Time to Think: Boating Without Leaving the Dock

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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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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.