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Safety takes a proactive approach

Today's boater has an array of electronic safety devices if trouble strikes on the water

The fatal accidents involving Erica Blizzard and Jonathan Hemingway illustrate how even experienced skippers can face tragic results if they fail to practice prudent seamanship.

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Blizzard, 36, was sentenced April 21 for negligent homicide for crashing a 37-foot Formula into an island on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee on a rainy night. Her best friend died in the June 2008 accident. In the second incident, Hemingway, 36, fell off his 23-foot powerboat - possibly while relieving himself over the side - as he crossed Nantucket Sound from Hyannis, Mass., to Nantucket on a clear night in March.

"We all have lapses in judgment or we take what we believe is an acceptable risk in a situation and frequently we get away with it - and other times we don't," says Chuck Hawley, a nationally known speaker on marine safety and a moderator of US Sailing's Safety at Sea Seminars. (Hawley is also vice president of product information for West Marine.) "All of us would like to think that we are a lot more consistent and conservative when, in fact, we aren't."

Hemingway apparently wasn't wearing a kill-switch lanyard, which stops the engine if the driver falls overboard or moves away from the helm. He was also the only one on deck. His wife and two young daughters were asleep in the cuddy of the outboard-powered Maritime Patriot 23.

A kill-switch lanyard stops the engine if the driver falls overboard or moves away form the helm.

"Many of these accidents seem to come back to situational awareness and thinking ahead," says Tom Rau, a retired Coast Guard senior chief and an authority on recreational boating safety. "What happens if I fall off this boat? What is going to happen to my family? Can [the boat] stop itself? No, it can't, unless I am hooked up to a kill switch."

Hemingway was crossing a large body of 38-degree water with minimal traffic on a 41-degree late-winter night (March 17). Those circumstances warrant not only hooking up to a kill switch, but also wearing a life jacket with a personal locator beacon attached, says Rau, who operates the Web site

The experts remind all boaters that even seasoned skippers can make unsafe choices. "There's no question I would rather not be with a complete novice who hasn't been in situations at sea," says Hawley. "But there are many people who have lots of hours [at the helm] but have bad habits, either because they are reckless in their nature and they just have been lucky over a long period of time, or they just never developed very good seamanship skills."

The Autotether is a wireless kill switch that also sounds an alarm when a person wearing the sensor falls overboard.

Augusto "Kiko" Villalon, who conducts accident investigations for the Coast Guard, agrees. "There were no regulations violated or ignored, simply lack of seamanship," says Villalon, referring to the Nantucket Sound incident. "It looks like Hemingway was a good sailor, but here I see what we often see - an incident occurring due to overconfidence instead of solid seamanship."

Speed an issue

Unlike Hemingway, Blizzard broke the law, according to the prosecutor, Belknap County (N.H.) Attorney James Carroll. She was charged with two counts of negligent homicide - one alleging she was operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs and the other for failing to keep a proper lookout. She was also charged with aggravated driving while intoxicated. The jury convicted her only of negligent homicide for failing to post a proper lookout.

"You can't assume anything when operating at night," says Rau. "You can't say, 'Well, there are no other boats around - I don't need a lookout.' You don't know that. There could be people out there adrift in a small boat."

A PLB, such as the ACR ResQFix, is a critical safety device for skippers who operate alone.

Or an island, in Blizzard's case. Her two passengers - Stephanie Beaudoin, 34, who died, and Nicole Shinopules, 34 - were not helping navigate, according to Blizzard's lawyer, Jim Moir.

Hawley believes excessive speed for the conditions played a larger role than not posting a lookout. "I've seen one picture of the [Formula]," he says. "The first third of the boat is completely destroyed, looking as though someone took a Sawzall and went from gunwale to gunwale and tore off the hull. It seems like it was probably excessive speed, because ... the woman couldn't stop in time to avoid the collision. Isn't that really the definition of excessive speed?"

Blizzard's lawyer says she was doing 15 to 20 mph. The prosecution argued it was at least 30 mph. (There was no GPS to pinpoint speed.) Also at issue during the trial was whether Blizzard was legally drunk at the time of the accident, which occurred at 2:30 a.m. The prosecution's experts say she had a blood-alcohol level of 0.15, nearly twice the legal limit of 0.08. The defense contended that Blizzard wasn't drunk. In fact, Moir told Soundings that his client "was not the least bit impaired."

Whole different world

In the Lake Winnipesaukee accident, rainy nighttime conditions had reduced visibility. "People need to be aware of the weather conditions and what they can do to visibility and how you should operate when you are in those conditions," says Lt. Tim Dunleavy, of the New Hampshire Marine Patrol, the agency that investigated the accident.

Conditions may have warranted dropping the anchor in the middle of the lake or motoring at an extremely slow speed until land was reached, says Dunleavy. "Winnipesaukee is a large lake, but it's not the ocean," he says. "Usually you're within a couple miles of land." Winnipesaukee is New Hampshire's largest lake, measuring 72 square miles with about 180 miles of shoreline.

Even in good weather, nighttime navigation is much more difficult than daytime. "It's a whole different world," says Rau. "You must be constantly aware of your speed in relationship to what is around you, especially if you're operating in close quarters."

Boaters need to remember that white light aboard boats impairs night vision. "It takes a very little amount of light hitting the white fiberglass of the interior of a boat or, for that matter, the reflective trim on a windshield to be distracting," says Hawley.

Helm station lights, navigation lights, especially improperly mounted nav lights, and spreader lights on the flybridge or the T-top can hinder the ability to see at night, says Hawley. Even using a spotlight - mounted or hand-held - can impair night vision.

"They rely on other sources, like radar, because they're night-blind," says Hawley, referring to anglers who illuminate the cockpit at night.

Dark helm backgrounds and low-intensity or red or blue backlighting for gauges have less of an impact on night vision, Soundings technical writer Eric Sorensen points out in his book, "Sorensen's Guide to Powerboats."

"You'll never see a white light on the bridge of a Navy or Coast Guard ship under way at night, and for good reason - night vision is impeded during and immediately after exposure to white light," Sorensen writes.

Experts recommend using peripheral vision rather than looking directly at an object and avoiding staring at objects such as flashing navigational markers.

See related stories:

- 'So simple, so easy, yet so devastating'

- Crash highlights perils of night boating

This article originallly appeared in the June 2010 issue.