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Seamanship Starts Here

Before you do anything else on a boat, get the safety basics right.
Make an effort to learn how to use the life raft on your boat before you need it, and have it inspected and re-certified on a regular basis. 

Make an effort to learn how to use the life raft on your boat before you need it, and have it inspected and re-certified on a regular basis. 

I used to teach seamanship and boat handling to new boat owners. Most of them wanted to learn how to dock their boat—and then go tearing out of the marina as if they were on a fast Sunday highway ride. But that’s never where I started.

Instead, my first lesson was always rooted around safety. My strategy was based on the day I watched an excited, middle-aged man do a face-plant into the cockpit of his first new boat. He jumped aboard and his feet slipped out from under him, a result of the wet sole and his worn-out running shoes. It never occurred to him that the boat he just bought was fraught with ways for him to get hurt.

His misfortune was a reminder to me that nobody should ever take safety for granted on board, no matter how much or how little experience they have. Taking safety seriously includes the operation of all the boat’s safety equipment.

Not long ago, I was aboard a big sportfishing convertible. On the flybridge, forward of the helm console, was a large teak table. It seemed like an odd placement, until I lifted the tabletop and saw a valise that contained the yacht’s inflatable raft. Of course, not every recreational boat needs an inflatable raft, but this ride belonged to an offshore fishing fanatic. His stowage solution was far smarter than one I saw aboard another friend’s boat, a midsize express cruiser. He also did an abundance of bluewater fishing, but he stowed his valise-packed raft beneath a forward bunk in the cabin. It was the only place he could find room for it. I never asked him how he planned to get it overboard if he should need it.

Inflatable life rafts require routine inspections by the manufacturer throughout their lifetime. Some boat owners take a chance and save a few dollars by skipping these inspections—a choice that I do not recommend.

My friend with the express cruiser learned why you should never skip this step. He decided it might be time to have his 10-year-old raft inspected. Having never tried to inflate or use the raft, he waited until the boat was hauled for the winter, and then pulled the cord, for fun, on a nearby snowbank. Much to his satisfaction, the raft hissed loudly and inflated fully—but then deflated seconds later, because of a few small tears in the fabric. Had he needed the raft while he was out fishing with the nearest land a mile away from the boat, he would have felt a lot more than mere disappointment.

No matter how an inflatable life raft is stowed—in a valise and out of the weather, in a fiberglass shell on the foredeck, or on the hardtop roof—there is no way to verify its condition until the time it’s needed. A decade’s worth of folds can weaken the material. Moisture can wick its way inside the capsule andcorrode the internal valves, preventing them from functioning. Leaking valves can lose the charge.

An inspection service can cost hundreds of dollars or more, depending on the size of the raft and its contents, but it’s money well worth spending—with the added benefit of letting you watch as the inspection is performed, so you can understand how this vital safety accessory would work in an emergency. Frankly, not knowing how the raft works before you actually need it is a spooky thought. Imagine having to test the raft for the first time at night, in wind and sporty seas.

My friend Capt. Bill Brogdon retired from the U.S. Coast Guard after many years on Alaskan ice-breakers and fishery patrols. He could always be counted on to provide clever insights about safety. He also was a reliable backstop against my own unsafe choices. Once, after I replaced a torn type IV seat cushion that doubled as a throwable device, I thought I was being smart by keeping the worn cushion aboard as a spare. Brogdon chided me for my so-called savvy thinking. He explained that when a safety device is worn out or damaged, it should be tossed off the boat because in an emergency, someone might reach for it. That person would have no way to know the device was potentially defective and quite possibly useless.

In short order, I trashed the ratty old cushion and bought a second type IV so I would have a pair of them readily available all the time. His comments also spurred me to take a long, hard look at the dozen wearable life jackets I stowed aboard my boat. Packed in a ventilated locker, life jackets, like inflatable rafts, rarely see the light of day. But they are also exposed to salt moisture, which can breed mildew that attacks and weakens the jacket material, seams and strapping. Failure to inspect them regularly, and to air them out occasionally, is the wrong way to care for this vital safety gear. Mildew caught early enough can be cleaned with a weak solution of bleach and water, but if it remains after cleaning, consider tossing the gear, especially if the life jacket has a few years on it.

Some safety equipment is marked with expiration dates: pyrotechnic visual distress signals, EPIRB batteries, hydrostatic release mechanisms, and some fire extinguishers come to mind. But it’s easy to overlook these things when they’re not used. Similarly, smoke alarms and carbon-monoxide monitors can only protect you against danger when they are properly powered up.

And even if you think everything is in order, you can still be surprised. One late summer afternoon, I was focused on catching a fluke for dinner when I was boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard for a routine inspection. My boat passed with flying colors, and the inspector even smiled when I pointed out that I had two sound-producing devices—a battery-operated horn and a portable air horn. I was quite full of myself as I reached for the portable horn and produced a good blast.

Yet, two weeks later, when I reached for the same portable horn, it was out of gas and silent. So, I made it a priority to check and, as needed, replace all my sound-producing devices, including the whistle attached to my life jacket. I want to know that I’m not only able to pass an inspection, but also that I’ll be fully capable if there’s a problem on the water and I need to make some noise.

Being safe can sound boring—especially if you’re a new boater who is raring to go—but the truth is that attention to safety is what makes boating fun. It allows you and your guests to relax on board, knowing you have everything you could possibly need, no matter what happens out there. 

This article was originally published in the February 2023 issue.



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