Captain's Tips

Safety Drills

By
Bob
Arrington

Are you willing to practice being a safe boater?

Recreational boaters can learn a lot from commercial fishing fleets. While we may not spend days at sea with trained personnel aboard our boats, we share a
common goal of departing and returning to the dock safely every time we go out on the water.

According to fishing vessel accident data compiled by the U.S. Coast Guard, commercial fishing has become safer since the requirement to conduct safety drills was
implemented in the industry. Crews must perform and document safety drills on a regular basis for potential situations such as persons overboard, fire, flooding and personnel injuries.

Source Superelakes

Statistics show fishing vessels continue to sink due to poor maintenance or going out in adverse weather; however, the loss of life in these accidents has trended down over the years. This increased personnel safety largely attributed to the crews practicing safety drills.

Unfortunately, when most recreational 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 aboard the boat. They are understandably but also unfortunately more focused on the day’s adventure.

You may believe you are heading out as a safe boater, after all, you carry all the required emergency equipment onboard, but having it and being prepared to use it are two very different things. Many who work in an environment where the unexpected could occur, regularly rehearse safety drills of emergency procedures and practice them repeatedly, so the response behavior becomes second nature.

Aboard your boat, you are not just the host to your friends for a fun day on the water, with your spouse or regular fishing buddies along as good company for the day, you are also the emergency personnel. Only through repeated practice and rehearsal of emergency situations will you be fully prepared to handle an unexpected event.

Most boaters, however, are reluctant to rehearse emergency drills, feel a little silly, or don’t want to ruin the excitement of the day with the dose of reality that an actual emergency could occur. But if you are not prepared and willing to practice safety drills, you are not prepared to be a safe boater.

Wired for Safety

Source Getty Images

It is well known that different activities you perform are controlled from different regions in your brain. Routine activities like brushing your teeth and activities you do repeatedly in life are controlled from a specific part of your brain. You perform these activities with very little conscious thought.

You do them so frequently, they are permanently wired into your brain. On the other hand, activities that require reasoned thought come from a different place in your brain. If when turning on the faucet no water came out, the reasoning part of your brain would go into action to figure out why. In an emergency aboard your boat, wouldn’t it be nice to rely on response behavior that was well wired into your brain? Trust me, there will be plenty of need for the reasoning part of your brain to figure out what is going on, but the ability to place well-rehearsed behavior into action could make the difference between tomorrow’s dock story and something more tragic.


State of Mind

Safety aboard the boat is more than the latest safety equipment, it is a state of mind, a willingness to say “what if ” and an unwillingness to become a statistic. A safety drill rehearsal is the only way you will know if your emergency equipment is in the right place and can be accessed quickly.

Safety drill rehearsals can be used to finds holes in your plan — problems that can be worked out before the boat or someone aboard is in real danger. Is the fire extinguisher easy to take out of its bracket when you’re in a hurry? Are the life jackets easy to get out of the locker quickly? Time yourself or a family member as you go through the drills. A safety drill rehearsal will allow you to determine critical roles each can fill quickly without time-consuming conversation when the emergency is real.

Unquestionably, it’s easier to get into the right state of mind when the danger is real. During a peaceful night at anchor recently, my wife was awoken by the boat anchored next to us engulfed in flames, it was a terrifying event to witness. Fortunately, those aboard escaped into the dinghy they were towing.

Suffice it to say while underway the next day, it didn’t seem silly for us to rehearse firefighting and abandoning ship procedures. This is not a tutorial in safety drills, this is a call to action. A plea to encourage you to take performing safety drills aboard your boat seriously.

Different Boat, Same Risk

Every boat is different. The safety drills on a 30-foot center console fishing boat will be different from those rehearsed on a 60-foot motor yacht, but all boats share the same risks of fire, flooding, first aid emergencies or person overboard.

Decide the situation, determine what resources you have to address the problem and assign roles for each individual onboard to help. Walk and talk through the actions to address each situation. Literally, find the life jackets and put them on, take the fire extinguisher out of the holder and go to the galley with it. Time yourself and others on the boat to see how long it takes. If you regularly have children on board, it’s easy to make a game of it, while you know this is actually for their safety.

Of course, safety drills don’t have to be practiced every time you go out, but a few times each season would be helpful. If you boat regularly with the same people, include them in the drills. If you frequently have new or different guests aboard, script a non-alarming but thorough briefing of what they should do in an emergency and get over being embarrassed to deliver it. Be willing to practice “what if,” because only through practice are you truly prepared to be a safe boater.

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Solo Boating: Reasons It's not Worth the Risk
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From the social gathering of fellow boaters at yacht clubs and marinas to enjoying the pleasure of friends and family aboard a boat for an outing, boating is better as a shared experience. Yet I have encountered over the years, several boaters who choose to own and operate a boat by themself.

In boating parlance, “short-handed” means you’re operating a boat with fewer crew than is ideal. “Single handed” takes that one step further by running the boat
by yourself.

Beginning in the early 19th century, a small group of intrepid boaters began challenging themselves with (mostly sailing) solo journeys at sea. The concept continues to this day in extreme solo sailing competitions taking place around the world, which require entrants to follow strict guidelines in safety protocols and equipment. The vessels are almost always monitored and tracked by shore-based individuals.

This is unfortunately not always the case with less trained individuals operating recreational boats alone. Too frequently, these boats are not set up for single-handed
operation, and they are used in congested, popular boating areas.

This article focuses on the single-handed operation of medium to large cruising boats traveling long distances, not small runabouts. This is not addressing lone boaters out on the river or bay in their center-console fishing for the afternoon or an individual moving a large boat a short distance from the slip to get fuel and back.

Make no mistake, the single-handed operation of any boat comes with added risk, and the prudent solo boater takes extra safety precautions when out alone on the water. When operating a small boat by yourself in local waters, always file a float plan letting someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return, and always wear a life jacket.

Take advantage of modern communication technology by wearing a device that alerts other boaters or emergency personnel if you fall overboard or need assistance,
and always use a kill device that disables your engine if you fall overboard.

Many cite the difficulty of docking a large boat by themselves, as being the biggest issue with single-handed operation, but frankly this should be the least of your
concerns. With lines and fenders pre-positioned and the help of dock staff or a slip neighbor, docking can be quite manageable. Add the use of external control stations, or better yet using a wireless remote controller, and this should be the easiest aspect of running a boat by yourself. Especially when single handed, never attempt to dock in high winds or strong currents.

Having covered thousands of miles and countless hours at the helm of cruising boats, I can speak from personal experience that regardless of how well you’re prepared or how capable you are, when out on the water you must expect the unexpected. It could be a blocked thru hull causing an engine to overheat, an engine belt breaking, a critical hose clamp failing, a fuel filter clogging, or accidentally picking something up and fouling the running gear. The list of things that draw your attention away from the helm goes on and on. Handling any of these alone on a boat becomes difficult and potentially dangerous.

Even if we set the unexpected aside for a moment, everyone has to eat, drink and relieve themselves. Yes you can prepare snacks or a meal ahead of time, yes some boats have day-heads at or near the helm, but these are still distractions from operating the boat. Just staying alert for hours when single-handing presents enough of a challenge.

Also consider the thorny legal issue of single-handing a boat. The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) is an agreement between member countries, making up what boaters commonly refer to as “rules-of-the-road.” Any citizen of a country agreeing to these rules is legally bound by them. This is plainly stated in Rule 1(a): “These Rules shall apply to all vessels upon the high seas and in all waters connected therewith navigable by seagoing vessels.” Rule 5 presents your next problem — single-handing a boat. Rule 5 states: “Every vessel must at all times keep a proper look-out by sight, hearing, and all available means to judge if risk of collision exists.” Under normal circumstances, when everything is running smoothly, it is challenging to maintain the “at all times” part of this rule, let alone when something on the boat needs your attention.

Granted, single-handed skippers seem to find a way to manage these issues more than they should and most get away with it, but if an accident occurs at sea, solo boaters open themselves up to significant liability. If a vessel’s master is found to have violated one or more of the COLREGS, they may be found liable for all costs of
rescue efforts. This could also include property damages, loss of income, salvage costs and environmental cleanup costs. In the event of a death, even criminal
gross negligence charges are not out of the realm.

Anyone considering single-handed operation should also be aware they may not be covered by their insurance when doing so. According to Scott Stusek of Gowrie Insurance in Annapolis, skippers operating boats single-handed will likely have violated at least one provision of their policy. All insurance companies have an implied warranty that the vessel is seaworthy. In tested legal cases, seaworthy is defined as the vessel being reasonably fit to perform the services and encounter the ordinary perils of the voyage contemplated, which means the vessel is operated by a suitable crew for the voyage intended.

Further on insurance, in a paper written by Steven Wight from the Law Offices of Wright, Constable & Skeen, Wight states, “Whether a boat owner knows it or not, there are two occasions upon which he will warrant to his marine insurer that his vessel and all of its appurtenances are in tight seaworthy condition. No words need to be spoken and nothing needs to be written for these warranties to be conveyed. The warranties of seaworthiness are implied into every hull insurance policy by longstanding principles of marine insurance law. It is important for boat owners to understand these warranties, the manner in which they are conveyed and the moments
they attach, since the penalty for breaching a warranty of seaworthiness is loss of coverage and avoidance of insurance claims.”

Wight explains, “Two of the times the warranties are implied are the moment the insured accepts the policy and the second is the moment the insured pulls away from the dock.” If a boater gets underway single-handed, the insurance company may be within its right to say the owner violated the warranty of seamanship by operating the vessel contrary to International Maritime Regulations. That is a big risk to take. It’s important to reiterate, your policy may not specifically preclude the practice of operating single-handed, but it doesn’t mean you would be covered in an accident.

In one instance, a couple owned a boat and had secured insurance with both names on the policy. One day one of them chose to move the boat solo while the other traveled to the destination by land. An electrical fire broke out on the boat, and the owner operating single-handed couldn’t maintain the helm and fight the fire. The boat ended up a total loss.

Based on the owner’s negligence to maintain a seaworthy vessel, the insurance company didn’t deny the claim; they instead refused coverage based on “had we known” you were going to do this, we would not have written the policy. In U.S. courts, the absolute warranty of seaworthiness extends to the appropriate number of crew for the voyage intended.

In another recent sad case, a single-handed skipper suffered a heart attack while operating his trawler in the Bahamas. His boat was found grounded on a desolate stretch of shoreline days later with the engines in gear. Many cruising trawlers have enough fuel to operate for days. What if this unfortunate boater had not been in a confined chain of islands, but rather in the open ocean? His boat motoring along for days with no one at the helm would have been a hazard to other vessels around it.

Having interviewed several owners single-handing their boats, most report taking extraordinary steps to minimize time away from the helm. They prepare meals ahead of time and do everything they can to operate safely — but when pressed, they also acknowledge they are taking added risks. They all claim they are being careful but being careful in this situation is OK ... right up until it’s not, and you’re not the only one you’re putting at risk. A record number of recreational and commercial vessels are using our waterways and plying the open seas today. When out boating, regardless of where you are or what time of day it is, you will likely encounter other boats while underway.

If you want to single-hand your boat over long distances, stop and think about the consequences. A lone boater is adding not only risk for themself but putting all boats around them at increased risk as well. Find a friend or hire a mate to help move the boat. Not only will you be safer, but you may even find it’s more enjoyable.

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Making Your List and Checking It Twice
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Frequent analogies are made between piloting an aircraft and piloting a boat. Both require similar skills and place you at the mercy of the elements in a medium that's foreign to our bodies. Granted, being suspended in the air may be a tad more precarious than floating on the water, but when the downward spiral of a problem begins in either setting, it typically doesn't end well. For this reason, an aircraft pilot wouldn't dream of taking off without performing a pre-flight checklist. Boating is safer when using checklists, too.

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The concept of a pre-flight checklist was developed following the fatal crash of a test flight in 1935. Leading up to WWII, the U.S. Army Air Corps was looking for a new bomber to meet the demanding needs of long distant flights with heavy payloads. U.S. aircraft company, Boeing, submitted a new plane model for the Army to consider. The Army agreed to try it and scheduled a test flight to see how it would perform.

Flying the plane that day were two highly experienced Army pilots, Boeing's chief test pilot, along with a Boeing mechanic and a representative of the engine manufacturer. After takeoff the plane began to climb, but suddenly pitched up, stalled and crashed into a ball of fire upon impact. All on board were initially rescued, but both pilots died from injuries sustained in the crash.

The accident investigation determined that before takeoff, the pilots overlooked a safety lock on the elevator and rudder controls, which kept them from controlling the plane's pitch or attitude. Following the accident, a newspaper stated that the Boeing plane was just too much plane for one man to fly.

Fortunately, this was not the end of the story, but the beginning of a life-saving idea that would transform how highly complex systems can be operated by average people. Out of this tragedy came the simple and effective concept of the pilot's pre-departure checklist. Time would prove the Boeing plane was not too much for one person, but just too much for one person's memory. Using a simple checklist on future flights would ensure that important steps required prior to takeoff were not forgotten.

Checklists were developed for more and more parts of a flight, for emergency situations as well as more routine situations. NASA adopted the use of checklists for almost every part of the Gemini and Apollo space missions, and all astronauts were trained in how to use them. Astronauts logged hundreds of hours familiarizing themselves with and learning how to use these checklists. In fact, checklists were so important to the success of the Apollo moon landings that astronaut Michael Collins called them The fourth crew member.

Safety from the Skies to the Seas

Aboard our boat, we have several checklists for different applications. For example, we've found it useful to have two pre-departure checklists: one for leaving a marina and another for leaving an anchorage or mooring.

Preparing for each is different enough that having a specific list for the different situations ensures that everything is safe to get underway.A checklist is also one of the best ways to manage your boat maintenance and personal safety. When your boat breaks down out in open water, you become vulnerable to additional problems.

Reminder and to-do apps popular on smart devices today are a great platform for building a list of regularly scheduled maintenance tasks. The apps allow you to set a date to inspect items like fire extinguishers, or when engine fluids or anodes need to be changed. Using apps with reminders set, relieves you from having to remember critical items that need attention. They also have a notes section where you can record engine hours of the last change and numbers for any parts used in the process.

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Courtesy of Dan Prat

Checklists are most useful for regularly reoccurring tasks, ones we believe we do so often we've memorized them tasks like starting your boat and leaving the marina. Therein lies the problem: It's easy to become complacent with reoccurring tasks and believe you've done this so many times you don't need reminders of how to do it.

For most people, life is busy, so it's easy to get distracted while going through a task. I've seen it happen on many occasions the ever-present phone rings or a boat neighbor asks a question as you're preparing to get underway and the next thing you know you're pulling out with the shore power cord still connected. Before we started making checklists a habit, I was occasionally upset by a boat passing close by, without calling us on the VHF radio, only to realize I'd forgotten to turn it on.

Checklists are also important when multiple people are involved in the same process, so we use checklists for departing from the boat as well. More than once on our Sunday drive home from the boat, we looked at each other and asked, did you take out the trash or did you turn off the propane? Using a boat departure checklist makes sure important items don't get missed and you don't assume the other turned off the water pump breaker or turned on the battery charger.

Using checklists also has unforeseen benefits: The more you follow them, the more you benefit. The more you follow a routine process in the same order, the more you understand its faults and failings, allowing you to make improvements.

It's easy to see the benefit when developing a checklist and when you first begin using them, but the real benefit comes into play when you continue using them even though you feel like you don't have to anymore. That's when they keep you from forgetting something important.

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Boat Towing Services
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The best advice I ever received about boating was from a salty old captain years ago. He said, "Safe boating is simple: keep the water out of the boat, keep the boat off the bottom, and everything else can be worked out." Truer words were never spoken, but despite their best efforts, boaters fail at one or both on a regular basis.For this reason, we are fortunate to have access to professional towing services, covering most recreational boating waters in this country. Whether boating in the ocean near shore, or in most large inland lakes and rivers, assistance on the water is just a VHF radio or phone call away.

boat towing - captain's tips - marinalife
Courtesy of Dori Arrington

Two national entities Sea Tow and TowBoatU.S., along with a few smaller regional companies make up a network of towing operators ready to help you on the water during a boating mishap. Towing service is not inexpensive, with the cost of a response averaging $1,000. That's why most boaters take advantage of the annual membership programs these companies offer, where the cost of service is covered by their membership plan.

I absolutely recommend membership in one or both national companies. While Sea Tow and TowBoatU.S. have boats in most popular boating destinations, neither covers all areas. Having a membership with both assures you can access help in most locations. In joining, it is important to know what you're getting in return for your membership fee, what the service covers, and maybe more importantly, what it doesn't cover.

Although commonly referred to as such, a membership with a towing service is not insurance. Towing services offer no coverage for loss of your boat or boating equipment, nor do they cover personal injury or any sort of liability. Within the terms of their membership agreement, both national companies provide similar services to their members. While each differs slightly in what they provide, the basics they both offer are towing, fuel, jump starts for dead batteries and delivery of easily accessed basic parts for a mechanical breakdown.

It is important to understand having a membership is not a promise of rescue and is restricted to the services that can be provided by the equipment available in the specific area at the time of need. Each individual towing operator is an independent business, which provide services under an agreement with or as a franchisee of the national company. Their equipment could vary from small single engine center-consoles to medium sized commercial RIBs, or in some areas large offshore vessels.

For offshore assistance, all towing companies have limits on how far they can go to offer assistance, but it varies. In Sea Tow's case, they state: We do not have specific offshore distance limits. How far offshore Sea Tow will go to get you is only limited by the sea conditions, fuel capacity of our boats and our ability to communicate with you. If, for any reason, Sea Tow cannot respond, we will assist in arranging for an alternate provider and provide reimbursement up to $5,000 per incident. In most cases, if we are unable to respond no other commercial assistance provider will be able to either, so we will defer to the U.S. Coast Guard.

If you frequently boat offshore, know how you will communicate with the towing providers. In practicality, the offshore range they are capable of reaching could be up to 30 or 40 nautical miles from the towing company's base. Keep in mind this could be out of mobile phone or VHF radio range. It will do you no good if they can help you, but you can't reach them. Ask if the towing provider in your area can communicate with a satellite texting device like a Garmin inReach or a satellite phone.Occasionally a dispute between towing operators and boaters arises over the thorny issue of whether you simply needed a tow or whether the assistance is considered salvage. Both national towing services attempt to describe the difference in their agreement; however, despite their best efforts, it can still be highly subjective. If it is considered salvage, the terms of the assistance changes dramatically.

Your towing provider will likely ask a lot of questions before dispatching a boat in order to arrive properly prepared to assist. However, they cannot know the exact degree of assistance needed until they actually arrive on the scene and assess the situation. When they arrive to offer help, always ask the towboat captain if this is a tow or salvage operation. The difference in the cost and who pays the bill could be substantial.

Given the potential for subjectivity between towing and salvage, it is imperative that you know the nature of the assistance you're receiving. Salvage is historically and more importantly legally defined as the rescue of a boat from a peril at sea.

Sea Tow | Marinalife
Sea Tow | Marinalife

The definition of peril may take many forms. Typically, a marine peril involves a dangerous situation at sea, wherein a vessel may incur damage if it is left to the forces of wind, waves, weather and tide without prompt assistance. Any number of simple boating mishaps can quickly descend into peril if left unaddressed. What may have been a soft grounding on a sand bar can quickly become a salvage operation, with an ebbing tide and slight shift of the wind.

Marine salvage laws have existed for centuries. They were derived to incentivize salvors to come to the assistance of vessels in distress, thereby saving the loss of property and possibly life. Marine salvage laws date back to a time when most vessels at sea were commercial and have changed little with the growth of recreational boating.

Many boaters believe salvage laws do not apply to them and think salvage only applies to big ships, not their 33-foot express cruiser. Marine salvage laws apply to every vessel upon navigable waters, from a kayak to a 600-foot container ship. They are not limited to only vessels engaged in commerce. This opens all recreational vessels to claims for salvage rewards.

When selecting a towing provider, read and understand the terms you are agreeing to for dispute resolution. Many towing providers will ask the boat owner to sign a contract before towing. In signing these contracts, you may be agreeing to some form of binding arbitration, which is intended to provide for a quick determination of the appropriate amount of the salvage reward. You may also be acknowledging that the services provided will form the basis of a salvage claim, where the salvor could be entitled to a lien upon your boat in the amount of the claim.

Too frequently boaters discover the difference between towing and salvage when presented with a bill for something they believed was covered under a membership plan. Boaters also must be careful when accepting assistance from a passing boater. It is not necessary for a salvor to be a professional towing company. If you accept assistance from a passing boater, they may have the right to claim a salvage reward; legally these are referred to as chance salvors.

Assistance to boaters is offered regularly without any extraordinary needs or costs, but exceptions occur often enough. Read and understand the terms of service offered by your towing provider. The national companies offer excellent service within the terms of their agreements and individual towboat captains do their best to assist boaters for the least cost; however, sometimes assistance truly deserves to be salvage. Always protect yourself by knowing which you are receiving before you connect a towing company's line to your boat.

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