With so many new boaters on the water this past summer due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there was no shortage of vessels plying the waters of my usual serene haunts in the river, bay and ocean near my home in New Jersey. Word on the street was boat sales were booming as people who were stuck at home decided to trade summer travel plans for keys to new boats, possibly encouraged by a story in the New York Times last July that said driving a boat was easy and anyone could do it. Well, not so much.
One morning I couldn’t back out of my slip because there were a dozen yoga enthusiasts behind my boat in the navigable waterway, posturing on their paddleboards as the sun was coming up. They had every right to be there, but it took a few blasts of my horn to get their attention. Imagine an inexperienced skipper trying to operate a boat in that situation? Ignorance is not bliss when on the water.
I have always minimized my weekend time on the water to avoid crowds, heading offshore very early or just not bothering at all. But this summer, even weekdays were hectic. Damaged and missing day markers dotted many of the secondary channels near my homeport of Manasquan, problems most likely caused by mariners not paying attention to where they were going. Most seasoned skippers know boating skills take time to acquire, yet a few of the new boaters I encountered were not investing a lot of effort in learning basic seamanship and boat operation.
I heard reports about boats colliding while speeding in narrow channels, sometimes with significant damage to the
vessels, or worse, even fatalities. Near Montauk, New York, a recreational boat operating in fog at what the Coast Guard had reported was a high rate of speed for those conditions, T-boned a commercial fishing boat. Another person lost his life when thrown from a personal watercraft after zigzagging over boat wakes. Perhaps the most concerning incident of the summer involved the Lake Michigan fisherman who was so into the process of reeling in a catch that he was oblivious to the 410-foot auto ferry about to run him over. I don’t know if the people running these boats were inexperienced or old salts, but I share these stories so that new owners understand how important it is to stay focused when you’re out on the water.
According to BoatU.S., 90 percent of boating accidents are the result of the operator and passengers displaying a lack of situational awareness. They’re not aware of sea conditions, the seaworthiness of their vessel and the boat’s actual location. I witnessed a few examples of this over the summer, particularly aboard large bowriders. On more than one occasion, I watched as a number of passengers would crowd the open area forward, unaware that their weight and the boat’s lack of buoyancy forward decreases the vessel’s freeboard. As a result, the passengers were exposed to wash coming over the bow from passing wakes.
When a bowrider, or even a center console boat, is restricted in its ability to rise over an oncoming wake or swell due to excessive weight forward, hundreds of gallons of water can pour into the cockpit, instantly flooding the space and affecting the boat’s stability. The loss of control is immediate.
I recall one boat I saw on a Sunday afternoon cocktail cruise. There were 10 people in the bow. I wondered if the skipper had enough personal flotation devices for his crew, and if those PFDs were in easy reach. Savvy boaters know that you do not measure a boat’s safe capacity by the number of seats, but rather by the weight the boat is certified to carry.
What really alarms me is when I see people dangling their feet in the water from the bow of a boat that is underway. What is that captain thinking? Other skippers throw caution to the wind when they allow passengers to lay across the foredeck and up against the windshield while the boat is making way. These passengers are seconds away from becoming a boating statistic in the worst way.
Boaters of all experience levels are guilty of operating their boats faster than they should. So maybe your quad-outboard rig has a top speed of 69 mph. That doesn’t mean you should drive it that fast. The Coast Guard is clear on its mandate that vessels should be operated at a safe speed, one at which the operator to take effective action to avoid collision.
A multitude of factors are in play with this navigation rule, including visibility, the density of boat traffic, weather, wind, sea and current. Experienced boaters have learned to add a large dose of common sense to the rule, and new boaters need to do the same. For instance, if you are in a parade of boats moving slowly down a channel, know to look for signage ahead indicating a No-Wake Zone. In this situation, it’s not advisable for you to pull out and charge past the others at a high rate of speed.
New boat owners also need to realize that all boaters are accountable for their own wake. If your wake manages to upset and overturn a kayaker, you could be liable and earn a citation from the water police. We all share the water, after all.
Unless you are boating in the south, chances are your vessel is winterized and stored on land as you read this. I suggest you use the downtime in the off-season to learn more about the boating skills that are necessary to become a skilled and highly competent captain.
Take a safe boating class with the U.S Power Squadrons or the Coast Guard Auxiliary, or try an online boating safety course to discover and develop the knowledge you need to operate and maintain your boat. While you’re at it, add the best sources to your reading materials, including Chapman Piloting & Seamanship and the USCG Navigation Rule & Regulations Handbook. And make the time to review the pages of your new boat’s owner’s manual.
Work on these things now, because spring will be here before you know it.
This article was originally published in the November 2020 issue.