What to do if alone on the water?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 21, 2004

Special to the News-Herald

Usually people that own recreational vessels love to bring visitors to sea with them. If you own a boat, even a small bass boat, it is just more enjoyable to bring someone with you. Couples enjoy going out for an evening sail, or weekend day sails in the crisp fall area, especially here in Hampton Roads. How about a quiet Saturday fishing in your favorite spot? Yes indeed, nothing beats some time on the water.

In my case, I can remember as a 9-year old getting underway with my father’s friend and business associate in Annapolis and fishing on the Chesapeake Bay in a beautiful 40-foot vessel.

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We usually left very early in the morning and fished until just before sunset. The days were warm and sunny, the boat well stocked with sandwiches and drinks

and our friend seemed to always know where the fish were biting. I can’t recall ever returning to the pier empty-handed.

Although I didn’t think of it then and frankly haven’t though much about it until this week, I wonder now what would have happened if my dad’s friend had been incapacitated? What if he fell overboard? What if we were hit by another vessel and our friend was seriously injured?

I’m the first one to admit that even though my family lived in one of the largest sailing ports in the United States my dad and I were not familiar with boats. We didn’t know how to conduct a recovery if someone was knocked overboard. We didn’t know what VHF radio channel we should use. We didn’t even know where he kept his medical response kit (if he had one onboard).

Although this brief spat of &uot;True Confessions&uot; probably brought a smile to your face there are some serious lessons learned. I’ll start with the most basic: if you own a vessel and you take it to sea, even along the Elizabeth River, does everyone onboard know the basics of vessel operation and how to respond in an emergency. Bottom line, if there are two of you onboard and the owner/operator becomes incapacitated, does your spouse, friend, or guest know what do if they are suddenly alone? I again look back to my childhood and when asked that same question I would have responded &uot;No.&uot;

We were not ready, not even close. Sure my father was a smart guy. If his friend was injured, he would get on the radio and work with the Coast Guard station in Annapolis or the Group (now Activity) in Baltimore to get help moving towards the vessel. We knew basic first aid, but now that I think about it I can’t remember if our friend had a bilge pump or patching material if we had developed a flooding problem.

Think about it. Our friend is injured and the batter dies, where are the switches? What do you do?

This may all seem very dramatic but it drives home a critical issue of boating safety.

Knowledge is not just power; it may be difference between life and death.

So what can you do to help make a day on the bay a treasured memory rather than a nightmare? There are actually some simple steps!

First off, if you are a boat owner or operator place yourself in the shoes of a visitor or even your spouse who is not familiar or comfortable with vessels and their operation. What basic items do they need to know? This is especially important if it is just the two of you.

Before you ever leave the dock, get the visitor, friend or non-seagoing spouse familiar with the vessel itself. If this means delaying your underway time by 30 minutes so be it. It will be time well spent if you end up in the water unconscious because the boom hit you while coming about and you are depending on your friend to pick you up. I recommend a four-part strategy, and we’ll look at the first two recommendations this week and finish

next week.

Point out important pieces of equipment. Where are the life rings located? What do you need to do to get the EPIRB out of its cradle? Where are lifeboats? Encourage your friend to ask questions?

The second thing you need to do is take your visitor below decks and continue the tour. If you have a bridge area your guest needs to understand where the radio is and how to operate it. Reinforce that in an emergency Channel 16 and the Coast Guard are your best friends. I have seen many recreational boaters attach a laminated &uot;call sheet&uot; on the cord of their radio which steps the operator through the details the Coast Guard will need to respond (such as how to read the latitude and longitude off the GPS).

Also point out to a visitor where your medical kit is and where the bilge pump is. It is also a good idea when discussing medical emergencies to let your guest know about any special medical conditions that you might have. It is even a good idea for you to actually open your medical kit for the visitor so that they see what’s onboard.

Hopefully this week’s column has given you a few ideas to think about and plan for, before &uot;winterizing&uot; your boat for the season. Until then…Boat Safe, Boat Smart and to all our News-Herald readers…HAPPY THANKSGIVING!