People who go to sea in small boats, to make their living fishing or for sport and recreation, always face the risks of an unpredictable ocean. In this age of limited budgets and expanding mission demands, one cannot always rely on the Coast Guard to be first on scene in the event of a mishap. Local harbor patrols often provide the first line of response to search and rescue situations, in addition to their more routine harbor operations. There is no substitute for this invaluable multi-purpose role.
The San Mateo County Harbor District’s Harbor Patrol is the first responder for ocean search and rescue on the San Mateo County coast. The Harbor Patrol responds to an average of 110 distress calls each year, made mostly to Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay, but also to Oyster Point Marina/Park in South San Francisco.
This team of dedicated and highly-trained deputies is on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The patrol trains and performs rescues in partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard and other public safety agencies including the county Sheriff’s Office, state parks lifeguards and fire prevention agencies on the coastside and in South San Francisco. The Harbor Patrol also gets assistance from local fishermen and surfers.
The Harbor Patrol responds to a wide range of incidents including vessels that take on water at sea and are in danger of sinking; medical emergencies such as heart attacks or serious injuries; inoperable boats due to mechanical malfunctions or lack of fuel with a risk of collision or running aground, boats breaking loose from moorings or anchorage and setting adrift, vessel groundings and missing vessels — as well as swimmers, surfers and windsurfers in distress. In addition, members of the Harbor Patrol speak in elementary school classrooms about ocean appreciation and the basics of water safety.
In 1992 and 2006 respectively, rear admirals M. E. Gilbert and J. A. Breckenridge — then commanders of the Coast Guard’s 11th District headquartered in Alameda — presented the Harbor Patrol’s Search and Rescue Team with public service commendations for “exemplary service to the boating community in the advancement of the Coast Guard’s mission: Search and Rescue, recreational and Commercial Vessel Safety and Marine Environmental Protection.” Grateful boaters regularly express their gratitude to the Harbor Patrol as well.
The Harbor District has financially supported this major service practically from the start of its operations at Pillar Point Harbor. Although the district is an enterprise agency, its search and rescue operations do not generate revenue. Some assume that the Coast Guard can, and should, take over this activity from the Harbor District, and reduce the district’s financial burden. This is not about to happen because of federal budget constraints and mission priorities. Nor should it:
The Harbor Patrol’s job scope includes search and rescue among a host of harbor operations and maintenance tasks. Harbor Patrol staff are “jacks-of-all-trades” whose skills range from repairing docks and electrical equipment and managing high-density living among live-aboard tenants in the harbors to assisting in special events and handling on-shore public safety concerns. Those latter two are not just for boaters. Recently, the Harbor Patrol responded to landside incidents involving a baby not breathing and an individual who was electrocuted while attempting an electrical repair.
The Coast Guard, if adequately funded, could certainly complement the Harbor Patrol’s search and rescue efforts to a greater extent but, it could not, nor would it, substitute for the daily round of responsibilities that comprise the Harbor Patrol’s charge.
We invite the public to join us in helping to keep our harbors safe by reporting emergency situations and suspicious activity, by assisting our Harbor Patrol when the need arises and by adding ocean appreciation to school curricula. We all play a major role in boating and harbor safety.
Peter Grenell is the general manager of the San Mateo County Harbor District. The Harbor District is an independent special district created under state law by the Board of Supervisors in 1933. The district was created to build, operate and maintain harbors in the county through its countywide jurisdiction.