As Coastal Georgia emerges from our lockdown, time spent outdoors has taken on a new dimension – is my family group socially distanced from another family group?
Time spent out and about feels even more precious than before we had even heard of the coronavirus. However, as we embrace the summer months on the water, it is important to remember not only safety from COVID-19 but also boat safety for the crew.
Every boat owner must become a hobbyist weather man and you’ll need to know what you, your boat and your crew are able to handle in all kinds of seas.
Remember, there’s no harm in throwing in the towel if it’s too rough out there. Make no mistake about that – it if you want to live to fish another day. The ocean and weather don’t care how much you’re yearning to get out in that fresh, salty air and nab a fish at the end of your line; you’re the one responsible for all the lives on board.
You could summarize most outings on a boat as either a dedicated fishing trip or just a fun family day on the water. Sometimes there’s a little of both, but when it’s just a fishing trip there’s a little more of a warrior spirit involved because, rain or shine, you’re taking a little more of a chance. Whether dealing with flat seas, 2- to 3-foot seas or more, die-hard fishermen and women sometimes take more risks. Again, the best advice and pre-requisite to safety I can give is to know your limits.
Just about any boat can handle a beating more than your body can take. Some areas are different, but again, speaking from my experience, the ocean is never exact. So whatever weather the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasts, you should expect it to be a little worse.
During just about every boat trip I take, if NOAA says there will be 1- to 2-foot seas, I plan on there being a few speckled 3 and 4’s. When they say 3- to 4-foot waves, you should consider sitting this one out, or maybe fishing inshore, even if you’re an experienced boater.
Everything depends on your amount of experience, how much risk you’re prepared to take and what you know you can handle. The more you go out, the more experience and comfort you’ll gain with your boat.
Step 1 in boat safety is to establish a general float plan. Make sure you always tell someone you’re going out, what you’re going to be doing and where you might be. You can say, “If you don’t hear from me by this time, then call the cavalry!”
Please ensure that you leave plenty of time for your float plan attendee to not over react. Typically, I tell that person that I’ll be going to point A but, if there are no fish there, I may try point B or C.
And if you, as the captain, have a tracking EPIRB, the process will be a ton simpler. Because of the vast distances we’re able to cover inshore and nearshore and the lack of good cell reception in some areas, all of this is especially important to anglers in the lowcountry.
You might think you’re near land, when suddenly you luck out and hit a sandbar in an area with a dead spot. Now your wife’s freaking out because she’s not heard from you.
It happens more than you may think – in fact, I know about a situation that happened like that recently (not me, lol!).
Step 2 in boat safety is more for when we are more comfortable spending time with a wider circle of friends and family than at present. Everyone needs to know each other’s comfort level, swimming capability and life vest requirements.
Before leaving for the dock, or while at the dock, it’s vital for the captain to understand who can swim and who cannot. Everyone on board needs to know where the life vests are located.
At first, this process may seem silly and might not be as important if you consistently have the same people riding on your boat. However, it becomes a very important process to follow with anyone new that rides with you.
A good example of this is when you allow one of your children to bring a friend. Typically, I’ll engage in a short question-and-answer time while we’re on the way to the dock.
I usually ask if the person has ever been on a boat before. If the answer is yes, I’ll ask about the boating experience, whether he or she can or cannot swim and if he or she got seasick while on board. With just a few, short questions you can quickly find out what you’re getting yourself into.
Step 3 in boat safety is about docking your boat. You’ll be surprised at how well things will go if you take time to warn individuals about what to do and what not to do when you’re docking the boat.
Two examples come to mind. Back in the day, we had a new individual with us who was about 6 or 8 years old. Typically, when I go through my questions and hear “I’ve never been on a boat before,” I first tell that person to never put him or herself between the boat and the dock, then explain how badly he or she could be hurt as a result.
As boat captain, I had asked this young person to stay back in a specified area and had designated an experienced person to be responsible for watching out, while I launched the boat. Despite giving this warning, the first thing the kid did was to get between the boat and dock with legs dangling over the side.
Luckily, I caught the kid in time and re-explained the rules. Kids have short-term memory loss when they get around boats. Heck, that probably applies to grown men when the bikinis come out, lol.
The second example I have was when a grown woman tried to help. I had not given her the run down about docking, and she thought my radio antenna would be a good place to rest her hand and body weight. I hadn’t asked for her help, nor had I asked her to do anything at all (maybe alcohol was telling her subconscious what to do).
This all happened while I was doing a slow approach to the dock. Snap goes my radio antenna and splash, down she goes into the water – right between the boat and the dock. Super scary for a couple seconds, but there were enough hands on the boat to ensure we did not drive over her or crush her between the dock and the boat.
What really saved the situation was that we always go super slow when approaching a dock. Luckily, I had my usual deck hands ready to hold us away from the dock, and she was out of the water within 10 to 20 seconds. Had I been going too fast they would not have been able to stop the boat and it could have ended badly.
Step 4 is about safety while the boat’s in motion. First, as boat captain, you need to be sure that passengers are in safe riding positions.
Every boat, captain and sea conditions are different. I have to point this out because too often I see negligence while boats are in motion. Do not – and I repeat do not – have your kids riding on the front of the boat with their feet dangling.
If you’re going slow, that’s fine, and if they have their life vest on, that’s even better. But yes, I’ve seen people going fast with kids riding on the front, with and without life vests.
It kills me to see that— and, I promise, it will kill you if you ever lose a kid off the bow of your boat and the boat comes crushing down on them. Back in Florida, we literally called marine patrol to get after these people. Luckily, I’ve not seen that happen here in the low country.
Furthermore, concerning “bow riding,” many people, grown and young, love to ride in the front, or the bow, of the boat. But with big waves, the captain bears the responsibility of letting novice riders know that’s the roughest part of the boat. When crossing the sound or inlets on particularly rough days, it’s highly advisable to instruct inexperienced riders to go to the back for a short while. It will cause less strain on their bodies as you pound on big waves, less strain on the boat structure and will help prevent putting the nose of the boat through a wave and taking in water.
Well, this concludes my series on boating safety. If you think these kinds of things couldn’t happen to you – and I hope they don’t – think again. Everyone I know has some kind of story, and has learned some very hard lessons.
A YouTube search will quickly show you hundreds of boating failure video compilations. So it’s much easier to learn from the experiences of others and to use good boat safety precautions.
Stay safe on and off the water and enjoy your summer!
Hector can be contacted at hector@everydayboater. com or at everydayboater. com.