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The list you don’t want to make

The list you don’t want to make

The four fishermen were in serious trouble. They were floating in a chum slick 15 miles off Florida after their boat had sunk, and sharks were swimming just beneath their legs. One man clutched a seat cushion under one arm while he thrust a cell phone into the air with the other. Somehow, he managed to dial 911. Even more remarkable is that an operator was able to pick up the signal and notify the Coast Guard.

Their account is described in more detail in this month’s cover story on survivors, which begins on Page 35. From the hundreds of mishaps we covered between 2002 and 2003, we have compiled a list of the 10 most amazing tales of survival at sea. I’m certain you’ll be impressed by the tenacity and resilience shown by these mariners. When you read their stories, consider, too, how some of them got into the trouble they did and what they may have been able to do differently to head things off.

Common threads run through several of the accounts. One is that when things start to unravel on the water, they often spiral downward very quickly, leaving the victims with little or no time to call for help or even grab a life jacket. You take a few boarding seas over the transom cutout, the boat settles, the sea pours in, and down you go. At least seven of the survivors we write about wound up in the water without a life jacket, even though there were PFDs on board.

One way to stay out of trouble is to recognize its potential for occurring in advance and to take whatever steps are necessary to head it off before the proverbial you-know-what hits the fan. Granted, that’s easier said than done, but it still should be the goal. A former Coast Guard search-and-rescue veteran I know refers to this as “situational awareness.”

At a minimum, you need to develop the judgment to know when to put your life jacket on. Obviously, if the boat is sinking and you’re scrambling to find a PFD, you’ve waited too long. Keep in mind that a PFD is really a last resort. The idea is not to end up in the drink to begin with. It also should go without saying that when you do need a life jacket, you need one immediately. PFDs should to be easily accessible, and everyone on board should know where they are stowed.

Communications are critical, as you will read in a number of these stories. When you’re in trouble, you need to be able to let someone know it. And fast.

For coastwise boating, a VHF radio should be your primary means of communication; make sure it is working properly. If you carry a hand-held VHF, keep it fully charged.

The cell phone should be viewed only as a backup. You don’t want to find yourself treading water, holding a cell phone up with one hand saying, “Can you hear me now?”

On even the best-maintained boats, something will go wrong at some point. That’s one of Murphy’s immutable laws of moving parts, running rigging and internal combustion engines.

When a piece of gear does decide to give up the ghost, consider it an opportunity to learn something, rather than one more reason to get rid of the damn boat. Why did the particular failure occur? Could the situation have been seen ahead of time and prevented? Were you able to troubleshoot the problem on the water? If so, did you have the tools, spare parts or skill to make the repair? Could it happen again?

Sail or power, large or small, boats demand at the very least a rudimentary understanding of the various systems that enable them to run properly. Engines, drives, fuel, steering, sails, rigging, electrical, and so on. The more you understand, the better off you are.

The information is out there. Ask questions. Read books and articles. Take courses. Learn from your mistakes. Bone up on boat handling, navigation and how to read the water. Carry the proper equipment. Think redundancy wherever practical. Check the marine forecasts before getting under way, and don’t forget to compare that with what your eyes and experience are telling you.

Get used to relying on yourself and your preparations. Don’t guess or make assumptions. Remember, seamanship is built upon competence, experience, prudence and good judgment. It has nothing to do with who owns the largest, fastest or most expensive boat.

So enjoy our collection of survival stories and learn what you can from them. But please don’t put yourself in the running to be on our next list.