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Practice, practice, practice

Being ready for anything is the best defense

If seeing is believing, seeing is also knowing — knowing what’s happening around you in plenty of time to deal with waves, other vessels, shoals and rocks.

If your boat has wide window or windshield mullions (frames) or you can’t see the horizon all the way across the bow, or there’s so much glare from a bright white dash that you can’t see clearly through the glass, your odds of a collision, a grounding or, in extreme conditions, a capsize are increased.

The majority of boats on the water have large sectors of the horizon obscured, and this is completely unnecessary — and you won’t find it in a boat that is properly designed.

Being able to safely navigate in rough seas isn’t just a matter of avoiding a capsize; it’s also a matter of preventing crew injury and fatigue. Meeting a wave properly, or avoiding it altogether, requires being able to see it, no matter the direction from which it’s coming. Consider, too, that every so often you will encounter a wave that is twice the average height of the seas. These are the waves that will get you into trouble, and it’s why situational awareness is so vital as conditions become extreme. To be able to anticipate the effect of a wave, you have to be able to see it.

Displacement trawlers are some of the worst offenders when it comes to helm visibility abaft the beam, and this is a problem because an 8-knot trawler is readily overtaken by 14-knot waves when running down-sea. Trawlers are also regularly overtaken by other boats, which is another reason they need unbroken sightlines astern. Be discerning if you’re looking for a new boat, and do what you can to improve visibility from the helm on the boat you have by pulling back curtains or getting new drop curtains with more plastic and less canvas.

Posting a lookout is a subset of situational awareness, as the lookout acts as a second set of eyes to help keep you out of trouble. The lookout should be positioned not where it’s warmest and most comfortable but where he or she can see best — usually forward in the boat, and higher often is better. In fog, however, the clearest view might be closer to the water. Putting the lookout forward allows him to better hear other vessels, and he won’t be as hampered visually by your navigational or instrument lights. If operating in restricted visibility, you must post a lookout under the Rules of the Road, and be sure to rotate the watch as needed to keep the lookout fresh and alert.


Part of mitigating risk offshore is having backups, even backups for your backups — for example, two VHF radios, an extra handheld GPS, twin engines, two isolated battery banks, a third dedicated battery on the bridge so you can operate the radio if the boat is sinking, a second person fully qualified to operate the boat, a life raft that automatically inflates (think of it as a backup for the boat), and two anchors, each with its own line. If your life may depend on it, two is usually better than one. Make sure all of this equipment is maintained in working order and ready for use.

Deck drainage

When operating offshore in rough water, breaking waves make it possible for the ocean to get into the boat with little warning. The quicker that water sheds back over the side, the better. Six inches of water in the cockpit can create tremendous free surface effect, which robs stability and can quickly capsize the boat. Water usually comes aboard over the bow when you meet a wave head-on that breaks at the worst possible moment. If you’re in an open-bow boat, you have to be especially careful. It’s best if you’re in a boat designed to handle these conditions, with lots of freeboard forward and enough buoyancy and lift from the hull shape to prevent excessive immersion.

Two things mostly determine the outcome of taking a large volume of seawater on deck. One is your ability to keep the bow into the seas to minimize rolling while the water is draining overboard, and to keep just enough power on to maintain an elevated bow and the water draining aft. The other is the design of the boat and its ability to shed water quickly. The larger the scuppers, and the more there are, the faster the water will drain. Scuppers that take the form of a hole cut through the transom or hull sides are the least susceptible to clogging. They also tend to have more area, so they drain quicker.

The deck scuppers on many outboard boats are covered with grates that clog easily, preventing water from draining. Keep these clear of debris. If you’re in a boat with a transom door, it can be a good idea to run with the door open so you effectively have a king-sized scupper that will quickly drain water overboard, at least to the level of the door’s threshold. The scuppers will take it from there. This tactic might backfire, however, if you’re fishing stern-to the waves or running down-sea and being overtaken by a wave, so you have to play the odds.

Scuppers should be all the way outboard so the deck will clear when the boat is listing to one side. Deck hatches should be watertight, or at least drip-tight, so the bilge pumps can keep up with any water seeping through the hatch seams. The boat should have enough reserve buoyancy to keep the deck above sea level. This requires having plenty of deck elevation above the waterline to create watertight volume below. In a 30-footer, look for at least 6 inches of deck elevation when the boat is fully loaded. There are 30-footers out there with just 2 to 4 four inches of cockpit elevation at full load, and that provides precious little reserve buoyancy to keep the deck above the waterline so the scuppers will drain. The deck should also slope aft so the water naturally drains aft to the scuppers. This is also why you want to keep some power on with the bow up and keep the boat on an even keel while the water is shedding overboard.

Training and drills

Your experience and aptitude — and ability to control panic — all bear on your boat’s seaworthiness. The best way to develop these characteristics is to practice, practice, practice. Have someone throw over a life ring when you’re not expecting it, and see how you react. Do it regularly so that if someone goes over the side, you will respond automatically.

What would you look for if you found a foot of water in the bilge? Can you find all of your boat’s through-hulls in the dark, and do you have the right size plugs handy if one fails? How quickly can you shift the dual filter separators over if you have a loss of propulsion because of dirty fuel? You should have an emergency patching kit on board to repair a rupture in the hull. Where is the closest flashlight, fire extinguisher, screwdriver or handheld VHF? How quickly can you launch the life raft and activate the EPIRB? Always be thinking about what can go wrong and how you would react to it.

Make sure there are life jackets for everyone, and have the crew put them on if there is any doubt about operating in the current conditions. Keep in mind that a bulky life jacket can trap someone below deck if the boat capsizes. A friend of mine hands an inflatable PFD to everyone who boards his boat and requires them to wear it at all times. You don’t even notice it, and your chances of survival are greatly improved if you end up over the side.

Marlinspike skills

If you can’t tie a knot, tie a lot, as the saying goes. Of course, it’s easier and faster to be able to tie the right knot for the occasion. If you know how to take a round turn, which takes most of the strain, and a full figure-eight on a cleat, followed by a weather hitch, that’s a good start. Learn how to tie a variety of bowlines — single, single quick-release, double and on a bight. Use a round turn and two half-hitches for light loads and a rolling hitch for heavier loads or when the strain is in line with a piling or another line. (Visit for some useful instructions.)

Also, learn how to splice — at least be able to splice three-strand laid line, and try your hand at double-braided line, as well. It’s not difficult once you’ve done it a few times. Knowing the right knot to tie is essential to safe boating, and you’ll feel good knowing you have these traditional and important skills.

Fire safety

Most boats are made of a matrix of fiberglass and resin, and the resin burns, as does any wood in the boat. Powerboats carry fuel, which also burns pretty well, especially gasoline. There are plenty of opportunities for fires on board, including a galley mishap, an electrical system failure or a fuel leak. Make sure you have plenty of fire extinguishers on board — the correct type and size — and make sure they’re spread around so there’s always one between you and a potential fire source. A boat with a fixed fire-extinguishing system — automatic or manually activated — has a much better chance of aiding survival. Make sure these systems are maintained and properly charged.

Don’t be a hero — if abandoning ship is the way to go, get off the boat quickly. If there’s an explosion, you and your crew are much better off floating in your PFDs 100 yards away. Call for help early; a burning boat is a mayday situation, so be able to state your position, the name of your boat, the nature of your emergency, a description of your boat, the number of people on board, and so on. Practice what you’re going to say in the event of a mayday situation so you can go through a mental checklist of the key info to report.


A boat with a tired skipper is a hazard to navigation. If you can, tie up or anchor and shut her down for a while out of harm’s way so you can nap. If you’ve taken the trouble to train a member of your family or crew in running the boat, that’s an obvious solution if you’re fatigued. It’s also instructive to consider whether your boat is contributing to operator fatigue because it snap rolls, pounds, is loud or is generally uncomfortable to be aboard.

There are many production powerboats that are all of these things, so learn to be discriminating when looking for your next boat. I was out on a well known (and highly regarded) 36-footer not long ago that was loud, pounded and took water over the bow in a 6-inch chop. I couldn’t imagine transiting for hours in even a slight seaway in that boat. It would wear you down in no time.

Navigation and technology

It’s easy to forget — or never take the time to learn — how to lay out a track on a paper chart when today’s electronics do it all for you. I encourage you do to it, anyway, as it forces you to pay attention to your track, to surrounding hazards and to the depth. Of course, it also gives you a backup if the electronics fail.

Checking what you hold visually against the chart should be an ongoing process. Where is that lighthouse I should have in sight at 020 relative at 8 miles? Does my sounder agree with the charted depth? Does the observed set and drift agree with what the tide tables predict? It helps to have a co-pilot or navigator sitting next to the skipper to serve as a lookout, watching for other boats or a swimmer in the water — another brain to compare what you’re seeing against what you should be seeing. The companion seat should be high enough to allow viewing the horizon unbroken across the bow at all speeds — just like the helm seat.

Many people are buying bigger boats because joystick control is making docking and exiting a slip easier. Joysticks will definitely help with maneuvering, but I encourage you to learn how to drive a boat without one. You’ll feel better about yourself if you take the time to learn how to run a boat conventionally, and you’ll be ready if something goes wrong with the joystick system. There are very few people who are flat out incapable of learning how to run a boat this way — it’s more likely they haven’t found a good teacher. (Or maybe they are the type who habitually talk when they should be listening.)

On the other hand, there are plenty of boats around today that are just hard to control, with huge superstructures and very little below the waterline. For the conning-impaired, you’ll find bow thrusters on boats as small as 25 feet or so nowadays, and this alone should greatly reduce the pucker factor in close-quarters maneuvering. You can also get a boat with a bow and a stern thruster. Paired with a single inboard, such as the Back Cove 37, this setup makes a boat every bit as maneuverable as a pod joystick system.

EPIRBs, PLBs, survival suits and auto-inflating life rafts greatly increase your odds of survival in the event of an accident offshore. But don’t get reckless just because you have this equipment on board. Your boat itself is no more seaworthy with all of this gear aboard, and seaworthiness, combined with your experience and expertise, is what should be the final arbiter of the areas and circumstances in which you should operate.

There’s plenty to think about before and after casting off and venturing out. Remember: Once you’re prepared for anything, there’s much less to worry about, and you can confidently enjoy your boating adventures.

See related articles:

- Eyes in the back of your head

- Think ahead

- Don't neglect your seacocks

- Keeping a lookout

November 2014 issue