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Talkin' Boats - Tom Rau

Boating safety expert

Tom Rau is an expert on boating safety who served 27 years in the Coast Guard (California and Lake Michigan). He retired in 2002 as a senior chief, responsible for the auxiliary substation at South Haven, Mich. He has participated in about 500 search-and-rescue missions.

This mishap illustrates the need for a high degree of situational awareness on the water.

Rau, 68, has been writing the "Boat Smart" safety column for nearly 25 years and it is posted on his Web site, He has written close to 400 columns that form the basis of his book, "Boat Smart Chronicles," which contains more than 100 photos and illustrations. On occasion, Soundings has tapped Rau's expertise for comment on stories about rescues, accidents and safety at sea.
Rau grew up surfing the California coast and resides in Manistee, Mich. He is currently working on a boating education DVD.

Q: What was the most dangerous rescue you were involved in?

A: Probably the most dangerous involved a 39-foot sailboat that was dismasted around 60 miles south of Point Conception in 1984, far off the California coast. We were dealing with 30-foot seas in an 82-foot patrol boat. The seas were so rough that we sustained a great amount of damage to the cutter. Another cutter was involved and with a combined effort we were able to rescue the people. The sea conditions were incredible. You'd see the boat, then you wouldn't see it. These were monster waves. Surface rescues in any type of rough conditions are very difficult. You've got boats coming together in conditions you have very little control over.

Tom Rau

Q: What was your job on that 82-footer?

A: I was the navigator and officer of the deck. I was responsible for the conning of the boat during my watch.

Q: You have actively participated in approximately 500 rescue missions. Were these primarily on the Great Lakes?

A: No. In addition to Lake Michigan, I participated in search-and-rescue missions in Southern California waters between Point Conception and the Mexican border, and sometimes we'd go into Mexico for rescues.

Q: Were there any rescues involving loss of life?

A: The saddest rescue was one I made off Muskegon, Mich., on Lake Michigan. We got a report about 10:30 in the morning that a 16-foot boat was adrift with just a dog aboard around three-quarters of a mile off the beach. I noticed on the boat a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes. And then a fisherman nearby beckoned me over. He had found some tennis shoes and another pack of Pall Malls and I made the connection. Apparently the operator, a 36-year-old male, fell overboard, removed his shoes and attempted to swim back to the boat. A month later, his body washed up on shore several miles north of Muskegon Harbor.

Q: What is the most common safety mistake boaters make?

A. Lack of situational awareness and operational inattention. Speed is also a big cause of accidents. Pulling back the throttles is a big one, especially at night.

Q: It's easy to make a mistake or exercise poor judgment at sea. Can you recall a time when you didn't practice what you've preached?

A: My biggest issue on the water is fatigue. Conducting a search that takes hours is exhausting. And I think this happens to sailors, not just Coast Guard personnel. Fatigue plays an issue in judgment, but fortunately I was never involved in a mishap due to fatigue. I remember after one search-and-rescue, I was so fatigued I passed out in the hot tub at the YMCA.

Q: How do you avoid fatigue?

A: Plan ahead, and the big thing is to break up those watch rotations. Four-hour watches is a good rule of thumb. Also, there is a tendency to put things on autopilot. Autopilot is excellent as long as you're still maintaining watch. You want someone at the helm all the time, even on autopilot. Autopilot is not a substitute for being on watch. You have to be on guard at all times - and visually on guard.

Q: Beyond the Coast Guard-mandated equipment, what are the top three safety devices boaters should carry?

A: I strongly believe in having a heaving line. You can have a life ring attached to it, so if someone goes overboard you stop the vessel and throw it to them and draw the person to the boat. Another is strobe lights. That story last year with the football players - a Coast Guard helicopter flew over those guys several times, according to the survivor, and he had no means of visually drawing the pilot's eye to his position. And make sure that strobe light is tethered to the life jacket. And a whistle - it might sound simple, but a whistle can be such a lifesaver, especially if someone goes overboard at night. It sure as heck beats yelling and it's recognized as an international distress signal. You can buy one for $2, but make sure it's a marine whistle.

The elements can change quickly out on the water, so the prudent mariner should be prepared for surprises; a simple heaving line can be a life-saving piece of gear.

Q: Is there overlooked or underrated safety equipment?

A: This might sound strange, but I think protecting the equipment is often overlooked. You need to especially protect your communications equipment - cell phones or hand-held marine radios. Also, people often fail to carry night illumination devices on their person. It can be anything - a strobe, a flashlight, one of those glow sticks. And if I were doing any offshore boating I would definitely have an EPIRB on my boat - check those batteries.

Q. You are a proponent of mandatory boating education. Why?
A: Unlike licensing, it would not involve a huge bureaucracy. It would be an endorsement to your boat registration. You show proof that you have taken this course and they can stamp it on your registration. Unlike a car accident, where the accident is the end of the ordeal, in a boating mishap it's just the beginning. We need to show boaters what to do in that situation - how to get back aboard their boats, how to notify the Coast Guard, how to do vessel safety checks. In eight hours, you can get a lot of information across in an engaging format that boaters will remember. With today's technology, we have an opportunity to pass along a lot of information. And we have to reach the entire boating population, not just the youngsters, like in the state of Connecticut, which requires mandatory boating education for all boaters. The big challenge is to develop an effective course and I'm trying to do that for the state of Michigan. The course should involve audio and visual instruction.

Rau's book,

Q: How did you get involved with the Coast Guard?

A: I joined the Coast Guard in the Vietnam era. I always had a high regard for the Coast Guard. As a young guy, I was really impressed by the humanitarian aspects. I was stationed in Long Beach, Marina del Rey, Alameda, Calif., and seven search-and-rescue stations along the Great Lakes. Most of my career was in operations, performing search-and-rescue and law enforcement.

Q: What are some of the boats you've operated, with the Coast Guard or otherwise?

A: [With the Coast Guard] I have operated an 82-footer, 44-foot motor lifeboats, 41-foot utility boats and 25-foot rigid hull inflatables. I've served on a score of larger Coast Guard cutters. Also, I've made a number of yacht deliveries. I carry a 100-ton license. Probably the largest yacht I delivered was a beautiful Sparkman & Stephens 50-foot sloop. I've delivered 48 C&Cs and 50-foot trawlers. My cousin in Santa Barbara for over 40 years has done yacht deliveries, so I did a lot with him. He taught me a lot. I went to the California Sailing Academy. That is one thing about sailors - they are definitely above the fold when it comes to knowledge and awareness.

Q: Why did you decide to write "Boat Smart Chronicles"?

A: For 20 years I've been writing a safety column with the Coast Guard and most of the stories are based on Coast Guard search-and-rescue missions. I thought valuable lessons could be learned from these mishaps and what shame it would be not to put all that together in a document - an epic boating safety guide that I believe 50 years, 75 years from now will still greatly benefit boaters.

Q: Which of your columns do you feel were most important?

A. The most important ones have been where the boaters did the right thing and were prepared, especially those who immediately contacted the Coast Guard and provided their position. Don't wait. Two years ago in Lake Michigan, we had three boats that went down - a 65-foot powerboat, a 37-foot powerboat and a 28-foot powerboat. In all three cases, those captains fired off a mayday and provided a position, and in all three cases they were saved. In one of them, they probably would have died of hypothermia if they did not get off that mayday.

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue.