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How Long Will It Take For Me To Be Rescued?

Rescue depends on a lot of different variables, all of which take time – sometimes a lot of time. If you’re exceptionally fortunate and some random vessel just happens to stumble across you, that's great, but don’t count on it.  -Moulton Avery

Kayaker Rescued in Deleware Bay 4 mi fro
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Rescue Location:  A very common cause of trouble is getting blown offshore by the wind.

The average time to rescue at sea following a distress call with location data is 4.5 hours.


- Mario Vittone, Maritime Safety and Rescue Expert

Common Sources of Delay

Here are some of the principle reasons why rescues take longer in the great outdoors.

  • 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 or local authorities. Potential civilian rescuers must be contacted, and assets like boats, planes and helicopters must be dispatched. It takes time to get the boats off the dock and the birds in the air.

  • If the Coast Guard isn't involved, then it's up to local authorities like the Sheriff's Department or the local volunteer rescue squad.

  • Travel time for rescue helicopter / aircraft / boats / vehicles to reach your general location. Depending on where you are, this can take twenty minutes, a couple of hours, or even longer – particularly if weather and/or sea 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.

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Low Visibility
Rescuers have to find you in order to save your life.  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.

Your chance of being spotted is greater if you stick with your boat, if you have some way of signaling, and if the color of your boat and gear stand out from the background.  If the water is cold, you should get out of the water and onto your boat as much as possible because you will cool more slowly - even if the air is much colder than the water.

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Be Realistic
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.

Most people lost at sea stay lost. It’s a harsh reality that the Coast Guard deals with every day. So when the Coast Guard suspends a search, they are never giving up early.

- Mario Vittone, Maritime Safety and Rescue Expert

Giving Up: Why The Coast Guard Quits Looking
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