Chief of Response for Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound
Commander Brian Meier serves as chief of response for Sector Puget Sound. He is responsible for executing search and rescue; maritime law enforcement; marine environmental response; and ports, waterways and costal security missions. His previous operational tours were at Sector Lake Michigan, Marine Safety Office Memphis, and aboard USCGC Bramble. Meier and the Coast Guard are always ready to respond to boaters in distress, but they’d prefer if boaters didn’t need to be rescued, so Meier talked to us about boating safely.
Sea: What types of incidents are most common for the Puget Sound area?
Meier: Sector Puget Sound responds to 1,175 search-and-rescue cases per year. A lot of these cases involve lost or abandoned watercraft, but we treat these cases as distress until proven otherwise. Cases involving lost or abandoned watercraft are difficult to prosecute, and they can negatively impact the readiness of our responders. I’d ask that your readers make sure they secure their dinghies and kayaks. I also ask that they label their small boats with updated contact information.
Sector Puget Sound also responds to 729 reports of pollution per year. By number, recreational boaters spill more than any other entity. Be careful when refueling, and don’t pump oily waste overboard. If you do see a spill, report it to the National Response Center (800-424-8802).
What precautions can boaters in the Pacific Northwest take to stay safe as possible?
Be prepared. Plan ahead and adequately prepare your boat and crew (family and friends) prior to departure. Make sure you have the right safety equipment and know how to use it. Check the weather, tides and currents. File a float plan with a friend or through the state.
Get the Coast Guard Auxiliary to do a Vessel Safety Check (cgaux.org/vsc/). Don’t boat under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Alcohol and water don’t mix. Boat safe, boat sober. Don’t consume alcohol and get near the water. Marijuana and prescription drug use also impair a boater’s judgment, coordination, and balance, and boaters can be arrested and charged for BUI for failing field sobriety tests.
What are unique hazards to the Puget Sound area boaters should know about?
Cold water and strong tides/currents are the main issues. There also can be a lot of debris in the water, especially after storms. Keep a sharp lookout for debris, tree stumps, rocks, and other objects in the water. Stay out of the traffic lanes and follow Rule 10 of the Navigation Rules. Large commercial vessels can’t stop easily.
What are three common mistakes that can be easily avoided?
Not wearing a life jacket is number one. No matter what activity you’re involved in, always remember to wear a life jacket. Drowning is the leading cause of death in nearly three-quarters of boating-related fatalities, and 84 percent of those who drown were not wearing life jackets.
Not dressing for the water temperature is another. The water temperature in Puget Sound stays in the 50s. During the warm summer months, boaters don’t prepare for the cold water, and that can be a fatal mistake. Capsizing and swamping should be expected when operating a paddlecraft, so dress appropriately for flotation and warmth.
A third mistake is not knowing the weather, tides or currents. The weather can change quickly in the Pacific Northwest. Pay attention to the conditions and don’t get caught off guard.
Can you tell us about an unusual situation that the Coast Guard in Puget Sound had to manage?
In the late fall or winter months, the area can get heavy wind storms. Late last year, we had a particularly bad storm that caught a lot of people on the water off guard. We had to manage dozens of reports, including multiple cases where persons were in the water. Using Coast Guard and local assets, we managed to keep everyone safe, but it was a very busy watch.
What type of emergency situations requires the Coast Guard? What emergencies do not?
If there is a true emergency, the Coast Guard is always ready to respond. By congressional mandate, we cannot compete or interfere with commercial salvers. If a boat is not in distress, the Coast Guard will help coordinate with commercial entities or volunteers (good Samaritans) to ensure that boat gets safely to shore.
What is a hidden gem for boaters in the Puget Sound?
The entire area is beautiful. From the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the San Juan Islands to the South Sound, the Pacific Northwest has a wealth of natural beauty to enjoy and explore.