The US Coast Guard is formally investigating a hoax distress call that reported an explosion onboard the superyacht Blind Date off the coast of New Jersey on Monday.

The agency is offering a US$3,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of the caller, who is said to have cost taxpayer at least US$318,000 for the futile search.

An explosion was reported aboard Blind Date at 1620hrs local time, while she was allegedly 17nm out to sea at Sandy Hook.

The first call stated that the 21 people aboard had all abandoned ship in Blind Date’s lifeboats. The second indicated that three people were dead and that several passengers had second- and third-degree burns.

Four Coast Guard aircraft, two motorized lifeboats, and helicopters from the New York City police department, the Nassau County(New York) police department, and the New Jersey state police department also responded to the superyacht’s distress call. Two private boats provided further assistance.

After two hours of searching, the Coast Guard began doubting the story as the helicopters and search boats were unable to find any passengers in lifeboats or signs of debris. The search was called off at 2200hrs local time.

Captain Gregory P Hitchen of the Coast Guard says that the caller identified himself as the captain during both calls, which were taped as per procedure. He believes they originated from on land, in either New York or New Jersey. An audio recording of the calls is available on the US Coast Guard’s website.

As to why a hoax call may have been placed, “It’s usually done to get attention,” says Hitchens. “The callers like to watch the helicopters and boats head out in response.”

Knowingly making a false distress call is a crime in the United States, carrying a penalty of five to 10 years in prison, a US$5,000 civil fine, and a US$250,000 criminal fine.

Furthermore, the person is responsible for reimbursing the Coast Guard the costs incurred in responding to the call. Coast Guard rescue boats, for example, cost US$300 and up per hour to operate.