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Marine Manager, AXA XL

In 1656, the Dutch East India Company ship, Vergulde Draeck (aka Gilt Dragon), carrying trade goods and eight chests of silver worth 78,6000 guilders, wrecked just south of what is now Perth, Australia.  Of the 193 crewmembers, 75 made it to shore after the wreck. To find survivors and the wreck, boats were dispatched, although it took 40 days for the first to reach the site of the wreck only to find nothing.  Many maritime historians consider the search for Vergulde Draeck as one of the very first coordinated, albeit unsuccessful, maritime search and rescue mission. 

To aid people or vessels that are in distress or imminent danger, search and rescue takes a variety of forms, among them mountain rescue; ground search and rescue, and air-sea rescue (ASR) over water, such as the attempts currently underway to find Malaysia flight 370.  ASR can involve many different resources – seaplanes, helicopters, submarines, rescue boats and ships – plus specialized equipment such as acoustic sonobuoys that are being used in the flight 370 search. 

There was a big span of time between the search for the Vergulde Draeck and today’s coordinated Search and Rescue (SAR) mission.  Most nations did not build up their SAR capabilities until after World War I, with one of the first being, the UK’s Royal Air Force forming its first air sea rescue service in 1918.  Prince William served out his military career as a RAF search and rescue helicopter pilot.

The US Coast Guard, which is actually eight years older than the US Navy, has long “worn many hats” including search and rescue.   During World War II, the Coast Guard was charged with developing the helicopter for anti-submarine warfare. After the war, the emphasis of helicopter development was changed from anti-submarine warfare to search and rescue.  By both air and sea, the Coast Guard responded to 19,790 Search and Rescue cases and saved 3,560 lives and more than $77 million in property in 2012.

And, the New York Police Department has also operated its air-sea rescue program since 1986, which was called to the rescue in January 2009, when US Airways Flight 1549 crash landed in the Hudson River.

Thrilling Adventures

While the first search and rescue operations grew around military needs, a great number of search and rescue mission current focus on saving private citizens in distress.  And many make headlines. 

Recently, it took three federal agencies, a fixed-wing aircraft, a US navy warship and scores of personnel to rescue an ill baby girl and her family from their broken down sailboat 900 miles off the Mexican coast. The family had set sail on a journey around the world.    As the US Navy, Coast Guard and California Air National Guard do not charge for search-and-rescue missions, the couple will not have to repay any of the agencies for their dramatic rescue.  While that is not customary for most government agencies to charge for a rescue, it’s a rescue situation that’s drawn ire from many. 

And it is not the first time that costly rescues of individual seeking adventures at sea or on land have drawn criticism about the cost to rescue adventurers.  Nevada spent more than $1.6 million looking for millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett whose one-man plane crashed in 2007.  The state asked Fossett's family to help pay for rescue expenses. A friend of Fossett’s, hotelier Baron Hilton, also contributed $200,000.  

There are a growing number of local governments, feeling budget constraints that are asking people they have to save to pitch in. Eight states - California, Oregon, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Idaho - now allow local authorities to recoup money spent on rescue efforts.

Charging for rescue is not something that search-and-rescue groups advocate.  In fact, they believe charging for rescue actually puts victims and their rescuers’ lives at greater risk because the potential costs may cause an individual lost or in distress to pause and not call for help immediately.  In turn, a lengthy hesitation can actually increase the cost and man hours required for a search and rescue in the long run.  Others feel that if there was a cost attached, many individuals would think twice before embarking on a risky trek to the mountains or seafaring journey around the world. 

Maritime Tradition

While the Coast Guard or other government agencies may be called on for search and rescue missions, the sea has its own set of rules.  Centuries of maritime tradition and international law require the US government and US-flagged ships to help vessels in distress - no matter who is at fault or the cost.

In 1979, the International Maritime Organization adopted the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) which aimed at developing an international SAR plan, so that -- no matter where an accident occurs -- the rescue of persons in distress at sea will be coordinated by a SAR organization and, when necessary, by co-operation between neighboring SAR organizations.  Although the obligation of ships to go to the assistance of vessels in distress is a maritime tradition, there was no international system covering search and rescue operations until this convention was adopted.

And vessels do adhere to this maritime obligation.  For instance, a Canadian yacht recently overturned in the South Pacific Ocean.  The yachtsman was rescued in a joint effort by a Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion and freighter ship Fidelio. The man's yacht L'Antillaise was hit by a storm, causing it to roll over and start leaking.  The Orion was sent to the scene northeast of Auckland, New Zealand and the Fidelio, which was carrying a shipment of cars, was diverted to the scene. Orion aircraft spotted the yacht and the yachtsman was then able to climb aboard the Fidelio.

SAR Protection

No one sets out to get into trouble.  When they do encounter trouble, however, they want to address it without hesitancy.  One way to address any uncertainty is through today’s marine insurance policies.  Only a handful of carriers, XL Group being one of them, offer yacht coverage that provides global coverage and protection for often-overlooked search and rescue expenses.

While the US Coast Guard and many other governments do not charge for at sea search and rescue missions, as previously mentioned, budget-constrained local authorities are seeing greater need to charge for their services in emergency circumstances.  As there is more public outcry about the expense of such missions to rescue individuals who have chosen to put themselves in risky situation, there may be greater possibilities of a yacht and its crew seeing invoices from local governments in many parts of the globe.  

Yacht coverage available today typically offers up to $50,000 for expenses related to a search and rescue.   Search and rescue costs can be incurred in a variety of other ways:

  • Medical Assistance:  Coverage is available to address to address medical issues following a rescue.  If a passenger, for instance, has to be airlifted to a preferred medical facility, XL Group’s ShipShape and its more robust ShipShape Plus insurance policy provides for the cost of an medical airlift.  And as an injured person should not have to travel alone, the policy also covers the fees associated with having a companion or medical professional, such as a doctor or nurse, accompany the patient on the airlift flight. 
  • Damage Sustained in Rescue: XL Group’s recreational marine policies address the damage to its insured yacht.  If an XL-insured yacht finds itself distressed or in imminent danger and another vessel comes to its assistance and incurs damage in the rescue effort, the policy also addresses the costs of the damage to the vessel that came to the rescue. In fact, XL Group’s policy provides deductible waivers to insured yachts who respond to another boat in distress. 
  • Travel Expenses:  If passengers of a disabled yacht are rescued at sea by a freighter, they will be the freighter’s passengers until the ship gets to its intended port.  The rescue ship does not deliver its rescued passengers to their intended destination.  All travel costs to get home are incurred by the individuals.  To alleviate these expense concerns for its insured yachts, XL Group covers travel expenses should a yachtsman’s journey be diverted to another destination because of a rescue.   

A life is a life.  There is no price tag that can be attached to it.  And a network of well-trained and qualified SAR organizations, along with a longstanding maritime tradition still going strong at sea, save lives without putting cost as a priority.  Responsible mariners also have the option to address cost uncertainty with recreational marine insurance – to address other search and rescue expenses.  Certainly, no one sets out to get in trouble but many can set out to be better prepared to overcome trouble that befalls them.      

About the Authors…

Rick Salway leads XL Group’s Global Yacht Practice and US Commercial Recreational Marine underwriting practice.   Sue Cacoilo is a marine underwriting manager for XL Group’s recreational marine business.  Collectively, they have more than five decades of marine underwriting experience and helped launch XL Group’s recreational marine business in 2012. 



__________________________________________The information contained herein is intended for informational purposes only. Insurance coverage in any particular case will depend upon the type of policy in effect, the terms, conditions and exclusions in any such policy, and the facts of each unique situation. No representation is made that any specific insurance coverage would apply in the circumstances outlined herein. Please refer to the individual policy forms for specific coverage details.

XL Group is the global brand used by XL Group Ltd’s insurance subsidiaries. In the US, the insurance companies of XL Group  Ltd  are: Greenwich Insurance Company, Indian Harbor Insurance Company, XL Insurance America, Inc., XL Insurance Company of New York, Inc., and XL Specialty Insurance Company. Not all of the insurers do business in all jurisdictions nor is coverage available in all jurisdictions.


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Global Asset Protection Services, LLC, and its affiliates (“AXA XL Risk Consulting”) provides risk assessment reports and other loss prevention services, as requested. This document shall not be construed as indicating the existence or availability under any policy of coverage for any particular type of loss or damage. AXA XL Risk. We specifically disclaim any warranty or representation that compliance with any advice or recommendation in any publication will make a facility or operation safe or healthful, or put it in compliance with any standard, code, law, rule or regulation. Save where expressly agreed in writing, AXA XL Risk Consulting and its related and affiliated companies disclaim all liability for loss or damage suffered by any party arising out of or in connection with this publication, including indirect or consequential loss or damage, howsoever arising. Any party who chooses to rely in any way on the contents of this document does so at their own risk.

US- and Canada-Issued Insurance Policies

In the US, the AXA XL insurance companies are: AXA Insurance Company, Catlin Insurance Company, Inc., Greenwich Insurance Company, Indian Harbor Insurance Company, XL Insurance America, Inc., XL Specialty Insurance Company and T.H.E. Insurance Company. In Canada, coverages are underwritten by XL Specialty Insurance Company - Canadian Branch and AXA Insurance Company - Canadian branch. Coverages may also be underwritten by Lloyd’s Syndicate #2003. Coverages underwritten by Lloyd’s Syndicate #2003 are placed on behalf of the member of Syndicate #2003 by Catlin Canada Inc. Lloyd’s ratings are independent of AXA XL.
US domiciled insurance policies can be written by the following AXA XL surplus lines insurers: XL Catlin Insurance Company UK Limited, Syndicates managed by Catlin Underwriting Agencies Limited and Indian Harbor Insurance Company. Enquires from US residents should be directed to a local insurance agent or broker permitted to write business in the relevant state.