Recreational Boating Safety – Making Sailing Sense

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
The Five Senses
When we think of human senses we think of the usual senses of hearing, seeing, taste, touch and smell. We use our experiences with these senses to live our everyday lives, but we also use them to navigate new experiences such as operating a boat. All five senses require input from our surroundings, and how well we navigate through life is highly dependent on our abilities to process those inputs and coordinate our senses to make the right decisions. If you are the type that tends to categorize everything, and humans as a whole do routinely categorize all inputs to our senses (albeit subconsciously in most cases), then this column is for you because the exercise here is to adapt our senses to surviving on the open seas in a boat; I call this making sailing sense.

Hearing is an important sense for a sailor. We are required by the Rules of the Road to provide a lookout when operating a boat; that lookout is required to use both seeing and hearing to warn of the possibility of collision at sea. The most common use of hearing is when it is foggy; your ability to see is severely hampered, so you are more dependent on your hearing to safely operate. When selecting a lookout, be sure to inquire about any hearing loss they might have. Slow down in fog so you can hear better. Complacency decreases your ability to use your sense of hearing to operate safely. Do not block out background noise. A change in background noise could easily be due to a danger nearby.

Of course seeing is the most important sense when operating a boat. Autopilot won’t prevent you from running over an obstruction. Only your eyes can see a below the surface obstruction. We had a serious Coast Guard Auxiliary boating accident a few years back when the forward lookout turned out to be legally blind and the operator ran aground at a high speed, seriously injuring all aboard. So, you forgot your prescription sunglasses? Wear your nonprescription sunglasses over your prescription glasses. It might not look cool but it could save a collision. Know how to operate in changing visibility such as fog, heavy rain, and nighttime. It is better to avoid those situations when possible.

Tasting and Smelling
The sense of taste is closely tied to the sense of smell. Although I have linked them together here, you can often taste something that has no smell and you can often smell something without tasting it. According to a medical review, more than 350 drugs can cause change in taste, and more than 70 drugs can cause changes in smell. Most changes are described as bitter, and some metallic or sour. A sudden change in smell or taste while out on the water could signal an adverse reaction to a drug. If you begin a new medication, it is best to take the new medication for a good period of time before venturing out on the water so that you know how your body will react. A sudden change in taste or smell could also be accompanied by more severe reactions, including anaphylaxis. Pay attention to sudden changes in taste or smell and let your doctor know. Stay off the water until you are sure the new medication is safe for you. Be aware that you may be perfectly safe taking a particular medication until you add alcohol to the mix.

Touching is a sense that develops in the skin through a network of nerves. Pressure on a nerve sends a signal to the brain. The analysis of individual signals allows the brain to determine what part of the body is touching an object and what, in many cases, that object is. MC Hammer came out with a song in 1990 titled “U Can’t Touch This.” In the case of operating a boat, maybe the lyrics in many cases should be “U Shouldn’t Touch This.” Many fish have venomous body parts. If you can’t identify the species, you should consider it dangerous, and in many cases you know you are dealing with a venomous species. Touching is an important part of building up a sense commonly called muscle memory, and that is a good thing to have (more later).

The Other Six Senses
If you think about it, you can come up with several more human senses. All our senses are tied to human organs. We hear with our ears, we see with our eyes, we taste with our tongues (in combination with our sense of smell), we touch with all parts of our bodies with the largest organ of the human body (our skin), and we smell with our noses. Let’s look at the other six senses and how they affect our ability to safely operate the human body.

Equilibrioception is the sense of balance. Our sense of balance is tied to our inner ears. Most of us know that you need a highly developed sense of balance to operate a boat due to the rocking action of the waves. Heavy seas can really play havoc with our sense of balance, so the more used to operating in heavy seas you become the safer you are. You also should practice three point contact when moving about your boat, and tell your passengers to do the same. That means that at all times possible you should have either two feet and one hand or two hands and one foot to make contact with the boat. Also, tell your passengers not to move about the boat while it is underway and to ask for permission to change positions. Equilibrioception is one of the most fragile senses; the older you are, the more you become a fall risk due to loss of sense of balance. You can reduce that risk by using three point contact and by being aware of any medication you are taking that interferes with your balance. Take that “Do Not Operate Heavy Machinery” warning seriously. One type of drug most likely to interfere with your sense of balance is anti-seasickness medication. Here is another warning to take seriously: do not operate a boat under the influence of alcohol. Alcohol use is often the number one contributing factor in a boating accident.

Proprioception is the ability to determine exactly where your body and its parts (arms, legs, feet, toes, fingers, head) are located. This sense is what allows you to type without looking at the keyboard. It allows you to play a musical instrument without looking at the keyboard/frets/valves/etc. Another term for proprioception is muscle memory. Proprioception depends on practicing its use. For instance, I can play a great many different guitar chords without looking at my guitar’s fret board simply because I practice playing those chords. Ask me to play some of the esoteric chords (the add 7s and add 9s, for instance), and I will have to look the shape up on a chart and then look at my finger placement on the frets in order to play a chord I haven’t routinely played.

Proprioception develops whenever you do not use your eyes to determine the position of a body part such as your hands. As long as I look at the fret board to determine finger position to make a chord I will not develop any proprioception for making that chord. The same theory applies to operating a boat. If you have to look to find or use a control such as the throttle, steering wheel, or horn, then you will always be distracted from other duties such as looking where you are going and determining if there is a risk of collision. Just as it takes practice to play an instrument using proprioception, it takes practice to operate your boat and other boats as well. That is why when we go out on patrol in a boat we all take turns at the helm so we can develop proprioception for the boat in which we are operating.

Loss of proprioception can occur, and it depends a lot on the operating complexity of the operation you are doing. Driving a car or boat, riding a bicycle putting a forkful of food into your mouth, etc., all have different levels of complexity. The old saying about muscle memory is “use it or lose it.” But there are other ways to lose proprioception. Certain illnesses can make you dizzy. Dizziness is a term for loss of proprioception. The take away here is that you should not operate a boat if you are ill, especially if you experience dizziness. But there is a more sinister method of losing proprioception: alcohol consumption. The field sobriety tests used by law enforcement are mostly based on your loss of proprioception: touch your finger to your nose with your eyes closed, (you can’t), walk a straight line without looking down (you can’t), operate a boat safely (you can’t).

Kinesthesia is the sense of movement. It works in conjunction with proprioception. While we need proprioception to tell us where our hand is, we need kinesthesia to be able to move our hand where we want it to go. Most of our movements are done subconsciously. When you walk down a path you don’t think “right foot, raise three inches and move 19 inches forward.” No, we just walk. But this sense can be impaired by illness or alcohol use the same as proprioception. You can increase the accuracy of kinesthesia by practicing certain movements. Taking a turn at the helm is the best way to develop kinesthesia for boat operation. Make turns, operate toward a specific target, increase and decrease speed so that your body will develop a feel for running the boat. Operating in different conditions is another skill to develop. Don’t forget that kinesthesia is hampered by illness and alcohol use.

Nociception is the ability to feel pain. The old joke is that a patient tells a doctor “it hurts when I do this,” and the doctor says “well don’t do that.” If you are experiencing pain, then you are doing something wrong or you are too ill to do it. Operating a boat has several inherent dangers. One is using lines such as docking lines. If you place your hand between the boat and the dock while securing a line, you are quite likely to experience some severe nociception. Nociception, like other senses, can be dulled by illness and alcohol consumption. The old saying that drunks don’t get hurt in a car wreck because they are relaxed is untrue. The are just as severely injured as sober passengers; they just can’t feel it … yet. Don’t operate a boat if you are ill or under the influence.

We need to know whether our environment is too cold or too hot. Being able to sense the temperature around us helps keep us alive and well. Thermoception is done by special nerve cells in the skin called thermoreceptors. Thermoreceptors are found in all parts of the skin. Thermoreceptors can be destroyed by the very thing they are designed to detect: heat. Persons who have experienced third degree burns often permanently lose thermoreceptors in the area of the burn and cannot tell when they are touching something hot enough to destroy tissue. The good sailor protects his skin from excessive temperatures by properly covering it when necessary. There are many deaths due to hypothermia and hyperthermia during every boating season. You also need to advise your passengers as to what precautions are necessary, and provide them with plenty of water to drink. You can become dehydrated even in cold weather.

Chronoception is how we sense the passing of time. Distractions and complacency can cause even a good sailor to lose track of time. Except for the last few hundred years, sailors have relied upon the passage of the sun across the sky to develop their chronoception. We still use that method to some extent as a reminder to look at our watches. If you are not outfitted for night running with lights, radar, and GPS, you want to make sure you check the time so you don’t get caught out after dark. Chronoception is also important to use for limiting your exposure to the sun, wind, and elements. As the saying goes, time flies when you are having fun. It’s a different story, however, when you are holding onto a capsized boat 70 miles offshore in 55 degree water. A good sailor will know what the water temperature and weather will be and plan accordingly, limiting the time one may be exposed to the elements. A common cause of boating deaths is death due to exposure. That exposure is all about the amount of time you are exposed to extreme conditions.

Good sailors are aware of all the human senses and highly develop them in order to survive on the water. Although they might not have known the names of the senses, our pioneering forefathers had highly developed senses. The good sailor knows that you must exercise your senses in order to keep them finely tuned. Strive to develop a good sailing sense.

[BC: Jan-31-2023]

Facebook Twitter
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Site by