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Friday, March 1, 2019

Water You Doing to Promote Safe Boating?

By Catherine Powell

Image courtesy GoodFreePhotos
Even though it’s the end of February, it feels more like April, so I thought I’d devote today’s blog to covering the ins and outs of being a safe boater.  Unlike most of the country, Florida boaters can set sail practically all year long.  Especially with the warm weather already setting in, the call of the water is going to entice many boaters to take to the river, intracoastial waterway and the ocean sooner rather than later.  Below are some of the things you’ll need to bring and do if you want to keep you and your passengers safe afloat.

1.      Time to perform a pre-float inspection. – Having flown light planes in my youth, I can still remember my flight instructor instilling in me the importance of performing a pre-flight check before taking off.  He pointed out that it can get scary fast should the engine quit t after takeoff or the plane go into a spin because the pilot neglected to make sure all the control surfaces operate properly while on the ground.  Having switched from light-planes to boats a decade later, I never forgot my flight instructor’s words of warning, which I have used ever since in every boat I operate.  You’d be surprised at how many people radio the Coast Guard because they ran out of fuel, or they’re taking on water that their bilge pump refuses to bail out.  If you want to avoid the embarrassment and potential peril of having your trip cut short by a snafu, make it a point to check your vessel inside and out before you leave the dock.

Image courtesy USCG
2.      Reducing passenger peril – Eventually, I got my master’s license that allowed me to take up to 12 paying passengers out for a day on the.  One of the first things a savvy captain always does before setting sail is to brief the passengers on the do’s and don’ts of the vessel.  The first do was “Do tell me which of you can’t swim.”  While it only takes a few seconds to spin a boat around to retrieve a man overboard, they can sink in less time then that.  Anyone aboard who can’t swim must wear a life jacket at all times.  Children should also be required to wear life jackets, since they’re the most likely to fall overboard.  I also required passengers and crew to wear lifejackets any time we night sailed or a storm approached, since it’s devilishly difficult to recover an MOB in the dark or the chop.

3.      Stormy weather – Another requirement that saved me a lot of grief on the water was to require all passengers to head below decks whenever a squall approached.  It’s difficult enough to deal with wind and weather when the gale howls and the sea spray flies in your face.  Having to keep a weather eye on your passengers while storm sailing isn’t something you’ll have the time or patience for.  If your vessel doesn’t have a cabin, I suggest you order your passengers to put on your lifejackets and stay seated.

4.      When was the last time you filed a float plan?  – While the sun may be shining and the birds chirping when you leave the dock, that doesn’t mean the weather can’t turn ugly in a hurry.  If it does and you run aground, hit some rocks or wind up adrift when your motor conks out, you could wind up spending hours or days stranded at sea if you can’t call for help and you failed to file a float plan.  Just like an FAA flight plan, a float plan is a document that’s left with a friend or marina operator.  It informs them how many souls are aboard, as well as where you’re planning to sail and when you plan to return.  If the person you leave the float plan with doesn’t hear from you after a specified amount of time, they need to call the Coast Guard and provide them with the information on the float plan.  You, on the other hand, are required to contact the person you gave the float plan to once you arrive at your destination.  Failure to do so could result in a search and rescue operation being mounted on your behalf. 

Image courtesy USCG
5.      A BUI isn't a channel marker. – Many people who would never consider drinking and driving think nothing of having a few adult beverages while on the water.  They either don’t know that the same laws that govern the road also apply afloat.  Should the Coast Guard or Marine Patrol pull your boat over only to find the skipper inebriated, expect to wind up getting fined or even serving jail time for a BUI charge.  For a first-time offense in Florida, expect to pay a fine between $500-$1,000 plus up to 6-months in jail.  A second conviction doubles the fines and jail sentence.   What do you do with a drunken sailor?  In Florida, they lock him up.  Besides, if you should be involved in a collision on the water while under the influence, expect a flurry of lawsuits the likes of which you’ve never seen.  The bottom line, is if you are going out on the water, consider having a designated skipper who refrains from imbibing, so you won’t go down with the ship.

6.      What if the worst comes to pass? – I can remember an incident when I was first learning to sail.  I was part of a 6-man crew on a rented Beneteau 35.  We were tacking our way out to sea during a spring tide.  The wind was 15-knots and the sea was throwing spume around pretty liberally, especially as we neared the jetty.  After relinquishing the helm to another crew member, I headed below to grab my foulies.  Just as I pulled my jacket on, I felt the vessel lurch.  Then BAM, we hit something that made the vessel roll to port.  After getting off the bunk that I landed on, I ran back up the companionway to the cockpit.  The helmsman was white with fear.  “I can’t turn the rudder!”  Looking over the side of the boat, all I could see was sea spray.  Realizing we must have hit the rocks, I looked toward the skipper who by this point was frantically dowsing the sails to keep the boat from sailing onto the jetty.  “Drop the anchor!” I hollered, since we were unable to steer and I didn’t want to wind up doing any more damage to the vessel.  Then the skipper looked at me and I ran forward to deploy it myself.  Once the boat was no longer in danger of grounding on the rocks, we checked for leaks then determined that somehow the keel had cleared a submerged rock only to have the rudder come down right on top of it.  Once the rudder post was bent, there was no way to steer the vessel.  Fortunately, we had a marine radio that we used to call Sea Tow, who towed us back to Mayport Marine.  After that day, I always made it a point to brief the crew on who did what in the event that a rock or the Loch Ness Monster came a calling.  The last thing a skipper wants is a gaggle of geese when he needs cool heads to prevail to save his ship.

A good friend of mine sums up boating as hours of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer panic.  Another sailor I know says that sailing is the only sport in the world where you can be completely terrified going 5-MPH.  Either way, the best way to keep passengers and crew safe is to assume the best but prepare for the worst.  Just as in an aircraft, all it takes is one failed component or a momentary lapse in judgement to turn a pleasure trip into the Perfect Storm.

Catherine Powell is the owner of A Plus All Florida, Insurance in Orange Park, Florida.  To find out more about saving money on your auto insurance, check out her website at


  1. Drunk boating is no laughing matter. Last year I read about a boater who had a few too many only to kill himself and his passengers when he ran his speedboat under a dock.

  2. Excellent article for getting ready for peak boating season. Thanks :D


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