Last week, I was kayaking on a remote paddling trail in the upper reaches of Florida’s Tampa Bay. I was about 2 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: in my life jacket, along with my EPIRB. The problem was that I wasn’t wearing that life jacket; I was wearing one I’d pulled from a box in my garage. Admittedly, not much could go wrong in a kayak in 2 feet of water, but if something did, I was totally unprepared. Despite my experience and staunch advocacy of risk management, complacency is a constant battle.

Nowhere is complacency more likely to occur than when you are on someone else’s boat. Whether you are with 20 others on a head boat or you’ve chartered a sportfish yacht in the Florida Keys, you assume that 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 is 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. Here are the three things I ask of a captain before picking a charter.

May I see the engines? I’ve met captains whose boats were so well maintained that I could have eaten off the engines. I’ve also investigated accidents on T-boats (vessels the Coast Guard inspects under subchapter T of Title 46 in the Code of Federal Regulations) whose captains I wouldn’t trust to ferry me across a creek. In general, the inspections, safety requirements, training and drills required for T-boat operators make T-boats a generally safer option—but not always. If there is any question about the condition of a vessel, however, I try to find a polite way to ask for a look at the engine space.

A safe operator will be proud of his boat’s condition and happy to show you. What you are looking for is not necessarily tabletop cleanliness, but instead a neat and orderly space. 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. I’d find another boat.

Did you program the radio with your MMSI number? If a skipper looks confused after I ask that question, I almost always move on. If he admits that he hasn’t yet programmed his MMSI number—which stands for Maritime Mobile Service Identity and is a unique nine-digit number assigned to a Digital Selective Calling radio or an AIS unit—then he is like most captains I’ve met. I give him 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 in advance. He has considered the possibility of needing help and taken the time to utilize the free and valuable capability built into his VHF radio.

You ever get into trouble out there? While I don’t ask the question exactly that way, I try to gauge a skipper’s humility to determine if “captain” is a professional title or an ego trip. A safe captain will know that he can make mistakes and will admit those from his 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 he nearly ran aground or lost an engine, because it taught him to be more careful. The person I want at the helm of a vessel I charter will believe that and be humble enough to admit it. If not, then I find it hard to trust him with my safety. 

This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue.

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