The number of disabled boats on the Potomac River receiving assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard has dropped by nearly two-thirds this summer since the Coast Guard began rescuing only disabled boats in life-threatening or emergency situations.

According to Chief Petty Officer L.A. Nations, officer-in-charge of the Capstan, the Coast Guard's 65-foot search-and-rescue cutter for the Potomac, the Coast Guard had 263 cases of boats needing assistance last summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. About 80 percent of them were not emergencies.

From Memorial Day through July this year, "we've only had 62 cases of disabled boats. About 75 percent have been nonemergencies," Nations said.

Nations said that as more private boat owners learn of the Coast Guard policy, they are taking better care of their boats and are more willing to help out stranded boaters.

"When the Coast Guard was towing in nonemergency situations, we had numerous lawsuits because people were holding {the Coast Guard} liable for any damage done to the boat while it was being towed," Nations said. "I'm sure the number of lawsuits had dropped off under this new policy."

The Capstan's 10-member crew is responsible for search and rescue on the 50-mile stretch of the Potomac River from Washington to the Gov. Harry Nice Memorial Bridge {Route 301}, just north of Colonial Beach, Va. Many of the rescues are done in the Coast Guard's 23-foot outboard boat.

"I see in this area most boaters will lend assistance to each other," said Steve LeBel, manager of the Washington Sailing Marina just south of National Airport. "I have a small rescue boat, and I rescue about eight to 10 boats a weekend."

The Coast Guard has stopped nonemergency towing to save money and personnel hours.

Nations said the Coast Guard monitors disabled boats through radio contact, making sure an emergency does not arise.

"There are times when we have to rescue nonemergency cases when no one else is available to tow them," Nations said. The Coast Guard tows disabled boats to the nearest safe mooring.

Nearly half of the 62 disabled boats on the Potomac during June and July were assisted by private boaters who are members of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.

Nearly 98 percent of the boats that become disabled on the Potomac run out of gas or have engine trouble, Nations said.

"I've seen more people on this river run out of gas than I have seen in my whole {27-year} career in other places. I don't understand it," he said.

An emergency situation on a stranded boat is one in which life is in danger, or when there is poor weather, a medical emergency or elderly people or young children on board, Nations said. Several other factors could cause an emergency situation, he added.

"Area boating businesses have had a 5 to 15 percent increase in business each year for several years," Nations said.

Reckless boating near the Occoquan Bay also has increased during the last few years, Nations said. "The real hot spot in this river right now as far as accidents is Occoquan, because it gets a lot of boat traffic," he said.

He added that boaters also are heavily using the Gunston Bay.

"Reckless boating is becoming very bad on the weekends in the Occoquan area because it's busy . . . . There's a lot of negligent boating going on there, including boat collisions, because there's a lot of boats there," Nations said.

The Coast Guard says this has been a particularly bad summer for boats capsizing, mainly because of often-violent weekend thunderstorms that arise with little warning.

The Coast Guard rescued people from eight capsized boats on the Potomac in June and July. In July, a boat capsized with seven people on it, and all were rescued, Nations said.