San Francisco Bay: no rescue capability for near-shore sinking vehicle

Matthew Sessions of Mill Valley wrote the following letter to Sailing Scuttlebutt expressing similar puzzlement as we had regarding the lack of ready rescue divers. Apparently neither on-water agencies like USCG nor on-shore 911 agencies have any rescue diver rapid-deployment capability. 

I was witness to the sinking vehicle near Golden Gate Yacht Club on Friday (Scuttlebutt 3866), and to the valiant effort made by the American Youth Sailing Force in the cold SF Bay; their heroics should be commended. 

Witnesses to the accident said the vehicle was afloat for ‘a few’ minutes and still at the surface when the first police/fire arrived.  What followed in the minutes ahead was very sobering.  Dozens of civic first responders poured in with millions of dollars in resources including SFPD and SFFD boats.  Yet they did not / could not instantly respond to what was needed most – a rescue diver.

It took at least 3-5 minutes from the time the vehicle went below the surface until two rescue swimmers jumped off the seawall.  Neither swimmer had a diving mask and only one had fins for a harbor of 20-30 ft of depth and near zero visibility.  After 10-15 minutes of free diving search, the two rescue swimmers got out of the water and onto one of the numerous rescue boats.  Within two minutes of my arrival, I saw first responders with SCUBA equipment yet it was at least 35-40 minutes before the first diver was below the surface. 

As the drama unfolded just 25 yards offshore, I witnessed the situation with two prominent local sailors and we all bemoaned why emergency responders were not deploying a rescue diver faster.  I asked my friends at nearby GGYC or St Francis YC if they had a compressed air solution on the ready.  To our collective knowledge, we could not think of any yacht club that has emergency equipment to respond to this situation.

I learned Friday that our sailing community is deep with Good Samaritans but relying on 911 Emergency Services may be perilous.  In no way am I implying the SFPD, SFFD, USCG, and all other first responders failed in Friday’s tragic accident.  There are certainly many facts and protocol about the emergency response that I am not aware.  However, it’s clear we in the boating community may need to think beyond dockside fire extinguishers, swim ladders, throw rings, and basic first aid kits.

Does your yacht club have a solution to rescue someone trapped under water?

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