This past summer was another busy boating season in which thousands of stranded boaters needed towing or other assistance. I used to work for Vessel Assist, a nationwide on-the-water towing service that was bought by TowBoat US in 2003. Here are some things I learned while we processed calls of all sorts during busy holidays and hot summer days.
First, take a boating safety course. Being prepared is the key to avoiding problems. If you understand your vessel, your environment, your responsibilities and a few basics like the rules of the road, it can make the difference between enjoyment and tragedy. Boating safety courses are easy to find and affordable.
Second, keep in mind that panic is the enemy. The best way to avoid panic is to be educated and prepared. Everyone aboard the vessel should be able to locate and use a fire extinguisher, the VHF radio, personal flotation devices and signal flares. Talk through the proposed itinerary with family and friends before leaving and know what to do in case of an emergency.
Third, understand navigation. A local area chart should be aboard every vessel. Charts mark important areas to avoid such as reefs, rocks, sandbars and restricted areas. In case of an emergency, having and knowing how to use a GPS can decrease response time by allowing rescue vessels to pinpoint your location from the coordinates. Practice judging distance on the water. For example, think of a football field, which is 100 yards. A half mile is about equal to the length of nine football fields.
Fourth, know the difference between an emergency and a non-emergency. When determining whom to contact for assistance, consider the following question: are you or anyone onboard in any immediate danger? If the answer is yes, contact the US Coast Guard on channel 16. If your vessel has gone aground, is taking on water or is on fire, or if someone onboard is extremely ill or injured, contact the Coast Guard immediately. If the answer is no, consider it a manageable inconvenience and call a local commercial towing company.
Fifth, understand the VHF radio. If you are hailing another party or vessel, use channels 9 or 16. Identify youself and the party you are calling. Once contact is made, switch to another agreed upon channel to communicate. When calling for assistance, use only channel 16. Be sure to give specifics of your location, how many persons aboard, details regarding injuries or illness and any key details of your situation. Listen carefully for the information from the dispatcher regarding your ETAs and next steps. Make sure everyone aboard understands how to use the VHF radio because the person injured or overboard on your next outing could be you.
These are simple things but they can save a life or at least improve a day on the water. They will undoubtedly help make the boating experience safer for you, your guests and all of us on the water.