with liability, or possibly litigation and insurance issues should the aiding and/or aided vessel sustain damage (or persons aboard injured). If the Good Samaritan is found to be at fault for damages, any insurance premium could be affected when renewing or upon changing carriers depending on the extent of damage and previous claims history. Check with your insurer and discuss this important policy aspect. (If the assisting craft sustains damage and the operator's insurer pays, that policyholder may also be charged a “loss surcharge” at renewal time according to one major marine underwriter.

Conclusionary Notes

One longtime marine technical expert and lifelong boater echoes the thought of many: “The golden law has always been one about assisting one another.” It is true that generally boaters are afforded some measure of protection to encourage helping, but there has always been a caveat that actions be reasonable and prudent. Sometimes courts must decide. As one judge remarked in an oft quoted case, “A rescue attempt must be considered in the light of the circumstance that faced the rescuers when they acted and not with the wisdom of an ‘armchair admiral’ after the fact.”

A case comes to mind where liability attached. A new and inexperienced operator encountered a grounded slightly smaller craft and offered a pull to which both agreed. In this instance it was unsuccessful with significant damage to both boats. (Think hull integrity and running engines in shallow water.) The Good Samaritan here was judged not capable of rendering prudent aid in a later court case and assessed damages. The captain here may still be fighting his insurer who had denied his claim for coverage!

We feel we’re in ‘communications central’ with all our hailing devices enabling us to quickly summon the marine authorities when needed, and to a large extent this is correct. Take a recent case reported by the 7th Coast Guard District Miami Command Center of it receiving a PLB distress alert from a pleasure boat in danger of sinking. A recreational boat in the vicinity was vectored in to the location and was able to take six people aboard safely until the CG arrived. The CG duty officer later said, “With the marine environment covering such large areas, it's crucial that all mariners look out for one another and this case embodies that willingness to help each other within the maritime community.”

In another case, marine authorities rescued some adults and kids and were able to re-right a capsized boat. Do not try this yourself, they recommended.

But we also know there are times out on the waterways when a fellow mariner needs help fairly quickly. If you do take on the task, act reasonably and don’t put your vessel or yourself or guests at risk especially if a newer owner. In any instance proceed with great caution.


Joan Wenner, J.D. is a longtime boating safety writer with a law degree. She has contributed previously to PDB magazine and other Harris Publishing publications


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