Skip to main content

Clueless in any channel

Boaters who shrug at their lack of seamanship shouldn't be on the water

Vigilance is especially important when boaters are arriving, leaving and anchoring in the same area.

{loadposition position10}

Help, help. OK - somebody, I need some

help out here. Can anybody hear me?

This is the U.S. Coast Guard. What's your location and the nature of your distress?

I'm right here by this crab pot float.

Do you have a lat/long?

No, but I've got a pair of pliers and a screwdriver.

What's the nature of your distress?

I'm not depressed. I'm just sinking.

How much water is there in your boat?

I don't know, but my beer cooler is floating.

Can you tell where the water's coming from?

It's coming from the river.

Is there a beach so you can ground her?

Don't talk about my wife that way.

Can you throw over the anchor?

Yes. OK, I did it.

Is it holding?

I don't know.

Well, is the rope tight?

I don't know - that was tied to the anchor when I threw it over. I can't see it now.

OK, so there's a little bit of poetic license in the scenario here, but it's a collage of things I've heard on the VHF through the years. Believe it or not, most of it didn't need much embellishment. What happens on the water these days ranges from ridiculous to just plain stupid, to the deadly and even the macabre.

I'm sure you've got your own stories to tell, but here are a few of mine. I've deliberately omitted names of people and places and skewed some of the circumstances, but this is real stuff.

You'd think that the two couples on the very nice trawlers would have had some idea about where they were going and how they were going to get there. This would have meant knowing there are low bridges ahead that had to open to let them pass down the ICW. It would also mean knowing that the bridges only opened at certain times and that they had "lockdown" periods for rush-hour traffic. It would also mean knowing there's a long stretch without anchorages and marinas after the bridges and that slow boats could get caught out in the dark in a difficult area.

We passed through a timed bridge behind two trawlers one autumn morning. We were all heading south in our displacement-hulled boats. The two trawlers went through the bridge first and proceeded very slowly down the narrow, dredged stretch of the ditch, side by side, meandering from one side to the other. There were two other bridges ahead, each timed and at distances that required a displacement boat to boogie in order to meet their schedules and avoid losing up to two hours of travel time.

After listening to the two skippers have a friendly morning chat on VHF channel 16, I finally broke in and switched them to another frequency and asked if they were going to speed up in order to make the next bridge opening. The response was: "Bridge? Is there another one up there? How far away and what time does it open?"

Boaters shouldn't let down their guard just because they're at or near a marina.

I told them we had less than a half-hour to go and their response was, after some more meandering from side to side in the channel: "Well, we're not sure we can make it."

I asked for permission to pass - if they would please just go into single file and stick to one side or another - and suggested that if they kept their speeds to a minimum, I could get by quickly, perhaps make the opening and not throw any wake. They said, "Sure, come on by," and moved over, proceeding in a more or less straight course.

Just as I got abeam they decided they would try to make the bridge. With no communication to me, they moved back toward the middle (toward me) and sped up to what must have been their top speed. I did, too, thinking at that point that I didn't want to hang around for hours with the two skippers who, even if they had charts and guidebooks, didn't have a clue as to what they were supposed to do with them.

I made the bridge and the two bridges thereafter. I made the next anchorage before nightfall. They

didn't and lost a couple of hours, which caused them to be too far north the next day to be able to cross a potentially dangerous stretch before a strong front roared through. They then lost several days waiting for the weather to clear.

*     *     *

Warnings had been issued on several websites about a stretch of the ICW in Georgia where a river was particularly shallow. This river has been shallow for many years - it's just that the people raving in the warnings hadn't been doing the stretch for many years and didn't know that their "news" was really old news. All you have to do is to wait for the 8-foot tide to get you through if you think you may have an issue.

Other website sages had suggested a better solution would be to simply duck out a nearby inlet and go around the section, coming back into the ICW later. Amid all this advice was no mention that the Coast Guard had removed the beacons from the inlet because it was so shallow and the shoaling was so unpredictable.

We listened incredulously one day as a small fleet approached the shallow passage, discussed the conventional website wisdom and decided to go out and around, following GPS waypoints clicked onto a chart plotter. The depths were fine as they approached the inlet, but it is the nature of inlets in this and other areas to shoal where the waters of the sound or river meet the waves and currents of the ocean, even though there is plenty of water just inside that area.

Large yacht or small, no vessel can escape the dangers of the sea if its captain fails to make good decisions.

Approximately an hour later, these boats found themselves in the ocean with waves breaking all around and with some bumping the hard sand bottom in the troughs. The GPS courses were worthless because things had changed. Fortunately, they were lucky enough to be able to finally turn around and head back in, following the track out, perhaps with little realization of how close they had come to losing their boats and maybe some lives.

More than one boat has grounded in the inlets in those areas in the last few years, to be swallowed by the sand in a few weeks. They could have followed USCG Notices to Mariners or, if they wanted it easier, they could have read our East Coast Alerts on the BoatU.S. website ( They would have known the whole story.

*     *     *

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.

*     *     *

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.

*     *     *

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.

Large yacht or small, no vessel can escape the dangers of the sea if its captain fails to make good decisions.

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.

*     *     *

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

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.