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At sea, vigilance is never an option

Seamanship and safety are often best learned by understanding the mistakes made by others. No one utilizes this method of learning better than the United Kingdom’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch, which each year issues a compilation of accidents suffered by merchant seamen, commercial fishermen and recreational boaters.

Bill Sisson

The real meat of this Safety Digest is the “lessons” section that follows each accident narrative. The document is available free online at

In the introduction to the 2008 safety report, Stephen Meyer, the chief inspector of marine accidents, reminds all of us of the dangers posed by complacency, whether it’s the pleasure boater staring at his chart plotter or the merchant mariner handling cargo. Any task that becomes repetitive has the potential of lulling us into a false sense of security.

On the water, you’re asking for trouble when you try to perform a job without giving it your full attention, by simply going through the motions. “When these tasks become routine,” Meyer writes, “they become dangerous.” That’s an important lesson to remember.

I went through the entire digest and pulled out incidents I thought would be applicable for those of us on this side of “the pond.” The “lessons learned” sections combine the observations of the U.K. safety experts with some additions by yours truly to make them more applicable for our readership.

Situation: A large powerboat collided with a sailing dinghy operating in close quarters, dismasting the sailboat and nearly cutting it in two. The helmsman on the small boat suffered a concussion and was treated for shock.

Lessons learned: Maintaining a proper lookout on any boat is paramount to safety, especially, the investigators note, on a large powerboat traveling at high speed. In this instance, the skipper was the only person on the powerboat. The boat was a semidisplacement hull, and the operator was running the vessel from an interior helm station. It’s important to remember that forward visibility can be compromised on those semidisplacement hulls that tend to run “bow up.” The sailors had the right of way, but that didn’t stop the accident from occurring. The investigator notes that the vision of the dinghy skipper to leeward was restricted by the sails and correctly points out the importance of frequently looking under the boom.

Situation: Investigators looked into the grounding of a fishing boat aboard which the captain insisted on doing most of the jobs himself. In the process, he built up a large sleep deficit that proved his undoing. At one point, the master had been on duty for 19 of the previous 24 hours. On the return trip the skipper fell asleep. He woke after his vessel ran aground at full speed, just 130 feet from a lighthouse.

Lessons learned: Fatigue can be a killer. It plays a role in more accidents than we realize. The safety investigators in this incident also remind us of the risks of operating shorthanded. In this case, there was only one mate on board, which meant it was not practical to post a lookout. On recreational boats, fatigue can be a significant factor in safety, especially in heavy weather with the crew unable to stand watch or help with other tasks because of severe seasickness. Under those circumstances, the skipper often is forced to remain at the helm for many hours. Remember, too, that your ability to make sound, prudent decisions and to solve problems will be affected by a lack of sleep.

Situation: Experts examined a fatal accident that occurred when a fishing boat flooded and sank. Not only was the vessel’s freeboard low, but corrosion caused by the acid in the engine exhaust allowed water to enter the vessel below the deck, ultimately causing her to sink.

Lessons learned: Whether you’re a recreational boater or a commercial mariner, never underestimate the volume of water that can flow into a boat through relatively small holes. To put the experts’ findings in slightly different words, never underestimate the speed with which a vessel, large or small, can sink. Typically, it’s much faster than one imagines. Recognize, too, the importance of adequate freeboard and keeping your vessel watertight. Make sure you have a working bilge pump and bilge alarm system, although I should note that bilge pumps on many recreational boats can easily be overwhelmed by flooding. In other words, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by the small pump in your bilge. That brings us to one of the basic tenets of seamanship: keep the water on the outside of the hull.

Situation: A captain of a foundering vessel with three people on board managed to retrieve only one life jacket from the wheelhouse before his boat sank. He radioed for help, but wound up giving inaccurate position information, delaying the rescue. The vessel sank quickly, and the captain didn’t get out of the boat alive.

Lessons learned: Before trouble strikes, think through what you would do in the event of an emergency. Run through what I call the “what if” scenarios: What if someone falls overboard? What if the engine won’t start? Know the proper way to place a mayday call. Everyone on board should know where the life jackets and other safety equipment are stowed. Take the time to go over basic safety information and procedures with crew before leaving the dock.

Final note: Stay sharp, remain vigilant and avoid the lure and lull of complacency.

This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue.