Captain's Tips

Solo Boating: Reasons It's not Worth the Risk

By
Bob
Arrington

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.

Related Articles
Dinghies: Small Boats with Big Value
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overhead view of a man on a dinghy in the blue ocean
Dinghy | webcasamiento from Pixabay

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.

A couple driving their inflatable dinghy through the water
Inflatable Dinghy | Canva

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.

Read More
FAQ About Doing the Great Loop
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Tim and Kate

My husband, Tim, and I spent most of 2021 and part of 2022 completing the Great Loop on our 31-foot Camano trawler, Sweet Day. One of the most unexpected and best parts of the trip was the opportunity to share our experience with friends and family. Guests stayed overnight, family members joined us for a day cruise, and generous friends brought over meals when we passed through their hometowns. For those who couldn’t experience Sweet Day physically, we shared our journey through our blog and Instagram, and caught up with stories when we got together off the boat.

Boaters who are familiar with liveaboard life know there is no shortage of questions that curious people ask about a nautical lifestyle. Those who are exploring this way of life may feel like there is no end to the questions you could ask.

Below is a compilation of the most common questions we posed to us about our year doing the Great Loop and living full-time on Sweet Day. Hopefully the responses will get you ready for your adventures on this incomparable waterway.

WHAT IS THE GREAT LOOP?

The Great Loop is a 6,000+ mile “loop” around the eastern U.S. and Canadian waterways. The journey takes about a year, if done consecutively, and covers 15+ states and two countries, depending on your route. A few hundred “loopers” complete the journey each year, some doing it all at once, and others covering segments year by year. Loopers plan their journey traveling by seasons to avoid hurricanes in the South and tough winters up North. The America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association (AGLCA) is the resource for all things related to the Loop, and we highly encourage checking them out when planning your trip.

Kate's AGLCA Flag on her boat

WHAT DOES THE FLAG MEAN ON THE BOW OF YOUR BOAT?

If you are currently looping for the first time, it is traditional to fly a white AGLCA burgee or “flag.” Once you complete the loop, it is customary to replace your white burgee with a gold AGLCA burgee to indicate to other boaters that you already completed the full loop. Those who have done the loop more than once fly a platinum burgee. All burgees can be ordered from the AGLCA website. It’s a great way to easily spot and meet other loopers.

HOW DO YOU MEET OTHER LOOPERS?

Since many of us on the loop travel the same segments of the trip at the same time, it is common to see loopers at a dock, anchorage or cruising by. The AGLCA burgee makes it easy to spot cruisers on the journey, and a lot of loopers also use the Nebo app, which shows where other loopers are physically located, so you can message each other. Sometimes we travel a few days with the same boats; others you may see one day and then meet up again a few weeks later.

DID YOU GET STUCK IN BAD WEATHER?

Having a flexible schedule and keeping a close eye on the weather kept us mostly out of uncomfortable waters. We used services such as Windy, AccuWeather, and NOAA to anticipate wind speeds and wave heights. We tried to only cruise when waves were under three feet, although twice we found ourselves in five+ foot waves (once on the Chesapeake heading to Annapolis and another heading to Presque Isle, MI, on Lake Huron), because our final destination happened to be closer than trying to find an alternative place of refuge. We also encountered strong wind while at anchor and tied up to docks, especially when the wind was going against the tide outside Savannah. By staying vigilant about our lines and anchor holding, we luckily were never in any danger. They say the boat can handle more than the captain, and thankfully the only thing we ever lost due to weather was a few hours of sleep.

Kate and Tim enjoying the Superbowl from their deck

DID YOU SLEEP ON THE BOAT EVERY NIGHT?

Our trawler had a v-berth with enough room for us to sleep comfortably. Often when we were near friends and family, they would offer for us to stay on land. Sometimes we took them up on it, but we preferred to stay on Sweet Day. Just like a land house, Sweet Day had all our comforts of home (because it was our home), and anytime we didn’t have to pack a bag was a plus.

WHAT DO YOU DO ABOUT FOOD?

We ate about 75% of our meals on the boat using our tiny kitchen equipped with a small oven, three-burner stove, microwave, fridge and some pantry space. We ate out if we found a must-see place or were exhausted from a long day and not in the mood to cook. But often we were not close to a restaurant and had to be creative with what was in our pantry. We went to a grocery store two to three times a week by bike and would get enough fresh food for about three dinners (and snacks for lunches) but were limited by what we could carry and store in our boat. Because we didn’t have space for a ton of food, and sometimes our meals were whatever we had on board, so we wasted a lot less food than when living on land.

WHAT WERE YOUR FAVORITE PARTS OF THE TRIP?

We get this question all the time, and it’s still challenging to answer. Each part of the trip (inland rivers, Gulf of Mexico, Intracoastal Waterway, Chesapeake Bay, Delaware and Hudson Rivers, Erie Canal, Great Lakes) posed their unique challenges, breathtaking scenery, regional cuisine and character. The loop has too many special places to mark our favorites as each place we stopped shaped our journey, whether it was having a conversation with a dock hand to enjoying a locally made beer, to attending a community BBQ. Our country’s waterways are beautiful and a critical part of our infrastructure, and the life that is built around them is always worth experiencing.

Kate and Family on their boat

DID YOU EVER GET SICK OF EACH OTHER?

Mostly no, but sometimes we were very aware we were living together on a 31-foot boat. We learned communication is key and ultimately felt very fortunate to be on this journey together. Before the trip, we heard about the “80/80 Marriage,” which is the concept that spouses should not try to ensure each is doing their fair share (or 50/50), but each should aim to do 80%. This mindset helped a lot. At night lying in bed, I may say, “I forgot to turn off the water pump. Tim, can you do an 80 for me and get up and turn it off?” Or Tim would comment, “Kate, you really pulled an 80 on cooking dinner and doing the dishes.” We couldn’t imagine doing this trip with anyone else.

WHO WAS THE CAPTAIN?

We consider us both the captain. While we both have our strengths, each of us was involved in almost every aspect of the boat. We both drove, troubleshot boat problems, navigated, planned routes, grocery shopped, cleaned and so on. From a safety standpoint, it was important both of us could take on responsibilities should something happen to the other. This was our journey, and it was vital to us that we both were involved in decisions and operations that made this adventure possible.

Article and photos by Kate Carney

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Blackwater Management
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Pumpout | Oregon Sea Grant

Brown sludge dripped off the brim of my hat as I peered out from behind sunglasses spotted with a decidedly unpleasant substance. It was the stuff of pump out nightmares, the result of an ill-fitting connector, a sanitation system severely neglected by the boat’s previous owners and a rather poor decision on my husband’s part to try to fix it himself. “Here honey, hold this down while I go below to bang on things to see if I can get it working.” Following numerous showers and excessive disinfectant efforts, I was able to find the humor in the situation and eventually forgive my husband.

Boaters do not often like to talk about it, but sewage happens. Managing our sewage situation, also known as blackwater, is a part of boating. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the amount of bacterial pollution from one weekend boater’s discharge of untreated sewage is equal to the amount from the treated sewage of 10,000 people during the same period. Properly managing our sewage situation is a part of boating, and it is the law.

Under federal law, it is illegal to dump untreated sewage into navigable U.S. waters, including waters within three miles of shore and inland waters such as rivers, lakes and estuaries. In addition, the EPA has designated at-risk areas as No-Discharge Zones (NDZs), forbidding any discharge, treated or not, in a body of water.

To facilitate compliance, all boats in U.S. waters with permanently installed toilets must have a Marine Sanitation Device (MSD) aboard. There are three basic Coast Guard approved MSDs. Type I MSDs involve sewage treatment to meet bacterial content standards prior to discharge. Type II MSDs meet a higher standard of limited bacterial content prior to discharge. Most recreational boats have a variation of Type III MSDs, which store blackwater in tanks for shore-based disposal or discharge beyond the three- mile offshore limit.

Type III MSDs require boat operators to manage when and where they will need to empty their blackwater holding tank. Unfortunately, mismanagement of blackwater discharge can be found throughout the boating community and the impact can be startling. Some examples:

› Untreated effluent from boats is not only environmentally harmful, but also a health hazard for other boaters.

› Improperly discharged blackwater can introduce excessive nutrients to a waterway, triggering devastating algal blooms.

› Organic matter and decaying algal blooms settle to the sea floor depleting oxygen levels and harming shellfish and other aquatic species.

› Chemicals added to toilets and holding tanks are toxic to marine life if released unchecked.

› Discharged feces can contain disease-causing organisms, which pose a risk to other boaters, swimmers or those who errantly consume contaminated shellfish.

Blackwater management is an important contributor to the health of our marine environment. Responsible blackwater management starts with knowing and caring for your Marine Sanitation Device. Blackwater systems require routine maintenance such as regular inspection of fittings, hoses and pump mechanisms. (This will also reduce the likelihood of you experiencing your own pump out nightmare like mine.)

Clean Marina award winner, Mitchell Creek Marina | Lee Roberts via U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

A FEW GOOD TIPS

› Use rapid-dissolving toilet paper specifically designed for your MSD.

› Be mindful of products used to clean toilets or treat water as some chemicals cause seals to deteriorate over time.

› Periodically, after you have emptied the holding tank at a pump out station, flush the holding tank with fresh water and pump out a second time. Many recreational boats with a Type III MSD (holding tank) also have a “Y” valve allowing direct overboard discharge when beyond the three-mile limit. Federal law requires this valve to be secured in a closed position while in inland or coastal waterways. To secure the closure, a non-releasable wire tie may be used or the valve handle removed to prevent accidental discharge.

Responsible blackwater management also involves pump out diligence. In the past, most pump out facilities were located solely at the fuel dock of a marina. While this is still a viable option at some marinas, you can now find more convenient situations.

Thanks in part to the Clean Marina initiative, increased government funding and new technology, pump out options have increased. Pump out services are often accessible in the slip or portable and brought out to your slip. Some marinas and mooring field hosts offer pump out services by boat. When making slip reservations, ask about pump out services and plan accordingly. Some marinas prefer to have their staff handle the pump out for you, while others may let you do it yourself. Take advantage of pump out availability as often as you can. Frequently pumping out helps keep your tank cleaner and reduces the risk of overflow.

According to the California State Water Resources Control Board, “Discharge from a single boat over one weekend contributes the equivalent bacterial pollution as treated sewage from 10,000 people.” One boater discharging inadequately treated blackwater can cause significant environmental damage ... but likewise one boater exercising responsible blackwater management can prevent significant environmental damage. Be the better boater.

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