Skip to main content

Sea Savvy - Keep it simple, but not stupid

We’d all be safer if more boaters exercised prudent seamanship, and more education is a good start

We’d all be safer if more boaters exercised prudent seamanship, and more education is a good start

I’ve been on the water for many years, owning many boats and traveling many thousands of miles. What follows are a few true stories of things I’ve seen or heard about during that time. Some involve injury and death. All

Read the other story in this package: Speaking the truth on channel 16

involve a lack of knowledge or understanding of how to handle a boat. All say to me that we have a problem.

And knees are jerking with reactions to the problem. Usually the immediate reaction is: “We need more boater education.” But that’s easier said than done. Let’s take a peek at how bad the problem is and some of the current steps being taken to make it safer on the water.

Where’s the channel?

Every year when we travel the Intracoastal Waterway we see boats take wrong turns. It isn’t so bad if you do this driving a car. You may get lost, but often you can correct it by going around the block or backtracking. It’s usually very different on a boat.

We once were heading toward Beaufort, N.C., on Core Creek. We’d heard people yelling on the VHF about a boat speeding excessively and throwing wakes that were damaging other boats traveling in the narrow shallow channels behind. As expected, the boat passed us, doing the same, and roared on. It was a large, fast, expensive express cruiser.

As Core Creek opens into the NewportRiver, the ICW channel peels off to starboard. This is easy to see — from both the charts and aids to navigation — unless you’re not paying attention. The skipper of the express cruiser went straight — straight into a wide, flat, shallow mud bank about 3 inches under water. Oh, what a sight! (The mud was soft and the incline gradual, so no one was hurt.) Of course, he claimed he was “right in the middle of the channel” when he called for help. Getting towed off was just the beginning. Next came new rudders, shafts, struts, props and more.

There’s another part of the ICW channel much farther north that, if traveling from south to north, veers off to starboard. Thousands of boats veer off to starboard every year on this route, following the aids to navigation and their charts and guidebooks. We’ve never seen anything obstructing the aids. However, a creek does continue out ahead, veering slightly to port. In plain view just up the creek is a high-voltage power line. Four times in the past seven years (that we’ve heard reported) a sailboat has mistakenly headed up that creek, its mast connecting with the power line. In each instance the sailboat burned or was otherwise seriously damaged. One instance involved a fatality and a serious injury.

Clueless anchoring

Not knowing how to anchor can be a minor inconvenience, but it also can cause property damage and injury, and is one sign that someone doesn’t know what he or she is doing on the water.

Anchored in No Name Harbor, just south of Miami, we watched as a very fancy sailboat motored into the basin. It had all the latest gear, and its well-dressed crew looked like they’d just stepped out of a nautical fashion show. They proceeded to anchor.

Another boat was anchored to our east, with one rode out to the north. They’d worked hard to set the hook well so that it wouldn’t trip when the wind shifted and picked up in the night, as forecast. The boat’s anchor line was stretched out before it, disappearing into the water. The couple had retired below for dinner and sleep.

The fashion crew motored up to the east of the anchored boat’s rode and dropped one anchor. Then they backed to the west over the rode, miraculously not snagging it with their keel, continued backing for more than 100 feet, and dropped a second anchor. They then pulled tight so that they were just upwind of their neighbor’s bow, only a few feet above his rode. A collision was certain that night, coupled with a hopeless entanglement of anchor lines. The people trying to disentangle the boats in the high winds and rain could easily have been injured. Another boater walked to his bow and started yelling that there was going to be trouble. The couple in the first boat came on deck and stared in astonishment. They walked to the bow, and a conversation commenced. The two boats were close enough for the occupants to shake hands — if they had so desired. Eventually, the newcomers moved.

Many years later we were in a very difficult anchorage in the Exumas. It was difficult because of currents, swell coming in from the ocean, and because much of the bottom was rock, reef or very shallow sand over rock. We watched as a very nice boat from the States anchored. And anchored. And anchored. They weren’t having trouble just because of the terrain; they didn’t know how to anchor — and they were hundreds of miles from the coast. They didn’t use enough scope and didn’t look at the bottom to see what anchor and tactic to use. They didn’t back down well. We looked at each other and said, “Thank heavens they’re not upwind from us.”

Weather, very bad weather, had been forecast for days. A day later and in the face of this severe storm, the boat left — heading back to the coast. It was lost, as were all aboard.

But wait, there’s more.

Bridge the gap from bad to deadly

As we transit the ICW every year, we’ve grown to hate waiting at bridges in narrow channels with current and wind. There are problems enough from nature, but there are also problems from boats. Many like waiting in a tight bunch. But these boats don’t just sit still, like cars on highways. They’re moved by current and wind, and they can’t be precisely controlled like cars. Small sailboats often motor around in circles, apparently unaware that larger boats can’t just move over and get out of the way and must, in order to remain under control, continue moving forward or in reverse slowly. So boats go aground, grind into each other, tempers flare. Sometimes boats collide with bridge fenders.

In the last few years we’ve seen and heard of sailboats that were dismasted trying to pass through opening bridges. It’s happened for varying reasons — some, we believe, from improper action of the bridge tender. But sometimes, we understand, it’s happened because of inadequate communication of intent by the skipper. When this happens it can damage the boat beyond its value, hurt its occupants, and kill them. But the problem doesn’t lie with just sailboats.

Within the past year a trawler passed under a bridge on the Southeast coast. The bridge could have been opened upon request. Skippers are supposed to know the vertical clearance required by their boats; charts and guides and signs on bridges give information about the vertical clearances of the spans. Nevertheless, upper structures of the trawler hit the underside of the bridge and it came crashing down, killing a person.

A little drink and a little fun

Three males from the Land Down Under decided it would be fun and cute to flash a moon while proceeding in a small boat. They did so, all falling overboard in the process. The boat continued on, and its propeller severely slashed the face of a 17-year-old swimming nearby. One of the mooners was charged with operating a boat while drinking.

Know thy boat and how it works

Seamanship includes having a reasonable knowledge of how your boat works and how to safely take care of mechanical problems that might arise.

The new boater was no dummy. As a matter of fact, he was a doctor. After making several good trips with his family, running around the river in his 22-foot center console, he trailered the boat to one of the local boat mechanics for a “going over.” The mechanic gave it a clean bill of health, and the good doctor took the boat away.

The mechanic later got one of those “favorite calls”: “My boat was running fine when I brought it in, but it won’t start at all since you messed with it.”

The mechanic started to ask questions: “Did you connect the fuel line? Did you pump the priming bulb? Did you turn on the key? Did you snap on the kill switch? Is the battery OK?” To each question he got the right answer until finally the doc lost his patience.

“What do you think, I’m some kind of dummy? I want you out here right now. I’ve got my whole family waiting to go out.” The mechanic got in his truck and headed to the ramp.

He boarded the boat under the angry glares of family and friends. It took him about 30 seconds to see that the kill switch lanyard had been forced around and dangled from not the kill switch but the electric choke button, its prongs spread wide. Somehow the skilled hands of the doctor had managed to push it around the rubber booted choke button. The kill switch was resting at the “in” kill position.

It’s a gas

Not too long ago a boater had some gas in his bilge. It is reported that he decided to take care of the problem rather than let the gas sit there and possibly cause an explosion. How did he undertake to remove the gas? Why, with an electric wet-dry utility vacuum, of course. I don’t know if it was a Shop-Vac or some other brand, but every one I’ve seen has had clear instructions that you don’t use it in this manner. And you’d think these instructions wouldn’t be necessary. Yes, there was an explosion, and the person was injured.

And then there are the instances when boaters aren’t removing gas from their bilges; they’re doing the opposite. Such was the case one morning a few years ago, when two friends decided to go fishing in the ocean off Florida. The boat was on a trailer, and on the way to the ramp, they stopped at a roadside gas station to fill ’er up. One of them stuck the pump nozzle in the hole, squeezed the handle, and let ’er rip. And rip. And rip. But he had the wrong hole; it was a rod holder.

On another occasion an experienced boater wasfueling his gasoline-powered, heavily built wooden cabin boat. As the tank filled, people standing around began to smell gas. The smell got stronger and stronger until bystanders began to warn the skipper that something was wrong. The smell was noticeable several slips away when he finished filling and prepared to start the boat. People yelled from the dock: “Don’t start it. Something’s wrong.” He did. I suppose it had something to do with the common trait we share as humans. It’s called denial. It won’t happen to me.

The bilge exploded instantly. The skipper was at the wheel. The boat’s configuration had a low cabin with accommodations and bunks forward in the bow section, and a large, open cockpit astern. Part of the cockpit was covered by a deckhouse, with the wheel at the forward end, mounted on the aft bulkhead of the forward cabin.

When the explosion occurred, it blew the very heavy hatch cover off the top of the engine space, which was under the cockpit, just abaft where the skipper was standing. As the cover flew up, billowing fire and smoke broiled out from underneath. The cover came down on top of the hatch where it had resided, blanketing the rapidly expanding conflagration for a split second. That’s all the skipper had, because about a second or two after that the entire cockpit area was engulfed. The skipper, instantly recovering from the shock and concussion of the explosion, seized that split second and ran across the hatch and burning deck to jump ashore. The skipper, marina personnel and onlookers pushed the boat off the fuel dock, and it drifted downstream on the tide and wind, finally grounding.

A few minutes before the skipper began fueling, four girls, ranging in age from around 2 to 6, had been playing down in the forward accommodations section. If they hadn’t gotten off before the explosion, the consequences could have been fatal.

Where’s the skipper?

Back in the good ol’ days before GPS, we crossed the Gulf Stream regularly en route to the Bahamas. Finding the Bahamas doesn’t sound too difficult, except that you must pinpoint the right part of the western side of the island chain to be able to get onto the Bahamas Banks or into a west-side destination, such as Bimini or Gun or Lucaya, using one of the very few safe passages through the reef. Failure to pinpoint the right spot could mean total loss of the boat and perhaps injury or death. This was much more difficult before GPS and Loran, but people did it regularly using old-fashioned navigation.

Almost every trip, we’d have a fast boat zoom in alongside, the skipper yelling over the engines, “Hey, excuse me. But could you tell me which way it is to Bimini?” (Oh no, I never pointed to Miami.) Today, we see much less of this because of GPS. But now we see boats flying across the Stream, their course pinpointed to an icon on the chart plotter, with no one at the wheel and no one visible on board. There have been occasions when, on days of good visibility and in wide, open ocean, boats have approached each other, coming closer and closer until someone notices just before a collision and veers off.

Recently, a case was reported in the Bahamas in which two boats in open water on a good day with good visibility continued to close with each other over a relatively long period of time until they actually collided.

Is there any hope?

I could keep going with the horror stories, but we all get the message. The number of people on the water who are lacking even the most basic boating skills and knowledge is staggering. We have a problem.

Unlike some of the bureaucrats and politicians, I don’t profess to have a cure-all answer. (Perhaps that’s because I’m on the water every day instead of in a cubicle.) I do know that a new national boater registration ID card, proposed by some officials, isn’t the answer. This is a typical knee-jerk reaction by bureaucrats accustomed to throwing money (yours and mine) at problems rather than really solving them. Creation of more bureaucracy is superficial and unrealistic.

Fortunately, local and private interests are stepping up to the plate, and this is good. More and more boat dealers are offering various degrees of training. For example, Russo Marine, with several locations in Massachusetts and Rhode Island ( ), says it offers up to five free classes to all customers who purchase a new or used boat (excluding brokerage boats). Two people per family are entitled to this.

Norton’s Yacht Sales ( ), with locations in Deltaville, Va., and Oriental, N.C., is a large dealer for Hunter and Jeanneau sailboats, as well as brokerage boats. It has a for-fee, accredited sailing school but says it also offers free instruction to purchasers that, depending on the boat and person’s experience level, ranges from several hours to several days, including on-water experience.

Passport Marine ( ) — a dealer for Formula boats and the national dealer distributor for Egg Harbor, Buddy Davis, Predator, Zodiac, Topaz and Sessa Marine, according to information on the Web site — operates four retail locations in Florida, including St. Petersburg, Tampa, and Aventura, with a new location under construction in Key West. It also has dealerships in Norwalk, Conn., Southampton, N.Y., and on Lake Lanier in Buford, Ga. PMI says it provides up to 10 hours of one-on-one instruction with one of its captains immediately following the purchase of a boat, and will continue to help educate its buyers until they are confident in their abilities. This ranges from prestart-up/engine check procedures to rough-water handling to docking, according to PMI, which also offers Boater 101 at its flagship location in Aventura.

MarineUniversity is another example of progress. It is a non-profit organization that offers the Boater 101 course ( ), which MarineUniversity says is approved by The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and the Coast Guard. The program is sponsored by components of the marine industry, and trains and provides certification to retailers so that they can conduct approved courses on-site. Sponsors include Brunswick, Four Winns, Formula, INAMAR, KeyBank, the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, National Marine Manufacturers Association, the OMC Foundation and Volvo Penta, according to MarineUniversity. Sometimes the manufacturer or dealer will pick up the cost of the course, usually around $25 plus any required state processing fee, according to the group.

MarineUniversity also offers an online course for individuals, who receive a certificate after passing the test. And it recently announced an agreement with the Marine Retailers Association of America. “We are encouraging our members to get involved with this program as an added benefit for their consumers,” says Phil Keeter, MRAA president.

Of course, we’re all familiar with the fact that the Coast Guard Auxiliary ( ) and U.S. Power Squadrons ( ) have diligently worked for decades to educate boaters. The BoatU.S. Foundation, a leader in this field for years, offers a free online general boating safety course ( Information about the requirements for each state and various state boating laws and regulations is available on the site, and the course satisfies the educational requirements for many states. (BoatU.S. also offers a PWC course that covers information found in the general course but also emphasizes the needs of PWC operators.)

BoatU.S. says the interactive, non-proctored course and exam have been approved by NASBLA and are recognized by the Coast Guard as exceeding the minimum requirements for the National Recreational Boating Safety Program.

But for many of these programs, the boater has to sign up voluntarily, even though a state law may mandate education under specific circumstances, such as age. Often those who need training most are the least likely to sign up. An article by Wayne Stacey in the July/August edition of NASBLA’s Small Craft Advisory magazine reports that the “operator with intermediate experience and the operator who views the boat as only an accessory to another sport — fishing” are hard sells on the idea that they need to learn more. It also cites a Coast Guard finding that nearly 80 percent of all boating accidents and more than 80 percent of all boating fatalities occur on boats smaller than 26 feet. Factors such as these cause some to insist on mandatory education for all, sometimes without really defining what those terms mean.

I don’t think education should be mandated for “everyone.” Experienced boaters should be exempt from those basic, entry-level courses. In my dreams, I’d like to think that Darwin had the answer. Being out on the water, unlike walking in the park, is a great way to weed out those who are unfit. But I worry about being weeded out myself, as some boats rocket around like bumper cars or an intoxicated Tyrannosaurus rex.

There is also the issue of “what is education?” I’ve seen a few boating education instructors who knew so little about it themselves that the thing most likely to be learned was how to pull an instructor back onto the dock after he mistakenly ties his shoelaces to a cleat demonstrating how to tie a boat. (I believe, however, that the vast majority of instructors do a very good job.) Courses that are conducted under the auspices of recognized entities, such as those mentioned here, and are approved by the Coast Guard and NASBLA are obviously desirable.

Sea Tow recently announced that it held a boater education roundtable with the goal of establishing a process for providing a minimum level of education for all boaters based on a phase-in model and compliant with NASBLA guidelines.

But classes are only a start. Bureaucrats and legislators can make regulations ’til the cows come home, but none of that is going to yield what it really takes to be safe on the water: prudent seamanship. This comes only from experience on the water, one baby step at a time.

As people seek experience there’s one thing we can all do, starting today: try to help out on a person-to-person basis. This can be difficult and may require considerable diplomatic skills, which are hard to come by after some idiot has just missed you by inches. And some who need help may think they don’t and will view the helper as a busybody with a superiority complex. In some cases this may be correct. But we all have a lot at stake; most boaters have a lot in common, and most of us are happy to help and eager to learn.

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