Rescue depends on a lot of different variables, all of which take time – sometimes a lot of time. If you’re exceptionally fortunate and someone just happens to stumble across you while you’re floating around out there on the water, great, but don’t count on it.
Common Sources of Delay
- Someone must realize that you need help. If you told a friend or relative to expect you back by 4 pm and you capsize and lose your boat at 2 pm, how long will it be before they contact the authorities?
- Once the alarm is sounded, a Search and Rescue (SAR) operation must be launched by the Coast Guard. Potential civilian rescuers must be contacted, and assets like boats, planes and helicopters must be dispatched. It takes time to get the birds in the air.
- Travel time for rescue helicopter / aircraft / boats to reach your location. Depending on where you are, this can take twenty minutes, a couple of hours, or even longer – particularly if conditions are bad and/or your location is remote.
- Once rescuers arrive in the general area, they have to find you. They have to actually spot you in the water. That can take hours, even if you were able to stay with your boat.
- If night falls and you have no way to signal - for example by using a rescue strobe light, you are very unlikely to be found until after sunrise the following morning.
It’s very difficult to spot a small object like a person or a kayak from the air. It can also be very difficult to spot them from a boat – particularly if conditions are poor. Keep in mind that a person wearing a PFD has only their head and upper shoulders exposed. That’s not an easy target, even when the light is favorable and the water is flat calm.
Cold water immersion is always a race against the clock. You have to survive long enough to be rescued. To do that, you need enough thermal protection to keep you alive – for however long it takes help to arrive. Even if you have a cell phone, VHF radio, or an automatic signaling device like a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), rescue is going to take time.