Recreational Boating Safety – Risk Management for Recreational Boaters

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
Before we (Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary) go out on a boat patrol, we perform a process known as a General Assessment of Risk, or GAR. The GAR process was also called the Green-Amber-Red model. Under our first version of GAR, we had several risk categories for which we assigned a number from 0 to 60, with scores from 0-20 representing a low risk (Green), scores from 20 to 40 were the Caution zone (Amber), and scores from 40 to 60 represented the High Risk zone (Red). When we changed to our latest model, called GAR 2.0, the number system was dropped and we went to a system where we rate the risks as Low, Medium, or High.

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.

The purpose of this column is to propose a similar general assessment of risk for recreational boaters. Below is my first attempt to adapt the Coast Guard risk assessment process for recreational boaters using the same categories that are found in the Coast Guard model. The Coast Guard model uses PEAACE (Planning, Event, Asset-Crew, Asset-Boat, Communications, and Environment).

Step 1: Identify, Assess, & Mitigate Risk Elements
Everything we do in life involves some risk. Simply walking involves the risk of falling with each step. If you are in good shape, aren’t a fall risk, and can see that where you are going is flat and free of tripping hazards, then taking that next step is generally a low risk. This model asks you to determine the level of risk for each element below and estimate the risk level based on the Low/Medium/High scale. If your perceived rating is Medium or High, explore possible mitigations to reduce the risk to Low.

You have taken enough time and have enough information to conduct a pre-trip float plan and communicate that plan to at least one person. The Coast Guard app has an excellent float plan. That float plan is detailed, and the details can be saved and used over and over. The app will email your float plan to up to three persons. Don’t be like Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise when asked for his plan:

Chief DiFalco: “Heading, Sir?”
Captain Kirk: “Out there… thataway.”

Event Complexity
Refers to the trip complexity. Are you going somewhere you have never been, say 100 miles out to a specific rig or reef (H)? Are you going somewhere you have been before but don’t go to often (M)? Are you going somewhere you have been often and know well (L)? You can mitigate a high-risk event by including a passenger who is familiar with the planned route and knows the hazards involved. You can also mitigate the complexity by studying charts beforehand, using GPS route planning and sonar to assist you, and by reducing speed through waters you have never traversed.

Asset – Crew
If you don’t think of your passengers as being part of the crew, you should. Everyone on the boat should know how to do something, even if it is simply placing a fender over the side as you come into the dock. At least one person aboard besides yourself should know how to crank the engine and operate the boat. At least one other person aboard should know how to operate your marine VHF/FM radio and how to contact the Coast Guard in an emergency. Everyone should wear a proper-fitting, Coast Guard-approved life jacket. Your crew should know where the fire extinguishers are, where the first aid kit is, where their assigned seats are, and how generally to behave in a boat. If your crew doesn’t know any of the procedures listed above, then you certainly have a high risk in this category. You can mitigate the risk from High to Moderate by instructing the crew. Your risk category should only be rated as Low if you have only well-experienced persons aboard. You will have a much safer trip if you treat your passengers as crew members and make sure they are properly trained for the trip. Also consider any medical conditions or physical limitations your passengers might have when scoring this category. Young children can add to the complexity also.

Asset – Boat
This category requires you to assess the ability of your boat to easily make the planned trip. Do you have sufficient fuel capacity? If you could make the round trip at least twice with the fuel aboard, then you can consider the risk as Low. If you can make the round trip once with one third of your fuel remaining, then assign a Moderate risk. You can mitigate a moderate risk by adding more fuel or reducing your cruising speed, which adds a greater distance capability. If you just have enough fuel to make the round trip with less than a third of your fuel remaining, then rate this category as High risk. The fuel assessment requires you to know your fuel consumption based on RPMs and load. If you normally can go 100 miles with one third of your fuel left, but add an extra passenger or more gear, then you probably need to increase the risk rating.

Another part of this assessment is the condition of your boat in general. Do you have extra batteries or a starting kicker? If your main battery dies and you don’t have another method of cranking your engine, then the risk category goes up directly to High. If you don’t have all the equipment required by the Coast Guard, then the risk category goes up to High. There is a reason all that equipment (life jackets, fire extinguisher, visual distress signals, navigation lights, horn, etc.) is required. You can’t mitigate the risk of not having the required equipment. The key to this category is to thoroughly assess your boat’s fuel range, general condition, proper equipment, and capability to make the planned trip.

Assess your ability to contact the Coast Guard or another vessel in an emergency. If you plan to go out further than 20 miles, then you should have a method other than a VHF/FM marine radio to contact the Coast Guard. While the marine radio will work to contact vessels and rescue helicopters that are nearby, if you venture far away from shore you need an EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon) or a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). EPIRBs and PLBs use satellite communication to alert the Coast Guard to an emergency at sea. If you don’t plan to go out further than 20 miles, then a marine VHF/FM radio is the tool you need to contact the Coast Guard if you have problems such as a medical emergency, boat taking on water, or a boat in danger of sinking. Those aren’t the only situations we see, but they are the most common. We also get out of fuel calls. The Coast Guard can arrange for a tow or for a commercial rescue for you.

If you don’t have a marine radio, then rate this category as H (High Risk). You can mitigate this down to M (Moderate Risk) by doing three things: (1) filing a detailed float plan, (2) staying within range of a cell phone tower, and (3) by using a cell phone with the Coast Guard app. The Coast Guard app has an Emergency Assistance button on each screen. If you venture out further than 20 miles and do not have either an EPIRB or PLB aboard, then rate this category as H (High Risk). You can mitigate this down to M (Moderate Risk) by having a satellite cell phone. Keep in mind that the EPIRB and PLB automatically send out a distress signal when activated, but a satellite phone does not. In addition, the EPIRB and PLB keep transmitting for an extended period of time even when immersed in water, whereas a satellite phone may or may not work when immersed and has a more limited battery life.

Assess the risk of external conditions surrounding the trip. Consider weather, night/day operation, sea state, currents, water temperature, air temperature, visibility, and the likelihood of any changes in the above. The Gilligan’s Island theme song speaks wonders of why this is such an important assessment:

Just sit right back
And you’ll hear a tale
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from this tropic port
Aboard this tiny ship

The mate was a mighty sailing man
The skipper brave and sure
Five passengers set sail that day
For a 3-hour tour
A 3-hour tour

The weather started getting rough
The tiny ship was tossed
If not for the courage of the fearless crew
The Minnow would be lost
The Minnow would be lost

The irony of the Gilligan’s Island theme song is not lost on mariners. It is obvious that the Skipper didn’t perform a proper risk assessment by checking weather conditions and sea state. One of the easiest ways to check the weather is to use the Coast Guard app to check out the NOAA weather buoys. Your marine VHF/FM radio should also have the Weather band on it. Be sure to listen to Coast Guard important marine bulletins, which include weather updates, as well.

Step 2: Determine the Overall Risk Level
Consider (1) the rating for each element above, (2) the importance of the element for the trip, (3) how the elements may interact. Rate the perceived Overall Risk Level when considering this information. Consider other ways to mitigate any risks you determined during your analysis. For years the saying in the Coast Guard was “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” That has changed to “You don’t have to go out, but if you do, you have to come back.” Recreational boaters should use our new motto as well. Do not accept the risk if there is a measured chance you might not come back.

Step 3: Determine Risk vs. Gain
Do the gains warrant the risk? Is there just a slight chance the weather may turn rough? Is there just a slight chance you won’t have enough fuel to get back in? Rate the Level of Gain using the same scale (L, M, H). This is much harder to do than it is for Coast Guard personnel, because our job is to serve the public, and it is much easier to measure gain when there are rescue missions involved. But you can do it. You’ve done it before. You look at the probability of rain, the wind speed and direction, whether people are catching any fish where you plan to go, and you decide “Well, it’s worth a try,” or “Nah, not worth the risk of having a rough trip.”

Low Gain
Look at the big picture here. Are you going out just to be going out, such as would be the case with a post-storage trip to knock the cobwebs out? Make the trip if the risk is low. Monitor the situation for changes in risk and abort the trip if the risk level goes up.

Medium Gain
In this case there will be some real benefits to making the trip, even though conditions are not perfect. You have determined there are some risk factors, but you may have mitigated them. In this case, monitor the risk factors and re-evaluate the risk factors if conditions change. What may not be a high risk for great conditions may cause the risk to be unacceptable if conditions change.

High Gain
While the Coast Guard will go out when there is Medium Risk but High Gain, recreational boaters should consider changing any trip that involves Medium Risk to one that involves Low Risk. Don’t go 100 miles out with Medium Risk when there is an alternate site half that distance away. If the wind is bad at the South Jetties, see if it is better at the North Jetties. You can change the risk to a lower level by changing the trip.

Although we have performed risk analysis before making a trip on the water, recreational boaters can and should make a similar risk analysis. We boaters have always done so informally, but by using a formal analysis system we can increase the likelihood that we will have a safe trip for all aboard.

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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