As a veteran helicopter rescue swimmer and now a marine safety specialist for the United States Coast Guard, I’ve seen a lot of boating trips gone wrong. Accidents are accidents, but after twelve years on the job, I’ve noticed that most of the emergencies we respond to are easy to avoid. With a little additional planning and preparation, you can dramatically decrease your chances of ever having to call for help. Consider the following before your next trip and we’ll probably never meet.
Remember where you’re going: Remember that “offshore” means “isolated in a hostile environment.” Keeping that in mind changes the way you think about everything else.
Your passengers: Do they have any medical conditions? Are they adequate swimmers? What is their boating experience? The answers make a big difference, but you have to ask the questions first. Life-saving drugs like asthma, heart, allergy meds, and insulin come along for the ride, or those who need them don’t. Period.
Dockside training: Ever run an man overboard drill with you as the MOB? Did you teach your 10 year-old how to make a distress call? You should. The Coast Guard often responds to emergencies where the captain is the emergency. Discuss safety procedures and equipment with everyone on board.
Float plan: Someone on shore needs to know where you’re going (think lat/long), who’s going with you, and when you’ll be back. We’re good, but we wont find you if we look in the wrong place.
The weather: If you’re in an open hulled boat, it doesn’t matter how warm it is, it only matters how cold it might get. If you’re caught out overnight, warm clothes and rain gear can make the difference between uncomfortable …… and unconscious.
Bail-out: If the weather does turn unexpectedly, any land may be good enough. Study the charts and pre-identify possible bail-out points.
Communications: Talk to us before the water is at your ankles. At the first sign of serious trouble, injury, or illness, contact the Coast Guard. Remember, urgency calls (Pan-Pan) exist for a reason. To determine if a problem is serious, refer to tip #1.
Your EPIRB: A 406 EPIRB or PLB is your life. Save money on something else. Update the registration often (http://www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov/). When going on extended voyages, use the “Additional Data Field” to provide valuable information like the number of passengers, special considerations i.e. “diabetic aboard”, and expected return time.
Flash lights: Finding you out there is about seeing you out there. Nothing says “come check me out” like a frantically waving flashlight. Flares are great and you should have them, but they don’t last very long. Tying the small, waterproof versions in the pockets of your lifejackets is smart move as well.
Water temps: The risk of a boating accident being fatal is three times higher in the winter than in the summer. In extremely cold water, you can be incapacitated in minutes (or less). Immersion suits are expensive, but trust me; they somehow seem cheaper when your boat is taking on water.
Remember, don’t just be safe out there; be safe, then go out.