BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — BEVERLY — The U.S. Coast Guard and local harbormasters are handing out free orange stickers this boating season in an effort to increase safety and save taxpayers money.
The identifying stickers are meant to be affixed to kayaks, canoes, paddleboards and any other unregistered watercraft so that officials can determine whether to launch a search-and-rescue mission if a vessel is found adrift.
Officials say the Coast Guard and local harbormasters spend “hundreds of thousands of dollars” per year searching for people who, it turns out, were not missing in the first place — not to mention expending the time and manpower that could be used for a true emergency.
“There’s a tremendous amount of resources deployed when there’s someone presumed lost,” Salem Harbormaster Bill McHugh said. “That’s our job, but if it’s unnecessary and the person is sitting at home, that frees up those resources in the event there’s a situation out there that requires a search.”
The stickers are the latest effort to address a growing problem caused by the explosion in the popularity of paddle craft, said Phil Karwowski of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary’s North Shore division.
Karwowski, who lives in Beverly, called the use of paddle craft “the fastest-growing sport in America.” It’s not unusual to see dozens of kayaks and stand-up paddleboards in the waters off the North Shore on any given day, he said.
Last year, 179 unmanned vessels were found adrift in the Coast Guard district between New Jersey and Maine, he said. On one day last August, three vessels were found between Beverly and Boston.
The paddleboard or kayak might have simply broken loose from a boat or the shore. But in the absence of information, emergency responders are obligated to assume that somebody might be missing and begin a search mission.
That can be costly in both dollars and manpower. A Coast Guard rescue helicopter costs $4,000 per hour to operate, Karwowski said.
The orange stickers could prevent unnecessary searches. Vessel owners are instructed to fill out the stickers with a name and two telephone numbers for officials to contact before they start a search.
The person contacted might say the vessel simply went missing with nobody aboard, or they might say, “‘My nephew just went paddling off Misery Island,’” Karwowski said, in which case a search mission would be launched immediately.
With the identifying information, the missing vessels can also be returned to their owners.
“You’d be amazed at how many paddlecraft and unregistered skiffs and tenders are sitting in harbormasters’ storage waiting for their owners,” McHugh said.
Karwowski said local harbormasters have been handing out the stickers to people who are signing up for moorings and boat slips. The stickers are weatherproof and reflective and must be filled out using a waterproof marker.
The stickers are being issued as part of the Coast Guard’s Operation Paddle Smart, which includes an introductory safety course for kayakers and canoeists, who are particularly at risk of being hit by larger, fast-moving boats.
McHugh said his people have had to pull kayakers out of the way of large ships coming into the power plant through the harbor’s deep-water channel.
Paddlers are encouraged to wear life jackets and have a waterproof first aid kit and a signaling device. Cellphones do not suffice because they are not waterproof, McHugh said. He recommends carrying a waterproof portable marine radio.
“That sport is expanding exponentially,” he said. “We have to look at that as a trend and try to do everything we can to make sure they’re safe.”
The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary is offering a Paddlesports America course at the Jubilee Yacht Club in Beverly. Cost is $20. For more information contact Bob Amiro at 781-246-6714 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or email@example.com.