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The Alligator River in North Carolina empties at its north end into Albemarle Sound. As you'd expect, it does so through an area of shoals. For many years, the channel through those shoals followed a relatively straight, dredged route. A few years back, the Corps of Engineers established another route, which doglegs off to the west, following naturally occurring deeper water and thus avoiding the constantly shifting shoaling of the previous route. Old cartography, of course, doesn't show the new route. But the aids to navigation were moved and mark it.
One spring as we were doglegging in the deeper water, we saw a string of yachts, power and sail, proceeding out, obviously using an older chart. They were following one gentleman who had said he'd done this before and knew where to go. We hailed the yachts and told them the channel had changed and that they were heading for shoals, but no one changed course. We watched as, one by one, they hit a shoal.
Fortunately, all but one bumped over, but if the water level had been lower they would have remained stuck and would have been damaged if bad weather had rolled through.
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Why do some people go down to the water when they'd perhaps have more fun and be better off in the mountains - or just about anywhere else? Many attribute it to the "romance of the sea," but even the most celebrated "romanticism" doesn't work very well when it clashes with the reality that the sea dishes out.
Such, perhaps, was the case July 8, 1822. Percy Bysshe Shelley left on a trip along the western coast of Italy when a storm was bearing down and other boats were seeking safe harbor. He was just under 30 years old. His schooner-rigged "Ariel" had been built to Shelley's idealistic instructions. Although it was built to look like a warship of sorts, it was an open boat and reported to be not very seaworthy.
Shelley was said to have had little skill as a seaman, preferring to read while aboard and play the role of the romantic rather than learn about seamanship. The boat went down in the storm. Shelley and the other two aboard died. I've read that when his body washed ashore, a volume of John Keats' poetry was found in Shelley's pocket. So much for the romance of the sea - when not coupled with realism.
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A few years ago, we overheard two boats talking on the VHF. This isn't uncommon, because so many people seem to think it's OK to use improper channels.
For example, it's cool to say "go up one" from channel 16. I guess folks are too lazy to go up a few more to channels designated for ship-to-ship traffic. "Up one" happens to be 17, if my math is correct. This channel is reserved by the Federal Communications Commission for government traffic.
We'd seen one of these boats being operated carelessly earlier, nearly causing a grounding of another boat. So after listening to a lot of their idle chatter on 16, we followed when they finally shifted to another channel.
They were anchored in a nearby creek. The creek was a "roadway" to a populated island. It was used by one or more small passenger ferries and many local boats. One of the anchored boats told the other that his anchor light wasn't on. The other replied, "Well, I'm not going to turn it on. Anyone running out here tonight is just gonna die."
This reminded me of an incident from further back in the past. We were anchored in the Bahamas. Suddenly, the stillness of the night was shattered by frantic calls for help over channel 16. Someone at anchor had been hit by another boat and was sinking. We followed the traffic and talked to locals the next day. What we heard was tragic and infuriating.
A powerboat, around 45 feet, was anchored in a popular anchorage. It was well lit from interior lights and its anchor light was on. Also anchored there was a sailboat. The person on the sailboat was reported to brag that he wasn't going to spend money - we're talking about a fraction of a penny a night - on running an anchor light, particularly in an area considered to be "an anchorage." This anchorage was just off a heavily used channel between the islands.
A local resident left one of the nearby islands, heading home in his powerboat, which was about 25 feet long. Travel by water is the way most travel is accomplished in the out islands. The boat is used like a car. If you have to go home at night to another island, you do it in a boat.
The operator took the normal course, following the normal channel. The night was black, with no moon and clouds covering the stars. He didn't see the unlit sailboat anchored just to the side of - some said within - the channel until the last moment. When he did see it, he quickly swerved to pass it safely. The sudden swerve caused him to lose balance briefly. "Briefly," yes, but severe enough to send his boat crashing into the power cruiser anchored nearby.
Water started pouring into that boat through a large hole in its side. The couple on the power cruiser immediately called for help and began abandoning their boat into another one. The man from the anchored powerboat realized at the last minute that he'd left his papers aboard. He hastened back below to retrieve them and suddenly his boat went under. As long as I live I'll never forget the grief of his wife as she was being taken to a nearby village in a local's pickup truck. She was on the truck's VHF, telling a friend what had happened and explaining that, yes, her husband was with her, but had drowned and his body was stretched out in the back of the truck.
The sailboat left the scene during the night.
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And there is this story - again innocent victims of people who shouldn't be on the water. In a coastal state known for its boating, the owner of a 31-foot cruiser was trying to do things right. He took four friends out to a restaurant to have a good time. Knowing there would be drinking, he hired a professional captain to be the "designated driver."
As they left the restaurant's dock after dinner, it was dark. But the shores of the ICW were not only built up, but also well lit. The cruiser also was reported to be properly lit. The boat headed home.
Another larger boat, described as a 45-footer traveling at a high rate of speed, roared out of the night and collided with the cruiser. The impact was severe. The boat sank and all six people aboard died. The offending boat was reportedly operated by an individual who had already received one or more speeding convictions and had an excessive blood alcohol content.
On another day, in another place, things were done differently, but also with tragic results. A boat, around 22 feet and loaded with 14 people, set out to return home from a popular Sunday afternoon event at an area marina, restaurant and tiki bar.
The boat reportedly hit a shoal shortly after it left the dock, but the passengers extricated themselves from that problem and proceeded on. The trip ahead involved roughly 40 miles along the ICW, including a dredged section with many houses and docks along one side. At one of the docks lay a steel construction barge and work tug.
The pleasure boat slammed directly into the barge. The impact wasn't a glancing blow or a clip of a corner. It was a solid crash in daylight at a high rate of speed. Five people were killed and seven others hospitalized, some with serious injuries. The driver was reported to have had little or no experience operating a boat. The owner was aboard, but not steering.
* * *
There is a narrow stretch of the ICW just to the south of a large Southern city. It's narrow, has a lot of current and often has heavy boating traffic, so it's prudent, to say the least, to proceed slowly through the passage. It's especially prudent to do so when you're running at night. It's also prudent - wouldn't you think? - to have some clue that there are aids to navigation in the stretch and to know their location. All this takes is a chart or a chart plotter.
Yet not many years ago, a small boat with four people aboard sped down that stretch one night. It hit an unlit aid to navigation and one occupant was killed. Some of the local news media, displaying their customary ignorance, suggested that perhaps the Coast Guard was at fault for not having lights on all of their day markers. Of course, this isn't the case and never has been. If every marker were lit, it would be incredibly confusing when running at night. Also, lights on certain markers, and the lighting configurations, help greatly in telling the mariner where he is and what he should expect. But this, of course, assumes the mariner has a clue.
On a more recent night, on a larger river running through another region of the East Coast, a 22-foot boat loaded with 10 people, including children, left a tiki bar. It proceeded upriver on a trip of some distance. Darkness fell. It hit a lit - yes, lit - aid to navigation at what was reported as a high rate of speed. When rescuers reached the scene, the shattered boat had numerous beer cans floating in it. One person, reportedly not wearing a life jacket, had been thrown from the boat and drowned. Others had been seriously injured, some critically. The operator reportedly had been drinking.
* * *
The sea kills us all by itself. It doesn't need our help. Yet too often some of us insist on helping. We're aliens out here on the water, in a world to which we weren't naturally born, no matter how romantic the poetry or how well-phrased the novels.
I love being on the water. I've had boats for more than 57 years and have lived aboard most of my life. I've met many of my closest friends on the water. I've had a fair amount of experience and learning, but I've nevertheless also had many close calls, no matter how hard I've tried to be safe and to just enjoy.
Boater education courses are good, but it takes a lot more than those to really teach you how to run a boat. And some of us aren't going to learn, no matter what. I know I'd never learn to be a mountain climber or an explorer of desert caves.
This piece began with laughter, as we so often laugh at the foolishness of others out here and of ourselves. But the funny bits aren't the whole story. The whole story is that there are some of us who, no matter what schooling we've had, just don't belong on the water. We may belong elsewhere, but probably the elsewhere should be a place where we can walk home.
Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, "All in the Same Boat," at www.tomneale.com
This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.