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When chaos reigns supreme on the water

It’s all too common. You set out for a pleasant day on the water and things just don’t go right. Seasickness rears its ugly head. The engine fails. You foul the prop. The list goes on. Sometimes it’s a matter of carelessness; sometimes it’s Mother Nature. Let’s have a look at some of the ways a day on the water can go wrong.

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1. MAN OVERBOARD —It may sound funny, but many man-overboard situations involve “open fly syndrome.” It’s the result of male boaters being thrown off balance when nature calls. It almost never occurs during rough weather, when adrenaline levels are increased and more attention is paid to safety. It’s very hard to climb back aboard a boat, sail or power. It’s almost impossible to clamber up the side, even with assistance. Grabbing the swim platform might sound like an obvious solution, but if there is any wave action, just trying to get hold of it will be a trying experience. In the old days, we had footman’s loops bolted to our outboard-hung rudder. It wasn’t an ideal solution, but it was something to help a swimmer get back aboard. The Lifesling is a great device, and there are ladders that can be deployed over the side. Whatever means you use to get someone back aboard, be sure to practice your man-overboard drill. Also, wear a PFD with a loud whistle and a light.

2. THE ENGINE FAILS — There are a few typical culprits for engine failure, and one is inexcusable: You didn’t check the fuel level. Top off your tanks after using the boat and this won’t be a problem. Another reason is clogged filters, so be sure to condition your fuel. The ethanol in gas can loosen deposits that can clog filters, and untreated diesel can allow an algae farm to form in the tank, which also can clog filters. When I was brokering boats, one of the principals in the firm lost an engine on his twin-screw cruiser. Steering the semidisplacement boat with only one engine was a nightmare. Seas had evolved from flat calm to Force 4 conditions. What should have been a four-hour run became a six-hour ordeal into nighttime. The culprit: Water in the fuel system blew out the tip of one of the fuel injectors. Too bad he didn’t have sails.

3. THE ANCHOR DRAGS — When I worked at West Marine, I helped a couple new to sailing fit out their new Beneteau 45. Much of the equipment had been provided with the boat, including a 25-pound CQR anchor. They insisted it was adequate because it had come with the boat. A couple of weeks later they came to the store with eyes the size of saucers. They were anchored in the Great Salt Pond on Block Island, R.I., when a west wind kicked up. The anchor didn’t hold. They should’ve let out more rode and passed a kellet or sentinel down to reduce the angle of the rode to the anchor. A different anchor, a properly sized Fortress, likely would have held. It hadn’t been supplied with the boat, so it wasn’t necessary (wink, wink).

4. A FOULED PROP — Some years ago, a couple anchored their boat from the stern so the husband could fish. As winds and tide changed, the boat shifted and the rode fouled the prop. The engine wouldn’t turn over. As the tide came in, the stern was dragged under and the boat capsized. If they’d cut the rode, they would have lost the anchor, but that’s better than the alternative. Freeing a fouled prop is tricky and, if you’ve ever weaved your way through the lobster pots in Maine waters, I’m sure you’re familiar with the drill. You can try reversing the engine, but in my experience it almost never works. Otherwise, it’s over the side you go — if conditions allow. Of course, you can always call for assistance. Let’s hope your towing coverage is up to date.

5. CAUGHT IN A SQUALL — Running into squalls is part and parcel of cruising. If you are prepared and exercise situational awareness, you should be OK. By gradually exposing yourself to heavier winds and seas, you’ll know how to handle your boat when the going gets rough. My butt was once saved in Force 9 conditions by an experienced seaman who was sailing with me. He knew what to do, how to do it and calmly instructed me. He turned a potential panic situation into a learning session — and that’s the key: Don’t panic. And don’t rush to do something that seems “good enough.” Good enough is never good enough on the water. Do the right thing the right way. That knowledge can only come from experience — or from someone on board who has the experience.

A hand-held GPS can be a lifeline.

6. THE ELECTRONICS FAIL — Your navigation electronics depend on the health of your boat’s electrical system. Water down the hatch can kill the engine and short out the batteries, shutting down your shipboard electronics. Be sure to keep paper charts and the tools to use them on board. It’s also a good idea to occasionally plot a fix from your electronics on the paper chart. A backup hand-held VHF and GPS can be your lifeline if the electronics fail, assuming that their batteries are charged.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.