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Boat safety

I’ve always found it odd that adults who buy boats don’t need to complete a boating safety course. Licenses are necessary to drive cars, trucks, motorcycles and the like, but not a boat. Is it important to take a safe boating course? Just look at the picture above and you’ll say yes.

There is a lot of activity at the mouth of the harbor. There’s a mixture of sailboats, powerboats, and vessels entering and exiting the harbor. Two glaring mistakes are illustrated by the captain in the middle boat. First, he’s running at a speed that is leaving a wake. The issue is that he’s well beyond the No Wake Zone buoy. Second, the captain is returning to port with the red nun on his left. It’s a violation of the most basic boating concept for returning to a harbor: “red-right-return.” And he’s in the skinny water where he is about to run aground. Not only can he cause danger to other boaters, but he can also cause harm to his crew and himself.

My name is not Sammy Safety and it sure isn’t my place to make judgments about other boaters’ skills. I do not make citizen’s arrests. That said, every year I study boating rules and regulations. I wish other boaters would do the same because it means that our seas would be safer and we’d have more fun and fewer accidents.

Wisdom comes with experience and I’ve learned some lessons the hard way. Have you ever heard of a drogue? It’s an old-fashioned device that’s shaped like a funnel. Drogues are tossed overboard and used to slow down boats. On one cold weather trip my steering cable froze up. I hadn’t packed enough grease in the housing, and water got in and the cable wouldn’t budge. I got back to the harbor by steering with a homemade drogue. I tethered my anchor line to a spackle bucket I use for carrying gear. I ran the engine at a slow speed and when I needed to change direction, I shifted the line from the port to the starboard cleat and back again. I limped back to port, and if I’m obsessed with any one part of boating, it’s packing my steering cable with grease.

I learned about the drogue by taking a boating safety course. A quick Google search shows that many different types of classes are offered by a variety of interest groups. Some are held in a formal classroom setting while others are offered online and can be done at a student’s convenience. Subject matter varies from basic rules to boat handling, safety, and even boat maintenance. Specialty classes include hurricane prep, understanding weather, or how to sail through locks in a canal.

Although they’re not required, I believe that boat education classes make good sense for new boaters. Do you know how to properly pass a boat when exiting a harbor? The lead boat is called the stand-on vessel while the following boat is called the burdened vessel. To properly pass, the burdened vessel should give two air horn blasts to ask the stand-on vessel for permission to pass. Two returned blasts from the stand-on vessel means ‘passing approved’ while five returned blasts from the stand-on vessel means ‘permission denied, it’s unsafe to pass.’ What do you do when you spot an accident? If it looks lethal then get on VHF Channel 16 and all Mayday three times. When your call is answered you’ll need to provide your registration number, your boat’s call sign, and report the emergency. If the accident is non-life threatening, radio the harbormaster on VHF Channel 9.

Boat safety classes are good refreshers for experienced captains and crews. They’re invaluable for new or young captains, too. Take one this season and be safe.