Last week I was kayaking on a remote paddling trail in the upper reaches of Tampa Bay. I was about two miles from anywhere, deep in the mangroves and watching a pair of Roseate spoonbills walking the shallows, I suddenly remembered where my VHF radio was — it was in my life jacket, along with my EPIRB. The problem was I wasn’t wearing that lifejacket; I was wearing one I’d pulled from a box in my garage. Admittedly, not much could go wrong in a kayak in two feet of water on a warm Florida morning, but if something did, I was totally unprepared.
This wasn’t the first (or even tenth) time I had been complacent about my own safety. For years the picture on my website was one of me at the helm of my friend’s sailboat, on Buzzards Bay during a day sail in March. Two- to three-footers, 20 knots of wind and me— a USCG Accident Investigator at the time — wearing a black jacket and no flotation. Despite my experience and staunch advocacy of risk management and checklists, complacency is a constant battle.
Nowhere is complacency more likely than when you are on someone else’s boat. Whether you are with 20 others on a headboat or you’ve chartered a sportfish yacht in the Keys to chase mahi-mahi, you assume the captain has taken care of all the things you would have. He’s a pro, right?
If my time as an inspector and investigator in the Coast Guard taught me anything, it was just how untrue that notion can be. While it is the captain’s job to keep you safe, it is yours to make sure he knows how... and his Coast Guard license is not enough. His years of experience aren’t, either. Here are the three things I ask of a captain — besides if he knows where the fish are — before picking a charter.
Can I see the engines? (Six-Pack or T-Boat)
I’ve met “six sack” (six passengers or less) captains whose boats were so well maintained that I could have eaten off the engines. I’ve also investigated accidents on T-Boats (vessels inspected by the Coast Guard under Subchapter T of 46 in the Code Of Federal Regulations) whose captains I wouldn’t trust to ferry me across a creek. However — in general — the inspections, safety requirements, training and drills required for T-Boat operators make T-boats a generally safer option. But again, not always.
What you can count on about a regulated small passenger vessel (SPV or “T-Boat”) is that it has been regularly inspected by the Coast Guard and conforms to standards that many brand-new vessels off the line wouldn’t meet. As a rule, T-boats are in good condition. If there is any question about the condition of any vessel, however, I find a polite way to ask for a look in the engine space.
A safe operator will be proud of the condition of their boat and be happy to show you. What you are looking for is not necessarily table-top cleanliness, but neat, clean and orderly. If the wiring looks like a mess, that’s bad. If the bilges are wet and the deep color of oil, that’s bad. You also shouldn’t notice a strong smell of fuel when the space is opened. That smell indicates fuel where it shouldn’t be — outside the fuel lines. That funny feeling you’ll get if any of those things are out of order should be heeded. I’d find another boat.
Nice radio. Did you program it with your Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number?
If a skipper looks confused at that question, I almost always move on. If they admit that they haven’t, they are like most captains I’ve met and I give them credit for at least knowing what I am talking about.
A vessel operator who has taken the time to prep his VHF radio to be used in an emergency is a captain who has thought about emergencies. They have considered the possibility of needing help and taken the time to utilize the free and valuable capability built into their VHF radio. If they don’t even know what an MMSI is, I wonder about what other safety at sea precautions they may be clueless about.
You ever get into trouble out there?
While I don’t ask the question exactly that way, I always try to gauge a skipper’s humility to determine if “captain” is a professional title or an ego trip. A safe captain will know they can make mistakes and admit those from their past — because a captain who has never made a mistake is either 20 years old or a liar. A safe captain will (almost proudly) tell you a story about the time they nearly ran aground or lost an engine or got distracted or whatever it was that taught them to be more careful.
We all get complacent from time to time, even us “pros.” The person I most want at the helm of any vessel I charter will believe that and be humble enough to admit it. If not, I find it hard to trust him with my safety. But a skipper who knows he can make mistakes, who keeps a clean engine room and knows how to use his VHF radio? Let’s go fishing, partner!