This chapter provides guidance relating to the general authority to perform search and rescue missions. Search and Rescue (SAR) includes the search for, and provision of aid to, persons who are, or are feared to be, in need of assistance. The chapter provides articles relating to vessel reporting requirements, penalties for communicating a false distress message, the duty of the master to assist persons in distress at sea, and the duty of the master of a ship involved in a collision to render assistance to the other ship, its crew, and passengers.


The Coast Guard is authorized to perform SAR operations on, over, and under the high seas and on the navigable waters of the United States. Its areas of responsibility include large parts of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans.

The objective of the Coast Guard SAR program is to minimize loss of life, injury, and property damage. The resources devoted to SAR operations must be organized and coordinated to ensure such operations are effective and expeditious.

The Coast Guard operates the Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue System (AMVER) to promote self-help by mariners. The Coast Guard also uses its facilities to pass medical information to distressed seamen and to provide emergency medical services and maintains facilities to monitor marine distress radio frequencies, including aircraft and marine distress frequencies. It also maintains and operates the Computer Assisted Search Planning (CASP) system to aid in search planning.

The Coast Guard uses the International Maritime Organization Search and Rescue Manual as guidance for its search and rescue organization and procedures.


All ship and aircraft commanders have an obligation to assist those in danger of being lost at sea. This long recognized duty of mariners permits assistance entry into the territorial sea by vessels, and, under certain circumstances, aircraft, without permission of the coastal state to engage in bona fide efforts to render emergency assistance to those in danger or distress at sea. This right is independent of the right of innocent passage, transit passage, and archipelagic sea lanes passage and is recognized in Article 18.2 of the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. These efforts to render assistance must be undertaken in good faith and not as a subterfuge. This right applies only when the danger or distress is reasonably well known. It does not extend to entering the territorial sea to conduct a search.

While recognizing that the right of assistance entry is not dependent upon seeking or receiving the permission of the coastal state, it is the policy of the United States to give notice to a coastal state before entering its territorial sea to assist those in danger, both as a matter of international comity and to alert the rescue forces of that state.

Several international conventions address SAR and the obligations of a state and of the master of a vessel. States which are parties to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974 (SOLAS), the 1982 LOS Convention, or the Convention on the High Seas, 1958, are required to set up SAR organizations. For example,

(A) Regulation 15, Chapter V, of SOLAS reads:

"Each contracting government undertakes to ensure that any necessary arrangements are made for coast watching and for the rescue of persons in distress at sea round its coasts. These arrangements should include the establishment, operation, and maintenance of such maritime safety facilities as are deemed practicable and necessary having regard to the density of the seagoing traffic and the navigational dangers and should, so far as possible, afford adequate means of locating and rescuing such persons."

(B) Article 12(2) of the Convention on the High Seas, 1958, reads:

"Every coastal state shall promote the establishment and maintenance of an adequate and effective search and rescue service regarding safety on and over the sea and - where circumstances so require - by way of mutual regional arrangements cooperate with neighboring states for this purpose."

Both the 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas and the 1982 LOS Convention provide that every state shall require the master of a vessel flying its flag, insofar as can be done without serious danger to the ship, crew, or passengers, to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost and to proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress if informed of their need for assistance, insofar as it can reasonably be expected.

In addition, SOLAS requires the master of every merchant ship and private vessel to assist persons in distress and to broadcast warning messages with respect to dangerous conditions or hazards encountered at sea.

Some additional international conventions with significant SAR provisions include:

International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, 1979

Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules of Law with respect to Assistance and Salvage at Sea, 1910

International Convention on Salvage (Salvage), 1989


The following subsection contains draft legislative language.

Search and Rescue

Article 9.1 Definitions.

For purposes of this chapter the following definition applies:

Search and Rescue (SAR). "Search and rescue" means the use of available resources to assist persons and property in potential or actual distress.

Article 9.2 Applicability.

This chapter applies to persons, [State] vessels, and all other vessels while they are in [State] waters. Vessels engaged in innocent passage may be subject to the provisions of this chapter.

Article 9.3 Directives.

(A) Consistent with the Minister's general authority to issue directives, the Minister may issue directives establishing reporting requirements and procedures for vessels and persons that may be in distress; and otherwise issue the necessary directives to carry out this mission.

(B) The Commandant [in conjunction with the Minister of Telecommunications] shall establish coastal radio stations for emergency and safety radio communications with mariners. The Commandant shall ensure that the location of coastal radio stations, the frequency of operation, call sign, and other relevant matters are made a matter of public record.

(C) When the measures taken by a salvor, the master, or the owner of a vessel which is involved in a maritime casualty in [State] waters do not sufficiently eliminate the dangers and hindrances to navigation, the Commandant may direct the master, the owner, and the persons rendering assistance to:

(1) move the vessel and its cargo to a particular place or area;

(2) render specified assistance to the vessel or its cargo;

(3) mark the vessel in the manner specified by the Commandant; and,

(4) ground, sink, remove, or destroy the


Article 9.4 Enforcement.

(A) Subject to the rights and limitations in Chapter 3, an officer with general law enforcement authority may at any time hail, stop, and board any vessel subject to [State] jurisdiction and take all necessary action to enforce the provisions of [State] law, this chapter, and any directives issued under the authority of this chapter and execute any legal process issued by an officer or court of competent jurisdiction.

(B) In addition to enforcing the provisions of this chapter and other related [State] law and directives, the Maritime Force shall prepare the necessary documentation to support a violation or violations of this chapter, [State] law, or directive. The Maritime Force is authorized to assess a penalty for a violation of this chapter or directive issued pursuant to this chapter.

(C) In order to render aid to distressed persons, vessels, and aircraft on and under the high seas and on and under the waters over which [State] has jurisdiction, the Maritime Force may:

(1) perform any and all acts necessary to render assistance to persons, ships or aircraft in danger or distress, including entry into the territorial sea of a foreign state for this purpose, and to protect and save property;

(2) take charge of and protect all property saved from maritime or aircraft disasters, or floods, at which the Maritime Force is present, until such property is claimed by persons legally authorized to receive it or until otherwise disposed of in accordance with law;

(3) furnish clothing, food, lodging, medicines, and other necessary supplies and services to persons assisted by the Maritime Force; and,

(4) destroy or tow into port sunken or floating dangers to navigation.

Article 9.5 Duties and Prohibitions.

(A) Vessels and persons subject to enforcement authority under this chapter shall be required to comply with the provisions in this chapter and directives issued pursuant to this chapter and to comply with orders issued by officers with general law enforcement authority or other authorized officials.

(B) A master or individual in charge of a vessel involved in a marine casualty shall render necessary assistance to save persons from danger caused by the marine casualty, so far as the master or individual in charge can do so without serious danger to the master’s or individual’s vessel, or to individuals on board.

(C) An owner, charterer, managing operator, or agent of a vessel of [State], having reason to believe (because of lack of communication with or nonappearance of a vessel or any other incident) that the vessel may have been lost or imperiled, shall immediately:

(1) notify the Maritime Force; and,

(2) use all available means to determine the status of the vessel.

(D) A person notifying the Maritime Force under Article 9.5(C) shall provide the name and identification number of the vessel, the names of individuals on board, and other information specified in directives issued by the Minister.

(E) A master or individual in charge of a vessel shall render assistance to any individual found at sea in danger of being lost, so far as the master or individual in charge can do so without serious danger to the master’s or individual’s vessel, or to individuals on board.

(F) An individual shall not knowingly and willfully communicate a false distress message to the Maritime Force or cause the Maritime Force to attempt to save lives and property with the knowledge that no help is needed.

Article 9.6 Penalties.

(A) Any person who violates any provisions of this chapter shall be liable to [State] for a civil penalty of up to [appropriate sanction]. Each day of continuing violation is a separate violation. In determining whether to impose a penalty for failing to comply with statutory requirements and directives, the hearing officer shall be guided by the provisions promulgated by the Minister.

(B) An individual who knowingly and willfully communicates a false distress message to the Maritime Force or causes the Maritime Force to attempt to save lives and property with the knowledge that no help is needed is:

(1) guilty of criminal offense category and may be imprisoned up to [appropriate sanction];

(2) subject to a civil penalty of [appropriate sanction]; and,

(3) liable for all costs that the Maritime Force incurs as a result of the individual’s action.



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