A recent surge in incidents involving “found” small craft — some of which sparked search-and-rescue operations — underscores the need for boat owners do to a very simple yet often overlooked task: Mark your boat and gear with your name and contact information.

The advice from Lt. Nick Barrow of the U.S. Coast Guard comes after the discovery of a life jacket and a small, unmarked craft near Wood Island off Biddeford. A few weeks earlier, a sailing dinghy was found on a shore in Eggemoggin Reach with the sail partially raised.

“Reports of a craft adrift with no one on board average 100 per year, about one-seventh of the search-and-rescue cases we run annually,” said Barrow, whose region covers the Maine and New Hampshire coasts and the waters of Lake Champlain.

An average two-hour investigation could involve considerable activity at the Coast Guard’s command center in South Portland, along with the launching of both aircraft and watercraft, even when no other signs of distress, such as a mayday call, are present.

While the scope and cost of search efforts can vary, the one off Wood Island involved a Coast Guard Falcon jet, a helicopter, a boat and command center personnel, along with a Maine Marine patrol boat and local law enforcement. Preliminary estimates put the cost as high as $25,000.

“A lot of these cases entail a great deal of uncertainly, and we do the best we can to make a good faith effort,” Barrow said. “Some simple steps can save unneeded searches, and we can make sure that no one is in distress.”

Contact information on a boat and its equipment can help in a couple ways.

“It gives us a lead to go on,” Barrow said. “If we can get hold of owner or family member and know whether they’re safe on shore or are out and have not been heard from, it can make a big difference.”

A second, more obvious benefit of labeling a boat and gear is that the rightful owner has a better chance of getting it back if it is found.

Along with name, address and phone number, Barrow suggests adding the name and registration information for the mother ship in the case of dinghies, life jackets, life rings and other equipment that have a connection to a larger boat.

Finding a small craft adrift is a big concern considering that eight out of every 10 people who died while boating in 2010 were operating craft less than 21 feet in length. Barrow says small boat operators should keep a few things in mind.

n First and foremost, the water is cold.

“Particularly in early summer, the air might be 75 or 80, but the water temperature is under 60,” he said. “If you’re not dressed to be submerged but instead only for the air temperature, survivability can be lessened considerably. Coastal water can be very unforgiving and very cold year round.”

Tell someone where you are going and when you’ll be back.

Wear a life jacket.

Carry a marine radio. While the Coast Guard often encounters boaters with cell phones and even uses them when there is good coverage, they are not always enough.

“Further Down East, phone coverage is sporadic at best,” Barrow said. “The foundation of search and rescue is the marine radio.”

Finally, Barrow says, pay attention to the conditions because the weather can change quickly.

“If the wind kicks up or a thunderstorm comes through, things can get dangerous very quickly for a relatively inexperienced paddler in a kayak,” he said. “Or the fog can roll in.”

Barrow noted that is exactly what happened to a group of paddlers in a canoe off Stonington recently. The operator was experienced and knew the area but became disoriented in a sudden onslaught of dense fog.

“They had a cold, hungry night on an island,” he said. “But had any of them gone into the water, it’s not likely we would have expected to find someone alive on the surface the next morning.”

Barrow adds that GPS can be a helpful tool if a boater knows how to use it and the settings are correct. With many islands having the same name and buoy numbers repeated up and down the coast, a GPS device can help nail down the location of a boat in distress.

Having respect for your surroundings remains paramount, according to Barrow.

“Minutes count in cold water.,” he said.

Gail Rice is a freelance writer in Maine. She can be contacted at:

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