In early 2019, my fellow crew members and I, on board a Coast Guard 45-foot response boat from Station Charleston, South Carolina, responded to a distress call from a sailboat that had grounded on a shoal near the mouth of the Stono River. When we arrived on scene, we were detailed to stand by while a Coast Guard helicopter plucked the family off the boat and flew them to safety. While we watched the evolution, we discussed what we would have done had the helicopter not been available. Because the draft of our response boat was too deep to get close, and because we did not have a smaller boat on board, the best option would have been for one of us to swim to rescue the family off the sailboat, one at a time.
The sailboat had been pushed so far across the shoal that none of the station boat assets would have been able to perform a direct pickup. Swimming in breaking water over a shoal can be tricky business for a strong, experienced swimmer, and the dangers would be amplified by the fourth trip because of fatigue. Trying to think of another way, we wished our boat was outfitted with a small skiff or dinghy, capable of entering very shallow water. This would have allowed us to take the entire family off in one trip. In a situation in which there are more people needing rescue, the helicopter may not have been able to take all of them in one go. A 45’ response boat–medium (RBM) can carry up to 25 people, far more than any Coast Guard helicopter. This realization prompted us to think about how we could make response boats more capable by outfitting them with a smaller skiff that can be used for in-shore rescue.
The primary response assets for U.S. Coast Guard small boat stations in bad weather are 47-foot motor lifeboats (MLBs) and 45-foot RBMs. These assets are designed for offshore rescues in conjunction with larger vessels. Increased safety measures for large commercial vessels, fishing vessels, and charters have reduced the frequency of large-scale shipwrecks in the United States significantly, although April 2021 capsize of a commercial vessel off the coast of Louisiana has shown that they are still a danger and the Coast Guard needs a capability to respond to them. Driven by the rise in recreational boating, however, the more common emergencies now are people in distress on small powerboats, sailboats, and paddle craft. In many regions this has led to a rise in a need for rescues from small remote islands and remote sections of shoreline. Many of these emergency situations are infeasible from land and in areas that lack helicopter rescue assets. RBMs and MLBs may be able to get through bad weather to the section of beach or island but would be unable to effect a rescue because of their draft limitations. In these cases, small rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIBs) could be deployed from larger boats to rescue people.
The National Marine Manufacturers Association has seen consistent sales growth since 2018: 2 to 4 percent growth in freshwater boats and 9 to 11 percent in wake boats. This growth has been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic that prompted more people to seek outdoor recreation opportunities they had not before considered. More Americans on the water led to a 25 percent increase in Coast Guard search-and-rescue (SAR) cases on Lake Ontario in 2020, for example. And another 25 percent increase is expected this year.
While some people are experienced boaters, many are new to boating and have not taken formal classes on maintenance, navigation, or safety. A 2017 Coast Guard report on boating statistics found 81 percent of boating accident mortalities involved operators had not received boat safety training. The most challenging areas for navigation are closest to shore. The Thousand Islands region in the Saint Lawrence River and Lake Ontario, Puget Sound in Washington, and the coast of Maine have areas with many hidden shoals, dangerous currents, and other navigational hazards that can put inexperienced boaters in trouble quickly and easily. Areas around the Great Lakes and along the Pacific coast have high bluffs overlooking beaches that are almost inaccessible from above—the only recovery options in these areas are dangerous cliff climbing evolutions or helicopter rescue. In some areas, including the Eastern Great Lakes, helicopters are not readily available for rescue, so boat rescues may be needed.
One viable solution for emergency response in Great Lakes cases is to use a SKIF-ICE—a fully inflatable “banana boat” powered by a 3.5 horsepower engine. Designed to be used either in water with broken ice or on thin ice, a SKIF-ICE can be propelled by a motor or pulled along by an ice rescue team. It can transport survivors who have fallen through the ice to medical care. Unfortunately, SKIF-ICE boats are unwieldy in high winds and quite slow for situations that might be encountered in open waters.
Another solution can be found in use along the coasts of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Great Britain and Ireland’s shorelines have many of the same characteristics as remote parts of the United States. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) provides most of the boat SAR capabilities throughout the United Kingdom and has effective ways of accessing remote, difficult-to-reach areas. The Class D Lifeboat is a small, open boat, powered by a single outboard engine, and used for near-shore rescues and in surf conditions. It was introduced to the RNLI fleet in 1963 and has been an effective SAR tool ever since. Its ability to ride up and down large waves, instead of crashing through them, makes it effective in the hands of a good operator, even in heavy seas. In addition, the smaller In-Shore Rescue Boat could be carried on U.S. Coast Guard 45-foot RBMs or 47-foot MLBs. Even smaller than the Class D, the In-Shore Rescue Boat is designed for beach launches by a lifeguard to go after drowning swimmers or surfers.
An ideal boat designed for launch from an RBM or MLB would be focused on survivability, speed, handling, and weight. It needs to be light enough to be put in the water off the side or stern by a crew while underway in bad weather, and maneuverable enough to allow the coxswain to get through difficult situations and have the speed to get to survivors and back. The ability to power off a beach, potentially into the face of breaking waves, and back to the larger boat is key. The boat would need to be able to be flipped in the water, by the crew, in the event of a capsize, and the engine restarted so that it could continue its mission. Such a boat would require a new set of skills and training for Coast Guard crewmen. The ability to handle small boats with tiller outboard engines, swim well, and thoroughly understand the areas in which they are operating will allow Coast Guard members to perform rescues in challenging environments.
USCG Station Southwest Harbor, Maine, has already started using a 10-foot skiff (the type used by large sailing yachts to access shore from an anchorage) to perform rescues in this type of environment. In 2019, crew members used the skiff to rescue two stranded kayakers.
The Coast Guard has a long history of using small boats, in surf, to perform rescues at sea. Joshua James and the men of the U.S. Lifesaving Service pioneered this service in the 1800s. Today, unfortunately, the Coast Guard lacks such a capability on its response boats, but it is a gap that could be mitigated easily with existing boats in production and could be procured quickly. As more Americans spend more leisure time on the water, the need for Coast Guard search-and-rescue services will rise. An investment in inflatable boats, that could be deployed from response boats with qualified crew members, would mean a Coast Guard better prepared to save lives in remote, near-shore emergencies.