Captain’s Corner: Boating Safety

U.S. Coast Guard photo of CAPT Tom Allan taken by Petty Officer 2nd Class Timothy TamargoHappy New Year! This edition of the Captain’s Corner is brought to you by LT Chris Svencer, my Incident Management Division Chief. Chris is responsible for many of our traditional response missions, including search and rescue and pollution response. He moved here this past summer from the Hampton Roads area in Virginia and his family who are all avid boaters are really enjoying the Jacksonville area and its waters. Chris’s article provides some great tips on how to stay safe as you enjoy the First Coast’s beautiful weather and waters. Always good advice, it is particularly important to consider during the winter when the weather is bit less predictable and water colder and less forgiving. I hope all of you, who received boating gifts over the Holidays will take a minute to read it, share it and reflect on how you might incorporate it in your boating regimen. See you in the Port!
– CAPT Tom Allan

Have fun – boat safe!

By LT Chris Svencer

Heading out to sea alone is a dangerous decision that can have tragic outcomes as we recently were reminded during the search for the owner of P/C SEA WITCH on October 5th 2014. The search effort would span 4 days and cover more than 6,500 square nautical miles of search area before being suspended. What we know about the case is that the owner went out on the boat alone for a short trip to test out some repairs. He was due back by halftime of the Jaguars game, but never arrived (he left a float plan). Reflecting on this case offers some lessons that every mariner, regardless of their experience should heed before putting to sea.

Don’t go out alone. It seems an obvious statement, but the Coast Guard routinely responds to distress cases where the boater has made a fateful decision to go out alone. While not every incident ends as tragically as the SEA WITCH did, every case where a boater goes out alone has the potential to end tragically, so why gamble?

Be prepared. This is a fairly involved statement as there are so many components to being properly prepared before heading out for a day on the boat. Here are some key questions to answer before going out to:

  • Weather: What is the weather like right now and what is the forecast in the future?
  • Provisions: Do you have enough water and/or food in the event I am stranded? 24 hours is a good benchmark, but you should consider taking more if you are planning a trip offshore or to remote area. An often overlooked element of provisions is medication. If you are on medication, make sure you take it with you.
  • Float Plan: Have you filed a float plan with a reliable person or family member? Filing a float plan has proven to be critical during countless searches. The critical elements of a good float plan include where you are going (i.e. favorite fishing hole etc.), what time you intend to leave, what time you intend to be back, who to call if you fail to arrive (Coast Guard should top that list), a passenger list, your cell phone number as well as the cell phone number of all your passengers and a list of any equipment you have onboard such as a marine band radio, emergency locator beacon, flares etc. Spending the 20 minutes to put together a float plan can be the difference between tragedy and success.
  • Vessel condition: Is the vessel in good condition? Is it properly maintained? Is it suitable for the area of intended use? Hint: taking a 15 foot Carolina Skiff 40 nautical miles offshore is not a good decision (yes this happens).
  • Equipment: Do I have the necessary equipment to be successful in an emergency? In addition to outfitting the boat with a GPS, marine band radio and flares, consider spending the money on a personal locator beacon (PLB). A PLB is a satellite based location system that alerts the Coast Guard upon activation. The alert broadcasts the time of activation and transmits your location (lat/long) enabling the Coast Guard to direct assets to your location. The key to equipment is redundancy. Have multiple ways to make contact visually, such as flares, flashlights, mirrors etc., and virtually such as cell phones, radio, PLB etc.
  • Kill switch: Yes I know a kill switch falls into the equipment category. However, it has proven to be so critical that it deserves special mention. A kill switch is attached to the vessel operator and the ignition system and is designed to immediately kill the engines in the event of a man overboard situation. New technology includes a wireless option called Autotether ™ which kills the engines in the event the wearer falls overboard and the device gets wet. We often hear boaters complain that kill switches can be inconvenient, but consider how inconvenient it would be to watch your boat drive off without you as was likely the case in the P/C SEA WITCH incident.
  • Personal Floatation Device (PFD): You would think that by now, we wouldn’t need to mention this critical piece of equipment, but sadly we continue to see case after case where this simple and underappreciated piece of equipment is the difference between life and death.

As we prepare to enter another busy boating season ensure you properly prepare for the inherent dangers that exist every time you go out on the water. Whether you are a boat owner or a passenger on a friend’s boat, preparation is the key to making your time on the water both safe and fun. Don’t go out alone, be prepared for the worst and don’t drink and drive.