In 2013, I retired as a maritime accident investigator for the Coast Guard. Prior to that, I was a helicopter rescue swimmer, and before that I worked aboard a patrol boat. Responding to boating mishaps, in one way or another, has consumed the better part of my adult life, so you’d think what I’m about to say couldn’t be true.
In all that time — responding to mayday calls, searching for overdue boaters, investigating why they didn’t come home — no one ever handed me a float plan. Not once. If there is one big difference between those who call for help and those who don’t, it’s this: Boaters who don’t call for help make plans to need help. Having a good day on the water is, in part, about planning for a bad day. Prepare for a fishing trip, and that’s what you’ll be ready for.
The prep work for going down the coast for a night at your favorite harbor assumes you will get there. But how much time do you spend planning to not make it? Do you spend time planning to fail?
Going much further than just man- overboard and fire plans, professional mariners have written and practiced contingencies for all manner of problems that might occur at sea. That preparation takes the guesswork out of handling those emergencies and makes them much safer operators than recreational boaters. How much safer? A professional mariner is about 25 times less likely to call mayday than a boater.
It doesn’t matter if your vessel is in tip-top shape and you have the required safety gear. The things you don’t fully control are also things for which you need a plan. Before your next outing, try asking — and answering — the following questions about failing to prepare for a safe outing and return to your home harbor.
What are your weather limits?
Too many boaters take the Captain Ron approach to planning: “If anything is gonna happen, it’s gonna happen out there.” But failing to set a hard limit on the conditions you’re comfortable operating in leads to risk-taking with no reward.
Every vessel has environmental limits, as does every boater. With your experience level and vessel in mind, decide ahead of each trip the waves and wind you’re willing to tolerate. Force yourself to fill in the blanks of two questions.
We’ll turn back when wave height is at or more than __ feet.
We’ll turn back if winds are at or expected to reach __ knots.
Setting limits allows you to adhere to those plans and ensures that your unpressured logic wins the decision, rather than your desire to make it to the next port. Deciding ahead of time the conditions you consider safe stops the “get-there-itis” that clouds decision-making when the weather changes.
Where else can you go?
I’ve seen more than one vessel pass a safe harbor, only to sink before getting to the next one. “Heading back” simply means heading in to wherever you can safely make landfall. If the weather turns unexpectedly, any land may suffice. Study the charts and identify potential bail-out spots on the way to your destination.
Who are you talking to?
Every year, vessels with EPIRBs go missing without the beacon going off and without a radio call made. Relying on equipment to always work isn’t what the safest operators do. A float plan should include a communications plan. Schedule a call with someone at home every six hours, and send an email on every change of watch. If the person ashore misses a check-in, they can contact the Coast Guard with your previous communications.
If things get dicey, the Coast Guard can put you on “radio guard” as you send them updates every hour. Of course, you can wait until your significant other at home starts to miss you and calls in concerned, but that may be a long and potentially tragic wait.
When do you call pan-pan?
During my career in rescue I never experienced the sound of a boater calling pan-pan. Safe boaters call early, when things might look like they are going sideways. Calling pan-pan tells the Coast Guard — and anyone else listening — that your status is not urgent, but that you may need assistance. It’ll also help you feel less alone out there.
Here are some suggestions for when to call pan-pan:
- Taking on any water to any degree.
- At the first sign (even the smell of) smoke or fire.
- If someone falls overboard, even on a nice day and you’re sure you can get them back aboard.
- If anyone has a medical problem that has you considering heading ashore.
- If you lose propulsion or steering.
- Anything that makes you feel uneasy or slightly beyond your comfort zone.
Calling pan-pan won’t launch a rescue and won’t get you in trouble with the Coast Guard. It will let responders know you are having an issue and the nature of the issue — and open up a world of options that can solve your problem before it gets out of hand.
You may have 1,000 good miles under your keel, but none of them prepared you for a bad mile. Planning to fail prevents failure. Boaters who write float plans never seem to need them. If you want to have a great trip, spend some time writing your plan for a bad trip. It’s my first and best advice.
This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue.