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Proper seamanship starts with education

Proper seamanship starts with education

We were trolling the edge of a large, shallow sand flat earlier this year when a big twin-engine center console came barreling down on us. The water beneath my boat and on my right hand was about 8 feet deep, a couple of boat lengths to my left just a foot or two. And when the tide is all the way out the gulls can walk around in spots without getting their feet wet.

The channel through this maze of sandbars was just over my shoulder, a stone’s throw to the south. I was certain the boat jockeys would turn shortly and pass behind me as they entered the narrow cut.

I went back to minding the boat and the rods for a moment. The next time I looked up, the boat flew past our bow, to the north. There was no time to do anything but watch.

“Uh oh,” I said to Wayne. “This is going to be trouble.”

It’s always surprising just how far you can drive a boat up into the shallows when it’s trimmed out all the way and running at 30-plus knots. Pretty darn far. Next thing we heard was a roar as the engines kicked up, throwing a big, sandy rooster tail, and the boat plowed to a stop.

Conditions couldn’t have been nicer: sunny, light winds, minimal boat traffic, and the sun was still well behind the driver, so you wonder how he could have missed the distinctive color change that occurs here going from 6 or 8 feet to a foot or less. Those shallows should have signaled “beware” as surely as if there were a gigantic blinking neon sign towering above them.

We shook our heads. What could you say? Wayne took another fish.

Spend any time on the water, and I suspect most of us wind up shaking our heads from time to time at the various mishaps, missteps and miscues that occur. The reality is that most accidents could be prevented with more education and experience, by being aware of where you are and what’s going on around you, by displaying some common sense. Clearly, that’s easier said than done.

“Common sense,” retired Coast Guard captain and safety expert Bill Brogdon used to say, “is an uncommon commodity.”

There’s no question that boats have gotten better and safer with each decade. At the same time they’ve also grown larger and faster, and the waters have gotten busier. We’ve all made mistakes, but speed alters the trial and error equation. Increased speed shortens the closing time between vessels. Everything happens faster, mistakes are magnified and there’s less room for error.

And as more new boaters step into larger, faster and more sophisticated craft, the need only increases for education as a starting point for a safe experience on the water. At the very least, the time has come for those states and territories that don’t have some form of mandatory education to initiate programs. Consider this: More than 80 percent of the people involed in fatal boating accidents have never taken an education course.

In Connecticut, where Soundings is home-ported, anyone operating a boat needs to obtain and carry a “safe boating certificate.” It’s been that way for at least 10 years. Does it solve all the problems? Hardly, but at least it’s a start.

The safety and education issue became somewhat blurred this summer in the debate over the terrorist threat posed by small boats and the government’s desire to come up with an identification system for boaters. But identification, or “licensing,” and education are two different things.

Semantics aside, I’m not in favor of operator licensing per se. When it comes to boating, I believe it’s far more effective to teach people to be responsible than it is to punish them. Besides, there typically are enough statutes already on the books to do that. And if identification is the main goal, then existing forms of ID such as automobile driver’s licenses and passports should be considered before enacting a new federal boating license.

Good seamanship rests on a firm foundation of knowledge and experience. A basic boating course offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary or the Power Squadrons is a good way to start, but that’s all it is — a start. Continuing education is the key, and that can take the form of anything from attending a seminar on your fuel system to sitting down and going through the manual for your chart plotter or radar to taking advanced classes in piloting, weather or first aid. When it comes to boats and the sea, the learning should continue for a lifetime.

The Coast Guard recently announced that it has saved more than 1 million lives since it first started hauling water-logged sailors out of the drink. And for that we all should tip our hats in thanks. But it’s also time we do a better job of taking care of ourselves, and that means being responsible, prudent and self-reliant. The water demands nothing less. We shouldn’t either.