About 17 million recreational boats are in use in the United States, according to the latest figures from the National Marine Manufacturers Association. I don't know about you, but it seems like most of those boats are crossing in front of ours on summer weekends. The waterways are busy and are about to get busier with the pandemic-fueled growth in recreational boating since these figures were compiled.
According to the most recent data published by the U. S. Coast Guard in 2019, 4,168 boating accidents were reported, which sadly included 613 deaths and more than 2,000 injuries. These incidents cost a staggering $55 million in damage to property. Two leading causes of these accidents were operator inattention and improper lookout. So, how do we improve our chances of not becoming one of these statistics when going out to enjoy a day on the water?
Knowing that a large percentage of boating accidents are caused by inattention or improper lookout, one of the best ways to improve safety is to increase the number of eyes watching for danger. A boat may only have one captain, but all the eyes on board can help keep the vessel safe.
A friend joined us aboard our boat recently on a busy Saturday outing. After listening to my wife point out all the boats, crab pots and buoys in our path, he leaned over and whispered to me "Does she always do this? That would drive me crazy." I said she sure does, and I don't ever want her to stop. On more than one occasion she has seen a boat approaching that I hadn't noticed, or a small floating buoy I missed. I'll gladly listen to her observations to keep us safe.
Having friends and family join you on the water is one of the most enjoyable aspects of boat ownership; however, I have observed an inverse relationship between the number of people on board and the number of eyes looking out for danger. The more people you have on your boat, the more likely they are to be engaged with each other or the day's activities than they are to assist with anything related to the boat.
Now, you may say this is normal: "I didn't invite my friends to go boating to have them help me run the boat." This may be true, but wouldn't you like someone to notify you of a potential problem?
Whether sail or power, a lot of things could be happening on a boat at one time, especially if you enter a busy inlet or harbor. Dropping sails or coming off plane, monitoring a rising bottom and paying attention to your position in the channel, and needing to call a bridge tender or marina on the VHF radio can take your attention away from intersecting boat traffic or hazards in your path. Having another set of eyes to assist could be the difference between arriving safely or being towed in with the marine police following you.
The tradition of watch keeping aboard a ship has existed as long as floating vessels have gone to sea. It's the act of assigning specific roles and times to personnel on board to keep the vessel safe from collision, fire or any potential hazard that could arise. Most recreational boaters take too relaxed a view of this.
The best plan is to have a dedicated mate to act as a lookout; one that is willing to join the party once the boat is safely anchored or tied to the dock. Or conversely, have a mate tend to guests while you focus on driving the boat. I give our guests the same speech each time we go out, "Please forgive me if I don't pay much attention to you while we're underway. The waterway will be busy today, so I'm going to pay attention to the boat. If you see, hear or smell anything on board or around us that doesn't seem right, please don't hesitate to let me know. Now, sit back and enjoy the ride."
Danger doesn't always come in the form of other boats. I remember an occasion when an attentive guest's observation paid off. While sitting in the back of a fishing boat near the engine cowling, the guest heard a whine get louder and louder. Calling attention to it helped the captain catch an alternator bearing that was failing, which could have had serious consequences or even caught fire had it seized completely.
Not all boating requires the same level of attentiveness. Cruising along the coast in the ocean is very different from traveling along the busy Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). With the assistance of autopilot, radar tracking and Automatic Identification System (AIS), it is much easier to keep track of fewer boats around you in the ocean. But a vigilant lookout is important. It is amazing the number of close calls that occur between boats in open water.
In all boating situations, understand the rules of the road and know who has the right of way but don't assume other boaters do. Avoid playing chicken or challenging another boater over right-of-way. If you spot a boat at a distance on an intersecting course, follow rules of being the stand on or give way vessel, up until a point of realizing the other boat is not following the rules. Take early and obvious measures to avoid the other boat. I've maneuvered around boats in the ocean, only to see no one at the other boat's helm as we pass.
On longer runs, captains may have to turn over the helm to a mate for a break. In doing so, make sure you communicate everything you know when handing over the helm. Don't assume the person taking over sees the navigation aids ahead. If in the ICW, remind them what side the reds are on for this stretch of water. Alert them to any other vessels you're tracking. If you made an adjustment to your speed to conduct a safe passing arrangement with another boat, it could be dangerous for them to take over the helm and ask themselves "Why are we going so slowly?" and resume a normal cruising speed.
When most boaters free their lines and head for open water, they do so in a mild state of denial, an innocent but dangerous unwillingness to admit something could go wrong. Staying safe is more than just having the proper safety equipment aboard your boat, it is a state of mind to make the conscious effort to act in a safe manner, keep a look out for trouble and be unwilling to become a boating accident statistic.
Nighttime on a boat can be magical. Everything, even familiar territory, takes on a new feel which can be strange but far from scary. In fact, boating at night not only lets you potentially venture farther in one outing, it can also become your favorite way to spend time aboard.
Boating overnight can include either navigating and maneuvering in the dark, or spending a safe night at anchor or in a slip. Let’s break down these two concepts and highlight some tips for how to do each.
Whether you’re coming back from a waterfront dinner, taking a moonlight cruise, or heading to a distant anchorage, you’ll need to be ready for nighttime operations.
1. Prepare the boat and check the safety gear
Locate all personal flotation devices (PFDs), put fresh batteries into your headlamps and flashlights and place the binoculars near the helm. Check that the engine, radio and electronics are in good working order. Test the running lights and bilge pumps.
Gather your crew and lay out the rules of engagement including staying in the cockpit, wearing PFDs and safety harnesses, and following the protocol for an emergency be it crew overboard, collision, fire, etc.
Agree on communications with the captain and set a watch schedule. Know how to call for help in case of an emergency. It’s best to not single-hand at night due to fatigue. If you must make a passage at night alone, set an alarm for every 30 minutes in case you drift off while standing watch.
2. Boat defensively
Visibility is reduced and your senses may play tricks on you in the dark. Distances are harder to judge, and boats, markers, and obstacles are difficult to see. Slow down and be methodical in your navigation. Familiarize yourself with the charts for the area where you’ll be boating well ahead of time and learn the aids to navigation you’ll encounter along the way. Learn your light signals (on other boats and on shore) before departure.
Preserve your night vision by using only red lights inside the cabin or in your flashlights. Scan the horizon a full 360-dgrees every 15 minutes – more often if you’re in a busy traffic area. Turn off music and listen. You may hear fog horns, whistles, bell buoys, or other boats approaching.
3. Keep an eye on key data
Is the engine running smoothy with a steady temperature? Is the bilge pump running more often than it should be? Is all gear (and lines) secured? Trust your instruments but make sure your chartplotter is updated and your radar and instruments are working before you leave the slip. You should have checked the weather forecast before departure but keep an eye on changing conditions.
4. Dock and anchor with caution
When maneuvering at night, don’t use headlights or spotlights until you’re close to your destination whether that is a dock or an anchorage. Use light too soon and you’ll destroy your night vision. As the old saying goes, approach a dock only as fast as you’re willing to hit it. Advise crew to move slowly and deliberately when stepping onto a dock or tying lines to cleats. Double-check knots and hitches before leaving the boat unattended.
It may be difficult to judge a good anchorage in the dark including how far from shore or other boats you are when you drop the hook and whether there’s a current running. Slow down and take good bearings, making sure you have room to swing. Be extra careful when working with the windlass at night when fingers, clothes and hair can get caught before you notice. You may need to set an anchor watch with your crew or set an anchor alarm on your plotter.
The best experiences
Nighttime is the right time on a boat for so many reasons. You may see phosphorescence as fish swim by or a night sky like you don’t experience on land. You may hear dolphins exhaling as they amble by. You may be rocked gently to sleep in an idyllic anchorage.
Most importantly, running through the night will expand your horizons. Once you stretch your wings, you can explore distant marinas where you can get a slip to get that good night’s rest aboard. (Check out Snag a Slip for slip reservations as you travel.)
The key is preparation, vigilance and a methodical approach to everything from driving to tucking into a warm berth. Then, enjoy all that the wee hours on a boat can bring.
Boaters are a fun loving yet superstitious bunch. For as long as mankind has sailed the seas, there’s been ceremonies to mark the launch of a new vessel. It’s how boaters celebrate welcoming their boats into the world, and ensure safe passages for a lifetime of adventures on the water.
The practice of christening boats actually started thousands of years ago in ancient Greek and Phoenician civilizations as religious ceremonies performed to ensure safety for sea-going vessels. These ceremonies date back thousands of years and varied around the world, some even involving human or animal sacrifice. Our current, less savage, practice of christening a boat with champagne arrived in 1891. It was Britain’s Queen Victoria who first smashed a bottle of champagne against a hull, launching the Navy cruiser HMS Royal Arthur.
Hosting a proper christening ceremony not only connects you to a nautical tradition rooted in ancient times, but is a reason to celebrate with friends and family. Here’s what you’ll need, and what you’ll need to do, to launch your boat in style!
-Your boat (It goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway)
-Friends and Family to Join in the celebration ceremony
-Lots of champagne, wine or sparkling cider (To drink)
-A branch of green leaves (We’ll explain)
-A pre-scored ceremonial christening bottle in a fine-mesh containment bag (This ensures the broken pieces of glass don’t end up in the water.)
There are actually days on which you should NEVER christen your boat, or you chance bad luck and misfortune. As you’ll see, most of the days to avoid are based on religious events, and sailors and seafarers have followed these traditions for centuries. For that reason, you’d be wise not to break with tradition. Here are the days to avoid:
All Fridays – Yes, any Friday is considered bad luck. This is likely for religious reasons, as Jesus was crucified on a Friday. This may seem like an unusual reason. Even so, the US Coast Guard waits for the weekend to christen their new boats. It’s simply part of a long tradition, and boaters won’t break it.
All Thursdays– You may be aware of Norse mythology, and “Thor” the god of storms and thunder. It’s believed that holding a boat christening ceremony on a Thursday provokes Thor and turbulent seas. So, to avoid the rath of Thor, just pick another day.
First Monday in April– This day has another religious connection. It’s marked as the day when Caine slew Abel, condemning Caine to a life of wandering.
Second Monday in August– This day is denoted as the day God destroyed the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone.
December 31– It was on this day that Judas felt so much sorrow and regret, seeing Jesus condemned to death, that he committed suicide by hanging.
Once you’ve decided on a fitting day, go ahead and get out the invitations to gather at the location you choose to christen your boat. The most common places to hold a boat christening ceremony are marina slips, anchorages and moorings. And, you’ll want to make a quick maiden voyage if you’re christening at a location, being sure to rig the vessel before the ceremony, avoiding any possible delays or glitches.
Once everyone arrives at the boat, gather them together and prepare for a toast. If you’re deciding what to serve, boat captains traditionally served red wine when christening a boat. Today, a wide range of spirits are enjoyed, with champagne being the most popular. But some prefer other liquors such as rum or brandy.
With the guests gathered and their glasses full, it’s time for the toast. Begin by welcoming guests, thanking them for coming, and reveal the boat’s name. You can then say a few words about the boat. It’s common to talk about the merits of the boat, and where you plan to sail it. You can even include a poem.
Once the toast is done, you should lay the branch of green leaves on the deck. The branch symbolizes safe returns from your journeys, and serves as a good luck symbol. You don’t need to be concerned about what type of branch you choose – any branch with green leaves will do. The branch will need to stay on the boat through the christening ceremony and the maiden voyage. After that, you can toss it overboard.
After the toast and the laying on of the branch, it’s time for the most exhilarating part of the boat christening ceremony – breaking the bottle! First, move everyone to the bow (front) of the boat. Once there, the captain traditionally breaks the bottle somewhere over the bow – a cleat, anchor roller, or anywhere else. However, don’t break the bottle directly on the bow itself, as it can chip paint and damage woodwork.
If you’re not keen on breaking a bottle, you can also pour a bit of champagne, or your preferred drink, over the bow.
The fact is, no christening is complete until you take a maiden voyage of some sort. It doesn’t have to be a long one, even drifting out to your anchorage or mooring qualifies. Once you’ve done this, there’s nothing more to do but enjoy the congratulations!
If you bought a used boat that already has a name, and you want to change it, there are rules to follow as well. Again, boaters are a superstitious lot, and we don’t want bad luck and misfortune to befall your boat.
Before you plan a christening ceremony, you’ll need to thoroughly remove all instances of the boat’s old name and identity. You even need to completely remove the old name BEFORE you say the new name out loud, or bring onto the boat anything with the new name.
To remove the old name on the exterior, you’ll need to remove the exterior paint or lettering. To do this right, you’ll also need to check whether the boat has ever been repainted. If it has, you’ll need to get down to all the previous layers and literally scrape off the old name. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to simply paint over the old name. The same goes for the interior of the boat. Make sure there are no fixtures, badges, clothing, coffee mugs, engravings, upholstery, or decorations remaining with the old name. You get the drift! Now if you have paperwork like maintenance logs, receipts or cruising journals, you’ll also need to cover the old name with whiteout.
The rules of this tradition are so steadfast that if you get through the whole process, christen your boat and then find a trace of the old name, you must christen it again!
We know this is a lot to do, but for the love of your boat and maritime tradition, it’s worth it. So, let us be the first to say “congratulations” on your new boat!
Few items carried aboard your boat, embody the freedom of the cruising lifestyle more than your dinghy, or “tender” if you prefer. These often abused and rarely waxed little boats are a valuable part of cruising adventures. They allow you to moor or anchor out, enjoying the peace and quiet of a secluded anchorage, yet still take advantage of amenities on shore.
They take you on excursions through back water, narrow channels, and man- grove forests, too small or shallow for your primary vessel. And if you have a four- legged friend on board, you know not only the importance of getting them to shore, but oh how they love a dinghy ride.
They can even make stays at a marina more enjoyable. For instance, Dolphin Marina in Harpswell, ME, provides guests aboard boats in the marina with charts showing a half a dozen dinghy trips you can take around the islands of Casco Bay to scenic coves and remote islands that would be impossible to get the big boat into. And if you plan to cruise to the Bahamas, Caribbean or remote destinations, you need dependable transportation to shore.
The most important feature of a dinghy is that it must be easy to use. If it requires too much effort to launch and operate, you will be reluctant to anchor out as often as you might like. Ease of use is determined by several factors, such as whether you must inflate the dinghy, mount the engine, or need three people and a crane to lower it into the water. Many of these choices are determined by the size and configuration of your boat, but regardless of your boat’s size or your budget, you can create a setup that’s easy to use.
The choices for how and where to carry a dinghy fall into a few basic categories. If you do not have the option of a crane- style lifting device, you may be limited by the size and weight of your dinghy, but that does not mean you are relegated to the equivalent of a rubber toy boat. Efficient davit systems can be mounted on medium size swim platforms. These accommodate a variety of dinghy styles, both rigid and inflatable, and allow you to keep the engine mounted to the dinghy.
Also, hydraulic lift systems can carry a tender off your stern, but your transom must be capable of carrying the device, and your boat should be heavy enough to stay balanced with that much weight aft of center. If your boat meets those require- ments, the hydraulic lifts are about as easy to use as it gets.
Another option some cruisers choose is to tow a dinghy. While I’ll admit to having done this in protected waters, it’s generally not a safe practice. There are too many documented cases of towing components fouling up props and leaving boaters stranded. If you travel to the islands, you will see many cruisers towing dinghies, but please use extreme caution if you choose to do this. Learn where and how to safely attach the dinghy to your boat, and if there is any threat of rough seas, retrieve the dinghy immediately and secure it to the mother ship.
Dinghies come in a variety of hull styles and materials, including plank- reinforced fabric bottoms, high-pressure inflatable bottoms, and rigid hulls of fiberglass or aluminum. In general, soft-bottom styles are limited to what they can do and endure, even with a high-pressure floor with a keel.
If you intend to transport serious loads of supplies and people, a rigid hull is a must. Its durability is also important if you are cruising in the tropics, where you are as likely to land on a beach as tie up at a dock. Rigid bottoms can be part of a fully rigid boat, but more often they are connected to an inflatable top tube and called “rigid inflatable boats,” or RIBs. These have become the ubiquitous tender of choice for most cruisers. You get durability and stability from the rigid hull, and buoyancy and lightweight from the inflatable top tubes. The top tubes are much gentler on the sides and finish of your boat when tied to it.
RIB’s hull bottoms have been primarily fiberglass, but aluminum hulls are gaining market share with even lighter weight then fiberglass and more durable for beach landings. The inflatable tubes come in a range of materials, including PVC, coated neoprene and Hypalon, which are widely considered the best material for the inflatable parts of a dinghy.
A well-built dinghy will provide many years of service, but it won’t last forever. A sign of a good-quality RIB dinghy is the ease with which it can be serviced and even re-tubed when necessary.
An example of a feature that could affect serviceability is the fuel tank’s type and location. Separate fuel tanks carried in dedicated compartments are easier to inspect or replace but have limited carrying capacity; built-in fuel tanks may carry more fuel and be better balanced, but may also be difficult or impossible to repair without completely un-assembling the dinghy.
It used to be your only choice of power for a dinghy was a gasoline powered outboard engine, however innovative companies have been actively introducing clean burning propane powered internal combustion engines, and most recently electric motors with impressive power and range.
When shopping, it’s best to purchase from a dealer that in addition to sales, performs complete service on the dinghy and engine. A high-quality dealer will be willing to visit your boat to determine if a particular model can be carried, launched and retrieved safely.
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