Recreational Boating Safety – Suddenly in Command

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
Here is a scenario that happens all too often all over the US: You are the skipper of a nice recreational boat. You decide to take some friends out for a boat ride. Everything is going well when all of a sudden you hit a wave at a bad angle and you are thrown overboard. If you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, that is, have the engine emergency kill switch lanyard attached to your life jacket, the boat will stop automatically once the kill switch is activated. If you aren’t wearing that kill switch lanyard, then the boat will keep going with your friends aboard. MAYBE one of them knows how to operate a boat and they can circle back and MAYBE find you before you drown. But unless you have taken the time to designate a replacement skipper and trained that person on how to operate your boat, it is more likely that no one on board can figure out what to do. Your responsibility to your passengers extends to making sure they know what to do when they become suddenly in command.

Fortunately, recreational boating is relatively safe, but we can make it safer. Skipper incapacitation is rare, but it happens all too often and can be serious. It is one of the top reasons for calls to the Coast Guard for assistance. Here are a couple of real-life examples of why you should consider designating and training your replacement should you become incapacitated.

Man Overboard: After drinking heavily throughout the day, the boat operator-victim was sitting on the stern, and operating his boat at slow no wake speed, when he fell overboard. One passenger jumped into the lake to help while the remaining two passengers remained aboard. One passenger turned the engine off shortly after the operator fell overboard. No one aboard knew how to start the motor. They used paddles to move the boat back to the location of the second subject who had been searching for the victim. After retrieving the second subject, the passengers paddled the boat to a nearby dock. The operator drowned and his body was recovered days later.

Skipper Incapacitated: A fishing charter captain with a history of uncontrolled diabetes had an episode in which his blood glucose dropped to a dangerously low level which induced a diabetic coma. Neither of his two passengers knew how to start and run a boat with two engines. Although there was a marine VHF-FM radio in the console with single button emergency activation, neither passenger knew how to operate the radio. One passenger called 911, but the operator thought the call was a hoax and ended the call. The passenger looked up the number for the local sheriff’s department and called their number. The sheriff’s department notified the Coast Guard who executed a search and found the boat hours later. The boat operator was still in a coma when rescued.

The examples above happen weekly across the U.S. and often end with a fatality.

What Went Wrong
Foremost, none of the passengers in either case knew how to operate the boat. In the first case, as is the problem in many skipper-overboard cases, the operator did not have the safety lanyard attached to the kill switch on the boat. This results in the boat either turning in circles or continuing on in the direction in which the helm is pointed. Many boat operators have been run over and injured or killed by their own boats because they did not have that safety lanyard attached to their life vest.

In the second case, the charter boat captain had all the emergency gear you could ask for, including a Digital Selective Calling enabled marine radio with a distress button that would have contacted the Coast Guard if it had been pushed. However, the radio had been turned off, and had it been turned on it may or may not have been tuned to channel 16, the emergency call channel. Having the equipment does no good unless at least two people know how to operate it. To be safe, all passengers should undergo an emergency operation briefing which should include how to operate the radio.

Suddenly in Command Checklist
My youngest son got his pilot’s license at age 16. Before he took me up in his plane I made him tell me all about the controls and how to operate them. It took about 15 minutes, as I had an idea of how to operate a plane already. Just not this particular plane. But after 15 minutes of on the ground instruction I knew how to call for help on the radio and to keep the plane level and pointed in a particular direction.

I like checklists. It is too easy to forget an important point without one. Each boat is different, so each operator will need to make their own “Suddenly in Command” checklist. Then before leaving the dock, each passenger should be shown how to perform the various functions on the checklist. The checklist should include designating the replacement skipper, who hopefully has some boating experience. In addition, once underway at least the replacement skipper should be allowed to operate the boat and get a feel of how it handles at different speeds and learn the location and function of the controls such as the throttle, trim control, and steering.

Remember the guy that fell overboard above? He obviously didn’t have the emergency kill switch lanyard attached to him, but if he did, how on earth is the replacement skipper going to crank the engine? Simple: you must have a spare lanyard aboard and the replacement skipper must know where it is and how to attach it to the kill switch. Below are the items you should include when you create your own checklist.

  1. File a float plan and give a copy to your passengers
  2. Designate a replacement captain and teach them the following:
  3. Location of safety equipment (PFDs, throw cushion, ropes, visual distress signals)
  4. Location of and how to operate the marine VHF-FM radio (get one!)
  5. How to make an emergency call to the Coast Guard using the marine radio
  6. How to make an emergency call to the Coast Guard using the Coast Guard cell phone app as a backup if the radio becomes inoperative
  7. How to attach the spare emergency kill switch lanyard (get one!)
  8. How to crank and kill the engine using the ignition switch
  9. How to kill the engine using the emergency kill switch lanyard (test it!)
  10. How to put the engine in forward or reverse and work the throttle
  11. How to steer the boat on and off plane
  12. Location of the first aid kit, what it contains, and how to stop bleeding
  13. How to use the Visual Distress Signals in an emergency (key concept: don’t use them until another vessel is in sight)
  14. How to determine your location using the GPS or the Coast Guard cell phone app
  15. How to steer using the compass or by using GPS trails and waypoints
  16. How to bring the boat into the dock
  17. How to use the anchor (raise and lower, as well as how much line to pay out)
  18. How to deal with a person in the water scenario (Man overboard!)

This is not an exhaustive list, but just a starting point. The key is you must actually designate a replacement captain and train that person in how to operate the boat and other equipment such as the radio. In some cases the best thing to do is anchor and wait for help.

Using the GPS
Many boats these days have a GPS/Sonar unit aboard. They are quite useful, especially if you plan to get out of sight of land. You don’t need an expensive unit. In fact, you can download a GPS app to your phone that works very well for around ten dollars. I have one on my cell phone that I use as backup. There are two key functions that can help the Suddenly in Command skipper: one is trails, and the other is waypoints. When the trails function is turned on, the GPS shows the trail you create as you move through the water. I have seen some people who have every trail they ever created still displayed on their GPS. I recommend that you delete the trails at the beginning of your trip so that your Suddenly in Command skipper isn’t confused by all the trails you have stored and can thus navigate a reverse route back to the dock. I have many waypoints stored on my GPS, most of which are fishing spots. But I also have my different launch waypoints stored. Part of your Suddenly in Command instruction should be in the use of your GPS to navigate both by using a reverse route using the trail created going out or by navigating to a waypoint stored in your GPS.

Man Overboard (aka Person in Water, or PIW)
A very important function of every GPS is the Man Overboard (MOB) function. You should show your replacement skipper how to hit the MOB button to aid in finding you or anyone else who falls overboard. When a person is in the water they are not visible all the time, and it is easy to lose their location visually. In addition to using the MOB function on your GPS, teach everyone aboard to shout “Man overboard!” and to point at the person in the water. At least one person should keep their eyes on the person in the water and continuously point to them until they are rescued.

Visual Distress Signals
You should always carry Coast Guard Approved visual distress signals (VDS), and you should ensure that they are not out of date. However, carrying them is only half the job. You should know how to use them. If you have any expired VDSs, then you should practice using them. If you practice using them near the water, be sure to contact the Coast Guard, give them your location, and tell them that you are testing your pyrotechnic VDSs. This is especially important when your VDSs include rockets, which can be seen from many miles away. One of my beach neighbors was sitting on his deck one evening and saw a VDS rocket in the sky over the bay. He contacted the Galveston Coast Guard Watchstander, who told him thank you and told him that just prior to his report a captain had called to say he was teaching his deck hands how to use the rockets (Good job, Travis!).

It is up to you to create a Suddenly in Command checklist and to choose a replacement captain should you become incapacitated or fall overboard. Doing so could save your life and/or the lives of your passengers. But don’t stop with your boat. If you own a plane or other piece of equipment such as an RTV or ATV, teach your passenger how to operate it. It just makes good sense to do so.

[RC: May-21-2024]

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