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Backlash On Cost Of Transpac Kayaker Rescue By Taxpayers

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  • Backlash On Cost Of Transpac Kayaker Rescue By Taxpayers

    Cost of Marin kayaker's ocean rescue? $42,000. Who pays the bill?
    Photo of Gregory Thomas SFGate

    When news broke that the U.S. Coast Guard was called to rescue ocean kayaker Cyril Derreumaux off the coast of Santa Cruz earlier this month, the questions started rolling in: How much does a helicopter rescue cost? Is that charge passed onto taxpayers? Why doesn’t the Coast Guard bill the kayaker?

    “Why should taxpayers foot the bill for his narcissistic waste of time?” one person wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

    Derreumaux, a 44-year-old paddler from Marin County, set out May 31 on what he thought would be the voyage of a lifetime, planning to stroke his small kayak 2,400 nautical miles across the Pacific to Hawaii. If successful, he could have set a world record for the fastest human-powered crossing between those points, a goal that appears to be increasingly alluring to certain hard-core water enthusiasts.

    But Derreumaux succumbed to rough seas after just six days on the water. On June 5, after discovering that his sea anchor had broken in high swells, he phoned the Coast Guard for a rescue.

    The agency promptly deployed a four-person helicopter crew from San Francisco International Airport (Air Station San Francisco) to Derreumaux’s location, 54 miles off Santa Cruz. In about two hours, rescuers scooped Derreumaux out of the chop and delivered him unharmed to SFO just after midnight on June 6.

    Many people on social media praised Derreumaux’s good judgment — better to be safe than sorry, they reasoned — but an undercurrent of criticism pierced the well-wishing.

    “So who foots the bill for the rescue?” one person commented on Derreumaux’s Facebook page. “This whole thing seems kind of dumb and perhaps a waste of taxpayer money, not to mention risking the lives of members of the USCG.”

    Derreumaux has gotten some nasty emails as well, but he says they represent only about 5% of the response. The rest have been supportive. The critics seemed to indicate that his trip was a folly that endangered the lives of first responders and would eventually result in a financial burden for the rest of us.

    “They draw the line of, if it doesn’t serve me, I don’t agree to it,” Derreumaux said.

    But that’s not how these rescues work in the United States.

    How much does an ocean rescue cost? Derreumaux’s rescue cost $42,335.97, according to the Coast Guard. That covers everything from crew hours to helicopter fuel. The money comes from the agency’s national budget for search-and-rescue, which this year is more than $1 billion.

    It may seem like a hefty price tag for one person’s short-lived misadventure, but it is nothing out of the ordinary for the agency.

    “I wouldn’t say this particular rescue negatively impacted our budget any more than any other rescue,” said Leo Zapawa, chief warrant officer and search mission coordinator for Coast Guard Sector San Francisco.

    How many search-and-rescues does the Coast Guard perform? The San Francisco sector ranges from Bodega Bay south to Monterey. The Coast Guard escorts military vessels arriving at the Port of Oakland, tracks container ships ferrying hazardous cargo into Stockton, assists foundering fishing boats at sea, leads offshore searches for swimmers caught in rip currents, and much more.

    “Anything that touches the water, we get involved with,” Zapawa said. “It’s a huge area. We are the busiest Coast Guard sector in the nation.”

    Between 1,600 and 1,700 search-and-rescue operations occur here each year, Zapawa said. “Everything from the bell-ringers where a person is in the water and there’s an imminent threat to life and limb, to distress cases where someone is running out of gas.”

    On hot summer days, the Coast Guard may respond to as many as 60 search-and-rescue calls across the region. The MH65 Dolphin helicopter dispatched to Derreumaux — the agency’s standard rescue aircraft — is sent out “practically every single day,” Zapawa said.

    Zapawa characterized Derreumaux’s rescue as a “higher-risk mission” but dismissed the idea that it posed a danger to the lives of the four Coast Guard crew members.

    “As a search-and-rescue person, you get a lot of satisfaction from that kind of job,” he said.

    Can the Coast Guard stop a person from venturing into the ocean? Preventing a recreational boater from launching into the ocean is difficult without clear evidence that the person poses an intrinsic danger to themselves or others, said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll, who operates out of Alameda.

    “If you wanted to, you could go out on an inflatable pool raft and into the middle of the bay and as long as you’re not impeding shipping traffic, you’re well within regulations,” Kroll said. “For the record, I would not advise that whatsoever.”

    Solo ocean rowers and paddlers like Derreumaux don’t qualify as threats. In fact, many of them seem more prepared than casual boaters on daytime cruises, Coast Guard officers said.

    The Coast Guard likes to be kept abreast of potentially risky undertakings like Derreumaux’s, and asks that solo adventurers submit a float plan with their itinerary and vessel information to the agency before launch. Derreumaux had done that.

    “If people are choosing to do those longer adventurous or semi-dangerous treks, please reach out to us to help you plan that trip,” Kroll said. “As much as the Coast Guard is there to rescue people, we’d rather not have to. Keeping people out of danger is our goal.”

    What happens when a boater needs a rescue far away from shore? Once a small craft travels beyond 100 miles from shore, helicopter fuel capacity becomes a limiting factor, and air rescues can become too difficult.

    “It’s kind of the point of no return,” Kroll said. “Once you get 100 miles or so offshore, there are only a handful of assets we have to help you.”

    For a small craft like Derreumaux’s, the most likely rescue scenario would involve diverting a passing freighter to his location to hoist him aboard. But ocean encounters between mammoth container ships and puny paddle boats under duress are inherently dangerous.

    It’s possible the Coast Guard would send out a long-range cutter from the West Coast or Hawaii, but it’s not necessarily the fastest option in an emergency in the middle of the ocean.

    “The Pacific Ocean is so big and wide open. The question becomes feasibility for getting out there in time,” Kroll said. “That’s why we employ a larger search-and-rescue network for cases far offshore.”

    Does the Coast Guard bill boaters for rescues? No.

    “There’s no mechanism for the Coast Guard to put the costs on a recreational boater,” Kroll said.

    Some countries — Spain, for example — charge boaters and other outdoor enthusiasts who call for wilderness rescues if those people appear to have behaved recklessly.

    The precedent is trickling into the United States despite the Coast Guard policy.

    New Hampshire has pursued claims against hikers deemed to be negligent on their outings. In recent years, California lawmakers considered establishing mechanisms to recoup rescue expenses from people who are found to have broken the law while putting themselves at risk, but there’s no legislation in the works to that effect.

    In Northern California, the Coast Guard views search-and-rescue as part of its core duty.

    “This is what we do,” Zapawa said. “We’re budgeted for it. Because of the volume of cases we do here, we’re probably the best in the world at it.”

    Gregory Thomas is The San Francisco Chronicle’s editor of lifestyle & outdoors.
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