I don’t know how many rescue missions I’ve completed. I also don’t know how many accident reports I’ve read, or how many cases from other rescuers I’ve studied. What I do know is this: With the exception of some medevacs, every rescue resulted from a mistake the captain made before leaving the dock. I’ve never seen or heard of a mayday call that didn’t begin with an error in planning.
Right now, most of you are trying to think of all the reasons why I’m wrong. You should stop. I’ve been trying to prove myself wrong for more than a decade, to no avail. And even if I am wrong (which I’m not), it’s still a good idea to consider all the things you haven’t done that will make you safer the next time you head out on the water.
Think about your boat. What maintenance items have you been putting off? Now is the time to get serious about any projects you’ve been letting go. If any of the navigation or communications gear on your vessel acts glitchy—your port engine is harder to start, for instance, or it looks as if the gasket on the sea strainer is leaking—then make a plan to get that stuff taken care of before you depart. Everything works before it breaks; that’s why they call it breaking. Poor maintenance planning and error is, quite literally, a killer that has taken down more boats than bad weather.
Consider your checklists and QRH. What’s that? You don’t know what a quick reference handbook (QRH) is? Go back and read my column titled “Boat Like an Airline Pilot” (Soundings, October 2018) and then come back to this story.
Your pre-sail and emergency checklists—no matter how many years you’ve been working on them—are always good things to review. I’ve been working on my own for years and discovered from a reader (to my horror) that I left off checking the medical kit on my pre-sail safety checklist. And I was a medic when I wrote it!
Carefully revising checklists at home helps you find what’s missing or incomplete on board. If a guy who responded to medical emergencies at sea for a living can leave off “check medical and first aid kits,” then who knows what might be missing from your own checklists. Read and reread them, and your emergency checklists too. Then fix your float plan. Die-hard and dedicated readers will likely remember when I recommended identifying possible bail-out points (alternate places to make landfall) while creating a float plan. Have you done it yet? It seems like a good idea, but until you execute, it’s just something you’ll later regret not doing.
While you’re at it, work on your pan-pan list. A good one includes identifying—ahead of time—all the reasons you would notify the U.S. Coast Guard about a problem. Creating that list and reviewing it can keep you from getting in your own way when faced with the planning error of all planning errors: not planning to fail.
Things can go wrong, and your float plan needs to be about more than a perfect boating day. It’s not just a thing to leave behind in case something goes wrong; it’s also a tool you can use at sea to keep things from going wrong in the first place. There is no better time than when you are off the water and focused to consider and make decisions about how you will respond in emergencies on the water.
Take some time to think, and fix all the things you’ve been putting off. Trust me. I’m right about this one.
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue.