Recreational Boating Safety – Recreational Boating Social Distancing

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
How many times have you been cruising along in your boat at a moderate speed and been surprised when another boat passes you on one side or another? I am sure your first thought was “where in the heck did he come from? He sure wasn’t anywhere nearby five minutes ago.” Such incidents can cause chills to run up and down your spine, especially if you were just about to make a turn in the channel.

The Station Galveston Flotilla of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary operates out of the USCG Station Galveston base on Galveston Island. They aid the Coast Guard by providing maritime observation patrols in Galveston Bay; by providing recreational boating vessel safety checks; and by working alongside Coast Guard members in maritime accident investigation, small boat training, providing a safety zone, Aids to Navigation verification, in the galley, and watch standing.

Recreational Boating Social Distancing
Of course, I am using our current situation with the coronavirus to make a point. The point is simply, if you want to avoid a collision, then you need to be sure that you keep some distance between your boat and other vessels. There are some bad practices you can avoid as well as some good practices you can adopt to help prevent you from becoming a statistic. This column will address some good and bad boating practices. Hopefully this discussion will help you become a safer boater.

Don’t Make Sharp Turns
The US Coast Guard defines a sharp turn as “an immediate or abrupt change in the boat’s course of direction.” The key to understanding the issue is to understand that we are not just talking about left turns, right turns, or U-turns. Even a 10-degree change in direction can put you in danger of collision if the turn is made abruptly and without checking for nearby vessels. This practice is so prevalent that it is a check box on the Coast Guard Boating Accident Form. In 2018, the last year for which we have statistics, there were 57 reported collisions due to one boat making a sharp turn, with seven reported deaths and 41 injuries. The boaters in these reported incidents either made turns without looking or without regard to vessels nearby. Here are some best practices for making changes in direction:

  1. Make a 360-degree visual sweep before making any change in direction.
  2. If there is another vessel behind you, slow down and let them pass before making your change in direction if the change in direction will put your boat within the path of the following boat. Remember: if you are about to be passed, then you are the Stand-On Vessel, and you are required by the regulations to maintain your course until passed.
  3. Always turn behind a passing vessel- never in front of the passing vessel.
  4. Warn your passengers before making a course change. Otherwise you may catch them off balance and cause them to fall either in the boat or overboard.
  5. Reduce speed when making a course change greater than a few degrees. When you are running at speed less than half of your boat hull is in contact with the water. You run the risk of an end swap if you try to make a high-speed course change. An end swap occurs when your hull loses its grip on the water surface and the stern slips, allowing the boat to spin on its axis. Such an occurrence is more likely with a flat bottom or modified V hull shape, and almost always results in passengers being ejected. By reducing speed you bring more of your hull in contact with the surface of the water and reduce the chance of an end swap.

Post a Stern Lookout
By “stern lookout” I mean a lookout that observes for vessels approaching from the rear, not a “person serious and unrelenting in their manner.” The lookout is the only person legally required by the regulations. The 2018 Recreational Boating Accident statistics for Improper Lookout cite 400 accidents, 27 deaths, and 316 injuries. Here is Rule 5 of the Colregs:

Rule 5
Designate someone to watch for dangers that may come from any direction:

  • Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.

There are different ways of posting lookouts. You can have one lookout responsible for the port side and another lookout responsible for the starboard side. You can have one lookout responsible for looking ahead (bow lookout) and one lookout responsible for looking to the rear (stern lookout). You can have a radar/AIS lookout to monitor the radar and Automatic Identification System overlay on the GPS screen. The key issue is that you must be able to lookout for vessels in all directions. If you have operational radar and/or AIS, you must use it. When I am cruising in my center console boat, I ask my fishing partner to be the starboard lookout, and I remind them to check to the rear frequently. A boat that was a mile away five or six minutes ago could be passing you by only running 10-12 mph faster than you are running.

Don’t Run So Close to Me
The song by The Police, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” is the mantra for the pandemic. You could sing a similar song to make a recreational boating safety point. First, boats do not have brakes. Oh, you can abruptly shut the throttle off if you are in danger, but that carries its own risks. You could throw a passenger off balance such that they are injured and/or thrown overboard. You could cause your boat to be swamped by a run-in of your wake. Second, your throttle reductions should be gradual and they should be announced to your passengers, especially if coming off plane (“Coming off!”). Finally, remember that boats don’t have brake lights either. If you are following closely, then you run the risk of colliding with the boat in front of you if you don’t realize they have reduced speed, and that is often quite difficult to determine.

Don’t Run at Excessive Speed
The Coast Guard defines Excessive Speed as “Speed above that which a prudent and reasonable person would have operated under the conditions that existed. It is not necessarily a speed in excess of a posted limit.” Yep, it’s the old “prudent and reasonable person” standard. I learned a lot about that person in law school. Whenever that person comes up, it is usually during your trial. I can’t give you a firm definition of Excessive Speed, but I know it when I see it. You may have heard that saying before; the phrase “I know it when I see it” was used in 1964 by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to describe his threshold test for obscenity. You could also use the “hair raised on the back of your neck” test. Just remember there are no air bags on boats. In the 2018 Recreational Boating Accident statistics, Excessive Speed was one of the top five contributing factors. There were 276 accidents, 25 deaths, and 231 injuries due to Excessive Speed in 2018. A song to help you remember this recommendation is “The 59th Bridge Street Song” by Simon and Garfunkel, which has the lyrics “Slow down, you move too fast, you got to make the morning last.”

Don’t Run with Restricted Vision
The Coast Guard definition of Restricted Vision is “A vessel operator’s vision is said to be restricted when it is limited by a vessel’s bow high trim, or by glare, bright lights, a dirty windshield, a canopy top, etc.” This term should not be confused with the term “restricted visibility.” Restricted visibility is about running in fog, heavy rain, or at night. Restricted Vision is a defect that must be corrected in order to operate safely. The 2018 statistics attribute 62 accidents, 2 deaths, and 34 injuries to operating with Restricted Vision. The definition itself suggests common sense corrections to the problem. If your bow is too high, then trim it down. Make sure there is nothing in front of you when accelerating to a plane. It is during that time that you can have Restricted Vision. Slapping your throttle from idle to full speed will cause your bow to aim for the sky. Fishermen call that the hole shot. I call it a waste of fuel and I accelerate at a moderate rate with less than full throttle. Glare can be cured by wearing polarized sunglasses. If someone is coming at you with bright lights at night, it is often advisable to bring it to a stop until they pass. Do I need to say anything about how to take care of a dirty windshield? The key thing to remember about Restricted Vision is that it is not a normal operating condition and should be mitigated.

Keeping a distance between you and other vessels is one of the keys to Recreational Safe Boating. Always use a proper lookout, don’t make sharp turns, don’t run close to other boats, don’t run at Excessive Speed, and don’t run with Restricted Vision. Always inform your passengers before making changes to course or speed.

For more information on boating safety, please visit the Official Website of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division at Questions about the US Coast Guard Auxiliary or our free Vessel Safety Check program may be directed to me at [email protected] I am available to perform free Vessel Safety Checks, and I will come to your location to perform them. SAFE BOATING!

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