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Expert advice: 15 tips to get you out and back safely

There is a place on Earth where no one can help you. It is an alien place of destructive, killing powers that have always and will always be capable of totally overcoming any and everything mankind can do to survive. It is the sea. And it covers most of the Earth.

A skilled helmsman can work a capable passagemaker in raucous conditions.

I’m referring principally to the world’s oceans, but this truth extends, to one degree or another, to many small inland waters. Yet we are constantly regaled by pictures of boats full of beautiful, smiling people, all having a great time on the water. We are frequently told that the sea is a paradise, that it’s a totally wonderful place to be — the fulfillment of dreams. We are told that anybody can go there and “enjoy.”

Being on the water indeed can be wonderful. I’ve been on the water most of my life. It has brought me some of my greatest fears but also some of my greatest enjoyment. But I’ve seen repeatedly that if you go out on the water without enough respect, understanding, knowledge and preparation, you may wish you’d taken a walk in the park instead.

Hitch a ride on the storm

We sat under gathering storm clouds, watching in amazement as the man on the sailboat across the pier from us busily prepared to go to sea — to go south. We were in the marina because of the storm we knew was coming. It was a very strong cold front that had been forecast for days to sweep across the Graveyard of the Atlantic, where storms are born and reborn. Warnings repeatedly had been broadcast on the VHF and SSB. Finally, I walked over to the boat and asked the guy whether he really intended to go out anytime soon.

“Sure,” was his reply. “I’m going to ride this cold front down to the Caribbean.”

“Don’t do it,” I said. “Wait until this front passes and the weather settles. It’s going to be hell out there.”

“No,” he told me. “Then I’ll miss the north wind and have to buck southerlies.”

He left. He never came back. We heard him on the VHF in his last moments. Shortly after the wind shift he had headed out the inlet, just as night was falling. He had barely headed southeasterly before he was in trouble. We heard him calling the Coast Guard for help. There wasn’t much they could do. The front had collided with the warm waters of the Gulf Stream close to the shore there, and as so often happens in those waters, the front had morphed into a monster. The waves and wind overpowered his boat, as they would have most boats. He said that he’d lashed himself to the pedestal. They never even found the wreckage — or the body.

Nobody move, nobody get hurt

We lay at anchor between some islands in the Exumas, dug in and hunkered down for a storm that had been forecast for almost two weeks to be huge and strong, one of the worst in years. A look at our weatherfax showed much of the western ocean choked by isobars so tightly spaced that the lines were in places indistinguishable from each other. Everyone knew of this storm.

As the storm was approaching we watched a fine-looking yacht with at least several aboard trying to anchor in that harbor. In our opinion, they didn’t have a clue as to anchoring, let alone seamanship. We later heard that, for some reason, they left the area of safe anchorages, left the Bahamas, and headed for the U.S. East Coast either just before or perhaps during the storm. Neither the boat nor its crew were ever found. “They had a lot of experience and success at racing,” the news media said.

How do I get out of the river?

We listened one “dark and stormy night” as someone in an express cruiser called the Coast Guard on VHF, asking how to get out of the Rappahannock River on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay. They said that once they got out of the river they were going to run down the Bay to Norfolk, Va.

“Have you passed the Rappahannock River Bridge yet?”

“I don’t know,” was the answer. “But if we have, does that mean we’re out of the river, and can you tell us how to get on down to Norfolk?”

At this point some wise soul broke in and said, “If he can’t find his way out of the river, how is he going to find his way down the Bay to Norfolk?”

The Coasties advised him to find a marina and stay there for the night. We didn’t hear from him again.

* * *

The following are a few tips for staying out of trouble and saving yourself if trouble happens. Obviously, different situations and bodies of water and different types of boating require different actions and equipment, and we can only discuss representative points.

1. Don’t judge being on the water by land-based experiences: Many act as though going out on the water is like taking a walk on a nature trail. This has led to far too many deaths. For example, you can’t rely on schedules. We’ve seen people lose boats and lives when they planned to have friends meet them at a certain port at a certain time. The friends had little trouble getting there because they relied on planes or land travel. The boaters tried, but the weather gods and the ocean didn’t give a damn about their schedules.

Another example: Don’t assume you can be helped or rescued. A large storm at sea can make it impossible for even the Coast Guard and large vessels to help you. They will do all they can, but waves and wind can render humanity’s very best ineffective. This can also be true on smaller bodies of water. The assets that are typically on those waters may be too small and lack the power to overcome the weather, leaving you to fend for yourself. This is seldom the situation on land, except perhaps with regard to extreme sports, such as high mountain climbing.

2. The weather rules: Nothing man-made can overcome the force of a bad storm at sea. In boating, it’s imperative that we recognize that. It’s also imperative that we have good sources of weather information, and I don’t mean the drivel I sometimes see on evening news weather.

NOAA forecasts are a vital source of storm information.

Use information from official NOAA forecasts and professional maritime forecasters, but understand that you may need satellite connectivity out in the ocean. We use Chris Parker ( There are also other great sources. From the information you receive, always assume the worst-case scenario. For example, don’t play with your life by gambling that the outer perimeters of the “cone of probability” will be safe.

Learn about the weather yourself. There are many good books on the subject, such as Parker’s “Coastal and Offshore Weather, The Essential Handbook.” Also become a close and personal student of the weather. Begin paying attention to weather maps, radar images, weather patterns and clouds. The best forecasting may not adequately deal with your on-scene local conditions at sea.

3. Don’t leave until it’s right: It naturally follows from the above that you shouldn’t go unless it’s right. And by “right” I mean really right. Some of the worst problems we’ve seen have been because people wanted to go or felt they needed to go for a schedule and took a risk with the weather. The weather should be “right” at your point and date of departure but also right at the point and date that you expect to make landfall, and everywhere in between.

4. Know what your boat can take: We’ve all seen stories in which people abandon their boats at sea, putting themselves and rescuers at grave risk, to find that the boat survived quite well, thank you, for months thereafter. We’ve also heard the stories of boats that went down with all aboard.

There’s a seemingly infinite number of types and sizes of boats, as well as designs and building techniques. Love what you have, but don’t expect it to do what it can’t. For example, the big-box palaces with huge sides, big saloon windows and tall, flat sterns can quickly be sent to the bottom in big seas. The nimble sailboat with a wing keel and counter-balanced rudder hanging from a shaft may not do as well in a serious storm as a sailboat with a full keel and supported rudder.

Some boats simply aren’t built for offshore work. If you’re wondering about yours, don’t just look at the marketing brochures and advertisements. Ask the builder. Some boats are built for fast trips up on plane in relatively smooth inshore waters, but they may be dangerous in big waves in the same area. Use common sense and trust your senses. If it doesn’t feel right in those conditions, don’t use it in those conditions. And learn your boat slowly under safe conditions. Don’t just take it out and put it through the paces.

5. Know what you and your crew can take: Some people get seasick under bad conditions. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. The famous British admiral, Lord Horatio Nelson, was usually seasick the first few days out. But he had a ship of seamen who weren’t sick. Seasickness, even for a few hours, can be totally debilitating. You and those with you must be able to perform the tasks thrown your way at all times. If it’s not your cup of tea, don’t go that day, or remain in calm waters.

Even commercial captains make mistakes, as this vessel in Bimini demonstrates.

Another oft-made mistake is to assume you can travel overnight with no problem. It often takes a lot of “getting into it” to be able to do this. We are accustomed to sleeping all night; we’re not accustomed to taking watches, and we’re hardly accustomed to being alert in the dead of night. We’re also not accustomed to the disorientation that can occur on a black night on the water. Don’t do this unless you and your crew are experienced in it or plan to slowly acclimate yourselves to this sort of living during good conditions.

6. Be able to navigate without electronics: Chart plotters are wonderful, but any number of things can cause them to fail, often at the worst time. It is sheer folly to go out without some form of paper charts unless maybe you’re in your very familiar home creek or river and the weather’s very good.

You can view charts free online before you go at And now you can also download complete printable NOAA charts in booklet form free at the site. Print what you need, put it in a large Ziploc bag, and you can keep it safe even in a PWC. Some guidebooks include usable charts. From charts and guidebooks, you can learn to recognize landmarks and other features of the water and sky that may help you find your way home or avoid danger.

7. Learn seamanship: Of course, the above suggestions are all about seamanship, but it’s only the beginning. There are many online and live training sessions available. Many states are now requiring them. This is very good, but these sessions cannot teach you how to handle your boat in various sea and wind conditions. They can give you some helpful pointers but not the skill and ability to understand what’s going to cause what on the water in your boat.

Seamanship is an acquired skill that’s absolutely necessary, but it requires on-the-job training, and you don’t really get what you need until you’ve been in some very tough circumstances. This means that you must slowly work your way up. You don’t just buy a boat and a captain’s cap and figure that you’re ready to go.

8. Know the Rules of the Road: We all should be familiar with them, and certain boats are required to have a copy aboard. They not only make us safer and improve our seamanship, but they also can help us avoid legal trouble, which is the last thing you want to think about on the water. You can access them free at They can help you with things such as overtaking and signaling other boats, and they may help you avoid well-intentioned mistakes that could cause significant problems. For example, under Rule 37 we learn that in inland waters the flashing of a strobe is a distress signal. If you’re not in distress, you definitely don’t want to say you are. Signals as to passing and overtaking are obviously critical, as are light configurations and the many other subjects covered.

9. Practice emergency procedures: This is inherent to learning seamanship and critical to taking care of yourself should “it” hit the fan. Let’s start with the obvious. Practice abandoning ship. Hopefully you’ll never need to do this, and many do it when they shouldn’t. But if there’s the need, it’s seldom easy. Usually the need occurs amid towering seas, raging wind and perhaps in total darkness.

What you do and how you do it depends on too many factors to address here. These include your location, the type and size of your boat, your crew, on-scene conditions and the gear you have. But carefully think about it. Discuss it with those who go out with you. Make plans based on various realistic contingencies. To the extent that it’s practical and safe, practice certain things that you may need to do. Also practice how you’d handle other emergencies, such as a fire.

What it takes to survive

It’s also important to have the gear needed to be self-reliant and to avoid or minimize trouble.

10. Alarms: Keeping a good all-around lookout should include keeping a good lookout within the boat, and for this we need assistance. For example, most sinkings or floodings requiring emergency assistance occur when a significant amount of time has passed between when that water starts coming in and the skipper knows about it. A hose coming off a barb, a seam separating, a stuffing box coming loose all have two things in common: Not only can they sink you, they also usually begin quietly — unless you have adequate high-water alarms. There should be at least two. They should be audible and visible, independently wired and located in places likely to become flooded when the hull is breached.

The skipper of this boat abandoned it in a storm while crossing the Atlantic - with no means of receiving forecasts.

The alarms should give you almost immediate notice and, thus, time to find the breach before it’s so far under water that you can’t find it, much less fix it. In many sinkings, the skipper might have been able to repair the leak if he had known as soon as it began or shortly thereafter.

Obviously, alarms won’t help without good pumps. Have at least two high-capacity — as relevant to your boat — independently wired electric bilge pumps and a good manual high-capacity pump or other dewatering device.

Fire alarms are also of life-or-death importance. They should be properly placed, the right type for your boat and inspected regularly. Boats usually burn rapidly once a fire gets going. Fumes often make it impossible to go below. The fire often quickly destroys electrical circuits, shutting down communications equipment. You may well be able to kill a fire if you know about it immediately, saving your boat and yourselves. Carbon monoxide alarms are also critical.

11. Fire extinguishers: These should be Coast Guard-approved and UL-certified for all types of fires. Automatic fire extinguishers in your engine space are very important. The more the better is a good rule of thumb with handheld extinguishers, and they should be mounted in very conspicuous locations out of the weather. They should be inspected regularly. Most handheld extinguishers should be regularly removed from the bracket, inverted and tapped hard on the bottom with the palm of your hand to ensure that the contents haven’t settled.

12. Tools and parts: When stuff happens out on the water, you can’t call AAA or run down to The Home Depot. You get a very expensive tow — it’s expensive to someone even if you have a towing agreement — an extremely expensive rescue or you suffer. Many things that go wrong can be repaired at sea if you have tools and know how to use them. If you have a collection of relevant spare parts, your chances of fixing it out there and having a good day afterward are even better.

The right tools and parts will vary with your boat and how and where you use it. I have hundreds of tools on my 53-foot motorsailer. If you don’t know what you need, get a mechanically inclined friend or a good professional mechanic to go over your boat and advise you. Take classes in boat repairs. Start fixing things at the dock, where it’s relatively easy and you can get help if you screw up. You’ll love the sense of independence, self-reliance and extra bucks in your pocket.

I mentioned darkness earlier. High-quality portable lights will allow you to do what you need to do in total darkness, whether it’s below deck or above. Handheld flashlights should be conspicuously placed so that anyone aboard can immediately find them. Area lights and hands-free head lamps are helpful. High-quality spotlights also are important.

13. Survival craft: Obviously, many of us won’t be in boats or situations where these are practical. But stop and think about what you’d do if you must abandon ship. What are you going to get into? If you’re in a river, lake or inshore coastal waters and the weather is reasonable, donning a good life jacket may be all you can do — and adequate. But in larger boats that are more likely to go into broader waters, some escape boat may be appropriate.

Life rafts range from those designed for offshore use to close inshore. Obviously, the latter are less expensive, but that may be all you need. Don’t overestimate the usefulness of your dinghy in this situation. You may not be able to launch it, it may not stay upright as you launch it, it may not be seaworthy in a storm, and it may not give you adequate shelter. Whatever your boat, have good-quality PFDs (preferably offshore-class) with reflective patches and good whistles and strobe lights attached.

14. The right clothing: Hypothermia or overheating can rob you of your ability to perform the tasks you must do to survive or function normally. In an emergency on the water, this is critical. Wear or have aboard adequate apparel to keep you warm and protect you from the elements. We have very good foul weather gear aboard Chez Nous, even wetsuits for extreme conditions.

15. EPIRBs and PLBs: These devices have made a quantum leap in saving people in peril at sea. It’s unthinkable to me to be out on the water without one unless I’m perhaps in a kayak in a highly populated home creek or similar area. And using them properly is as important as having one aboard.

False activation can incur costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, as well as risking the lives of not only rescuers but people who may be in actual peril and can’t get help because the assets are chasing down your false alarm. It can also result in legal penalties for the perp.

Emergency beacons can bring search-and-rescue assets to your location within the approximate radius of a football field in a very short time. Paramount to proper use is reading the manual, maintaining the unit on schedule (including having the battery changed by a manufacturer-authorized service center) and registering the beacon ( A registered beacon provides the Coast Guard or other agency such information as the name and description of your boat, contact information for you and other people, and an up-to-date description of where you might be.

Do it well and have fun

I don’t mean to discourage or disparage. I hope you have a wonderful time on your boat. It’s just that it’s a boat, not a plane, a bike or some lesser “toy.” And it’s on the water. Be ready for what can come. That alone can improve your experience, and the fact that you know you can be self-reliant to that degree will make you feel good. Enjoy!

October 2013 issue