Planning to fail

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In 2013, I retired from my job as a maritime accident investigator for the U.S. Coast Guard. Before I did that job, I was a helicopter rescue swimmer, and before that I worked on a patrol boat. Responding to boating mishaps, in one way or another, has consumed the better part of my adult life, so you would think what I’m about to say couldn’t be true.

In all that time, responding to mayday calls, searching for overdue boaters and 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 need to, 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 to have a bad one.

Get ready 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 any 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 (significantly) safer operators than recreational boaters. How much safer? A professional mariner is about 25 times less likely to call Mayday, than a recreational boater.

It doesn’t matter that your vessel is in tip-top shape and that you have all the required safety gear; the things you don’t fully control are also things you need a plan for. Before your next outing, try asking – and answering – the following questions about failure to better prepare yourself for a safe trip and a return to your real favorite harbor; the one you come home to.

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 what you will operate your vessel in, leads to risk taking with no reward.

Every vessel has environmental limits, and so does every mariner. With your experience and your vessel in mind, decide ahead of each trip what wave height you’re willing to accept and just how much wind you’re willing to tolerate. Force yourself to fill in the blanks questions like:

  • We turn back when wave height is at or over ____ feet.
  • We turn back if winds are at or expected to reach _____ knots.

Setting those limits gives you permission to stick with those plans and ensure that your unpressured logic wins the decision instead of your attachment to your plan to make it to the next port. Deciding ahead of time what the conditions you consider safe and unsafe stops the “get-there-itis” that clouds decision-making when weather reports change.

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” only needs to mean “heading in” to wherever you can make landfall. If the weather does turn unexpectedly, any land may be good enough. Study the charts and pre-identify possible bail-out points so that you know them as well as your destination.

Who are you talking to?

Every year, vessels with EPIRBS go missing without the EPIRB going off and without a radio call being made. Relying on everything to work isn’t what the safest operators do. Part of a decent float plan includes a communications plan. Schedule a call in every 6 hours with someone back home. Send an email in every change of watch. It’s a no-cost way to back yourself up in the event of an emergency. The person ashore who misses the check in can then contact the USCG with your previous communications (and your float plan, of course).

If things get dicey the Coast Guard would be happy to 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.

What do you call “Pan Pan” for?

Another thing I’ve never experienced in my life in rescue was the sound of a boater calling “Pan Pan.” Safe boaters call in early when things even look like they are going sideways. The vital distress communication “Pan Pan,” tells the Coast Guard and anyone else listening that things are not urgent, but that you may need assistance and helps make you less alone out there.

Again, before you go out, decide what your limits are for handling things alone. Here is my suggested list; feel free to add whatever you like and tape this list next to your radio:

This Vessel calls “Pan Pan” when:

  • We are taking on any water to any degree.
  • At the first sign (even the smell of) smoke or fire.
  • When anyone falls overboard (even when it’s a nice day and we’re sure we can get them back).
  • When anyone has a medical problem that we are considering going back in for.
  • When we lose propulsion, or steering (even if we know we can get them back).
  • Anything else that makes us feel uneasy or even slightly beyond our comfort zone.

Calling Pan Pan will not launch a rescue, it will not get you in trouble with the Coast Guard, and it won’t bother them even a little. But it will let them know that you are having an issue and what the nature of that issue is and open up a world of options that can solve your problems before they get out of hand.

You may have a thousand good miles under your keel, but none of that 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 your next time out, spend just a little time and write down your plan for a bad trip. It’s my first and best advice. 



5 Things You Should Know About Flares

Only once in my career as a USCG helicopter rescue swimmer did I ever launch on a flare sighting that turned into an actual rescue. Three commercial fishermen were at anchor, sleeping, when their shrimp boat caught fire. By the time they got on deck, the wheelhouse was ablaze, and the only thing on the boat not on fire was these three guys, the Type 2 PFDs they were wearing and the one flare they grabbed out of the flare locker.


Preparing For That One Bad Day

When you hear the name Chesley Sullenberger, competence and heroic calm under enormous pressure come to mind, don’t they? Sullenberger, who expertly piloted stricken US Airways Flight 1549 to a 155-life-saving landing on the Hudson River, will long be remembered as the very picture of experience. He was a flight instructor, developed vital flight safety programs and amassed an enormous number of safe flying hours. The passengers aboard Flight 1549 couldn’t have asked for a better pilot on that morning in January 2009.


Why Go It Alone?

Self-reliance is one thing many boat owners embrace, but that ethos could get you into trouble, writes Mario Vittone. p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; line-height: 11.0px; font: 39.5px 'Meta Serif Pro'} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; line-height: 11.0px; font: 9.0px 'Meta Serif Pro'} p.p3 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; text-indent: 8.0px; line-height: 11.0px; font: 9.0px 'Meta Serif Pro'} span.s1 {letter-spacing: 0.6px} span.s2 {letter-spacing: 0.1px} T here was a time when leaving sight of land came with a good chance of never seeing it again. Before the invention of the marine chronometer to determine longitude, going over the horizon was a risky move. Even with accurate charts and a watch, the sea remained deadly; so deadly that the raised platforms known as widow’s walks on New England homes got their name from the sea captains’ wives, who would pace their rooftops, looking seaward for ships that never returned. Without VHF radios or radar, anyone who sailed offshore was truly on his own. Self-reliance wasn’t a romantic, Emersonian notion; it was a condition. Sailors had only themselves. I’ve met countless sailors who do their best to hold on to the traditional notion of being on their own out there. They speak of self-reliance as part of the appeal of being far offshore, alone in the world with only their skill and wits to protect them. They speak of it as a decision they made to be independent. When I was working in search and rescue, these sailors were the ones who always called at the last possible minute; but they always called. These are the guys who often say silly things like, “Never step off until you have to step up.” They were the first ones to send hate mail when I suggested that being alone in a life raft without having made a distress call meant a sailor had screwed up (“The Truth About Survival Training,” August 2019). “What about a lighting strike that causes a fire?” one man complained. “I guess you’ve never heard of anyone hitting a deadhead in the middle of the night,” another offered. Those who fancy themselves to be like the sailors of yore said I was wrong. Self-reliance, they wanted; blame, not so much. Now, I’m no sailor. While I do love boats and have spent a few years working on them, the bulk of my exposure to modern boating has been through search and rescue. For a long time, I was only on boats that were in distress following a call for help. Perhaps that skews me to one side of this argument, but given that experience, I believe this: The idea that you are self-reliant out there can get you killed, while the idea that everything is your fault is vital to your safety. We are connected in ways our great-great-grandfathers could never have imagined. Our radios can talk to each other. Our boats have alarms and pumps connected to apps on phones. We do not watch from rooftops for sails on the horizon; we log on to websites for real-time information. We are not alone out there anymore. But, make mistakes at sea, and you will, one way or another, invite people ashore to join you in your “self-reliant” adventure. We must never lose the sense of absolute personal responsibility for our own safety. There are rare situations where lightning strikes and submerged containers cause unforeseeable situations, but they are no reason to abandon modern tools and procedures. We don’t take off our seat belts just because there is only a slim chance that oncoming traffic may swerve into our lane. The answer to the rare disaster we can’t predict in boating is a float plan and communication prior to the mishap. I think the last great gains to be made in boating safety are in how we think about being on the water. If you still believe in self-reliance, then Godspeed, but keep your VHF radio on, if only so that your loved ones aren’t walking the rooftops, hoping for your return.