SAR in international waters

Scenario: I am an on-site SAR Commander conducting rescue in international waters. Can I legally refuse participation or prevent other vessel from conducting a rescue?

Found this pretty quick. References UN and IMO regs, which is probably where I’d start.

Nope. Didn’t that get covered in your SAR Commander qualification process? In addition to Quimby’s answer, If you are a US mariner, see Title 46 2304:

(1) A master or individual in charge of a vessel shall render assistance to any individual found at sea in danger of being lost, so far as the master or individual in charge can do so without serious danger to the master’s or individual’s vessel or individuals on board.
(2) Paragraph (1) does not apply to a vessel of war or a vessel owned by the United States Government appropriated only to a public service.
(b) A master or individual violating this section shall be fined not more than $1,000, imprisoned for not more than 2 years, or both.

Why would you want to?

Are you confusing SAR and Salvage here??
To rescue people in distress is not optional. If you have the ability and possibility it is your duty to do so.

This is both a written law, as has been pointed out already, and an age old tradition among seafarers.

Salvage is a business and comes with very different rules, however. If you are first on scene and/or have signed LOF or a contract of salvage, you can definitely tell anybody else to stay away.


The OP is asking if the on-scene commander of SAR can prevent another vessel from participating or conducting a rescue.

It’s a question about authority, not responsibility.

1 Like

That makes more sense.

Is your operation a rescue or is it providng a shuttle service between Libya and Italy?

The only reason I can think of for anyone trying to prevent another vessel from “rescuing” someone is because they are trying to put a stop to human trafficking under the fiction of a “rescue” service.

1 Like

Once again. The question is about legal authority of an on-scene Commander. As a commander can I legally refuse participation in rescue of another vessel?

Why on earth would a “SAR Commander” have to ask a question like that? That is a rhetorical question because the answer is becoming obvious and is undoubtedly related to running a human trafficking scam.

Real “SAR Commanders” operate under a well defined set of rules defined by the government that commissioned them. Human traffickers more closely resemble the likes of this guy:



Give us more context. But no you can’t refuse someone else performing a rescue. If they’re in a better position to recover the endangered lives, then they’re the best to carry out that operation.

This totally depends on the situation, location and degree of risk… and it can swing either way.

A government can have laws allowing or preventing rescue in inland waters… but international waters depends on signed treaties between nations. UNCLOS is the most common example but regional treaties also may exist.

If the vessel is unsafe or endangering lives or impeding in the mission then yes… unless it is one government vessel trying to refuse another… then rules of cooperation or engagement apply.

In the case of an AMVER vessel responding in international waters then, no, the on-scene commander can’t refuse because he does not have authority over AMVER ships… he has to refer the matters to the shoreside SAR Command.

If vessel from another nation is responding to a distress in your territorial waters which you are not capable of handling yourself then - depending on a few factors - No, you can not deny him entry under Right of Assistance Entry.

If the other vessel is part of a civilian SAR organization, an auxilary unit, a local response or salvage team or similiar then you should have an agreement in place with them prior to the inicident and the rules of that agreement apply.

The Navy also has strange rules. I believe the USCG can order the Navy to stand down if the vessel needing rescue breaking the law.

The bottom line is… we need more information to answer your question.

Thank you very much for your replay.

What is the legality of this statement “vessel is known to endanger lives or is impeding the mission”.

Can in this case the on-scene commander legally prevent this vessel from participating in the rescue in international waters or refuse assistance?

We probably still need more context and I’m not a lawyer but… let’s say it’s a commercial vessel operating in a dangerous manner and you suspect the master is intoxicated, has been asked to stand down from the rescue and refuses.

If the vessel is flying the same flag as you then, yes, you may arrest them as long as your operating procedures allow you to.

If they are not flying a flag and refuses to do so then UNCLOS says you may board the vessel.

If they are flying a flag of another country you can get permission from their flag state to stop them.

Otherwise UNCLOS doesn’t give you express permission but states: Where a ship has been stopped or arrested outside the territorial sea in circumstances which do not justify the exercise of the right of hot pursuit, it shall be compensated for any loss or damage that may have been thereby sustained.

Hi John,
Thank you for your replay.

The context is: Coast Guard vessel v. civilian vessel in international waters.

  • The Coast Guard vessel is an on-scene commander
  • The civilian vessel flies flag of another country, is uncooperative & impedes rescue

United States Coast Guard?

In that case, you notify the SAR Commander ashore who has two choices:

  1. contact the state department who contacts the flag state of the dangerous vessel for permission to board. (I’m told this can happen quickly in most cases)
  2. wakes his CO and gets permission to proceed immediately.

Thank you John

  1. Contacting legal authorities of the flag state for permission to board may take a “considerable” time. We are referring here to SAR - lives of people are at stake
  2. What are the legal ramification of stopping such a disruptive vessel incl. ultima ratio boarding?

Isn’t this a chain-of-command matter? I would think that the USCG probably has well-developed doctrine on this issue and is not likely to appreciate you going off on your own.

The matter involves foreign Coast Guard (not USCG) and a third country civilian vessel. Basically a legal international advice is needed incl. corresponding legal reference to properly deal with such issues in the future.

How long a response takes entirely depends on the countries involved.

When we were getting permission to board the M/V Magellan Star, it took ~18 hours or so if my memory is correct(this was back in 2010). That was an anti-piracy op, and the lives of the crew were not in imminent danger(they had welded / barricaded themselves into the engine room which was also their safe room and taken control of the ship’s engines from there so the pirates couldn’t operate the vessel). So, different situation though lives were still at stake.

For SAR ops, we’ve always waived other vessels away but it’s more of a “We’re already pulling them out of the water already” kind of deal. The only time I’ve personally seen more was when the Shiloh lost an EM1 over the side inbound to Yokosuka. That was multi-national, and I believe the JMSDF was in control of the local waters for that.