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Time to Think: Boating Without Leaving the Dock


I don’t remember 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 was caused by a mistake the captain made before leaving the dock. I’ve never seen or heard of a mayday call that didn’t begin with a planning error.

Right now, most of you reading this are trying to think of all the reasons why I’m wrong about what I just said. You should stop. I’ve been trying to prove me 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 use the  offseason 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 or it looks like the gasket on the sea strainer is leaking, make a plan to get that stuff taken care of now.

Now is the time to repair faulty gear and do preventative maintenance. It could save your life later. Gary Reich

Now is the time to repair faulty gear and do preventative maintenance. It could save your life later. Gary Reich

Not fixing something that’s on the edge of unseaworthy is a common mistake that too many boaters make. 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 ever has.

One good thing about the offseason is that marine mechanics are less busy and more available to help if you’re not the wrench-turning sort. So, take the time this week to think about everything on your boat you have been procrastinating getting fixed and, you know, stop putting it off.

Consider your Checklists and QRH

What’s that? You don’t know what a QRH (quick reference handbook) is? Go back and read “Boat Like an Airline Pilot” and then come back here. 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 found out 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 first wrote it!

Carefully revising your checklists at home helps you find what's missing or incomplete. Mario Vittone

Carefully revising your checklists at home helps you find what's missing or incomplete. Mario Vittone

If a guy who responded to medical emergencies at sea for a living can leave off “Check medical and first aid kits” from his checklist for years, who knows what might be missing from your own? Read and re-read your checklists and emergency checklists. Consider what might be missing, confusing or incomplete and work on it. I’ll be updating mine this weekend.

Fix Your Float Plan

Die-hard and dedicated readers of Lifelines will 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 regret not doing later.

While you’re at it, you can work on your pan-pan list. A good one includes identifying — ahead of time — all the reasons you will notify the Coast Guard about a problem you are having. 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.

Neglecting a small piece of gear down here could lead to catastrophe. 

Neglecting a small piece of gear down here could lead to catastrophe. 

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 but also a tool you can use at sea to keep them from going wrong in the first place. There is no better time than when you are off the water to consider and make decisions about how you will respond in emergencies on the water.

Boating emergencies most often are caused by mistakes made before leaving the dock. It’s time for you to consider that I might be right about that. With that in mind, you should take time to think; you should take time to ponder and you should fix all the things you’ve been putting off. 



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