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Should Kayakers Pay for a Rescue?

coast guard rescues a sea kayaker

Every now and then someone does something stupid or someone does everything right and gets into trouble, he finds himself in a situation that he can’t get out of on his own and calls mayday (see How to Call Mayday When Canoeing or Kayaking). This happens to both professional and recreational boaters and it happens to kayakers and canoeists. We rarely hear about the rescues of people from freighters or off of cruise ships, but if a kayaker or canoeist gets into trouble, there’s no doubt it will make the 6 o’clock news. That news is often followed with the pundits calling for the person that got rescued having to cover the costs, because “government is too expensive to spend money on idiots” and the U.S. Coast Guard should be doing something more important such as “keeping illegals out of our country” — it doesn’t matter if the victim did everything right.


Shit happens, people get lost, people get hurt, people get sick, little kids wander off into the woods. Then we go out and find them and rescue them. As a society, it’s our responsibility to do this, and, so what if it costs money. A society isn’t just about businesses recovering money for services. Having these services freely available for everyone regardless of their income level or ability to pay creates our freedoms to pursue our dreams. That might mean some idiots have to get rescued now and then, but it also means that we have the back of a poor but highly competent person who through no fault of his own gets into trouble and needs a rescue.


To those pundits and folks that think the victim should pay for his own rescue: bull! It’s one of the 11 U.S. Coast Guard mission to provide Search and Rescue and the 10 to 25 million canoe, kayak and SUP participants (see The Death of Sea Kayaking?) helped pay for those 11 missions with our tax dollars. When one of us gets into trouble we shouldn’t have to pay anymore than anyone else, and everyone in this country should know that we have your back.

More information about the U.S. Search and Rescue plans:

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  • I live in the Great Lakes region, so there are plenty of rescues here, and while I generally agree with you, there have been some really bone headed paddling mistakes made that it makes my blood boil. I wrote a paddling guide, The Paddler’s Guide to Michigan, The Countrymen Press, and tried to write a lot about safety and pushing your limits. The National Park Service suggests that paddlers don’t spend more than four to five hours on the water. A father/son pair ignored that on Lake Michigan and the son ended up dead.

    • There are stupid mistakes made and it’s often because incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill and by doing so get into trouble. With training they can recognize how incompetent they were. If you take the total number of people who participate in kayaking each year and compare that with the rescues, it’s a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of of a fraction of a percent.

  • Kayakers, nor boaters in general should ever have to pay for being rescued unless they are doing something inherently stupid like rowing the pacific during the height of hurricane season. Charging for rescue would be like charging for the fire department to put out a fire.

    • “Charging for rescue would be like charging for the fire department to put out a fire.” is actually a fallacious argument, because the the fire department does charge you to put out a fire. It’s an indirect cost — you pay it in fees to your city/county/whatever to maintain the fire department. Some areas charge a specific fee (or the cost of responding) if the fire was due to some act – arson/neglect/false alarm.

      That said – I’d be okay with some VAT added on to new boat purchases or something, just like happens with firearms/fishing/etc. equipment purchases to support state wildlife departments. as long as other boaters/watercraft users have to pay too.

      One other thing — remember, most of us get away without paying registration fees for having our kayaks/canoes, unlike motor and sail powered craft.

      • The cost of the U.S. Coast Guard is also “indirect” in that we pay for all of their missions via federal taxes. I pay, you pay, we all pay, etc…

        I’m not sure what state that you live in, but I live in the state with the most boats per capita and one of the top 5 states with the most boats. I pay for a license for every canoe and kayak that I own, and that’s over 25. For each boat, it costs around $25. This is paid to the state, as all licenses are, and not to the Feds. It’s federal tax dollars that pay for the U.S. Coast Guard to rescue people and not moneys collected via state boat licensing fees.

  • This debate is a hardy perennial, and makes no sense whatsoever. Any SAR unit has to keep sharp – that’s why they do periodic training exercises – and doing rescues costs no more than doing the training scenarios. We maintain certain public safety services for the benefit of all – if this “make ’em pay” philosophy is to be be followed for marine rescues, than it must logically be applied to auto accidents, house fires, and on and on. At that point, we no longer have any public services, do we?

  • I think the French system, for once, is not too bad and is a good compromise between your view and “the person that got rescued having to cover the costs”.

    In France, rescuers can’t ask any kind of money for rescuing people, but they do for the ship or any goods recovered. If they don’t pay (they usually do), rescuers can keep the stuff, it helps covering costs and it’s a good incentive for increasing the sense of responsability of sea users.

  • Id hate to think how many people would perish because people hesitated to call for help, knowing that they couldn’t afford the rescue.

  • Here in South Africa, rescues are usually done by the National Sea Rescue Institute, which is an all-volunteer, all-fund-raiser supported organisation.

    They do not charge, nor do they ever criticise people who get into trouble. This is the way it should be IMO.

    However, after one particular rescue that involved a number of NSRI boats and three helicopters (the paddler survived after spending 6hours in 17C water), the surfski community contact database was handed over to the NSRI fundraisers and since then we’ve raised R2.8million for the NSRI.

    So for us, the system works.

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