Learn from others’ boating mistakes

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By Larry MacDonald

What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done while boating? I’ve been asking fellow boaters that question this past year. About half reported some real doozies, while the rest reported minor mishaps such as running out of gas in their dingy or losing their winch handle overboard.

Let’s face it—accidents happen to the best of us. The key to happy boating is to learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others so we don’t repeat them; it’s a whole lot cheaper!

From the boating incidents reported to me, I chose 10 and ranked them on a scale from dumb to dumbest, 10-1, with number one being most deserving of the Boating Oops Award.

No. 10  Anchor away

Gary had chartered a nearly new sailboat and was anchoring for the first time. With his wife at the helm, he dropped the hook, fed out 50 feet of chain and continued to let out the rope, which was not marked at intervals.

Thinking his wife was backing up too quickly, he yelled for her to slow down, which she did but not until the entire rode, including the bitter end, had gone through Gary’s hands. The charter company hadn’t secured it in the anchor locker.

Fortunately, they could dock for the night at a nearby marina. The next morning, the charter company retrieved the anchor and, after some warranted apologies, extended the couple’s cruise for two days to compensate for this avoidable mishap.

Helpful hint: Make sure your anchor rode’s bitter end is secured to your boat, and be aware that charter boats, especially new ones, may have unresolved problems.

No. 9   Sssssssss

Ben, Ron and their wives were on a sailing charter in Florida when they decided to anchor in a narrow waterway. After anchoring, Ron rowed their rubber dingy the short distance to shore to tie off a stern line. While doing so, he accidentally rammed into a sharp branch, which punctured one side of the dingy. Ben wisely shouted, “Untie the line,” which Ron did before frantically rowing back to the boat, half submerged like a wounded duck.

After docking at the closest marina, they spent the next day going from store to store unsuccessfully trying to find a patch kit. After mentioning their plight to a fellow boater, he generously loaned them his kit to make the repair.

Helpful hint: If you have an inflatable dingy, always carry an appropriate patch kit. You never know when you or another boater might need it.

No. 8   Twisted

Motoring into a secluded bay to spend the night, dingy in tow, Chris selected his spot to drop anchor. While revving up in reverse to set the hook, he heard a shrill screeching sound, and the engine began laboring. After shutting down the engine, he noticed the dingy painter leading directly under the boat, obviously wrapped around the prop shaft.

His solution involved multiple dives in frigid water to cut the line as well as an extra ration of rum to ease the pain.

Helpful hint: As a reminder to shorten your dingy line before anchoring or docking, tie the bitter end to one of your anchoring gloves or fenders.

No. 7   Docking 101

Newbie sailors Dave and Carol were practicing docking their new 34-foot sailboat. Dave made an angled approach while Carol stood on the outside of the pulpit rail, dock line in hand. As the bow reached the dock, Carol suddenly realized that she could injure herself by possibly landing on the tie rail, so she turned around with her back to the dock and stepped off.

At that moment, Dave turned parallel to the dock, swinging the bow far enough away that Carol stepped into midair and—splash! Uninjured, she swam to a nearby ladder while Dave tied up the boat. They made two mistakes: exiting at the bow and walking off backward.

Helpful hint: Stop the boat close enough to the dock, even if it takes several attempts, so the line handler can safely step off amidships or aft, never from the bow.

No. 6   Not so merry-go-round

Jim, a British Columbia kayaker, attempted to paddle through a tidal pass at high tide, which he assumed would be slack water. His assumption nearly proved fatal when a school-bus-size whirlpool caught him, dumping him and his gear into the salt chuck.

Hanging on to his kayak and paddling furiously with his feet through several revolutions, Jim managed to break free and make it to shore. When he related this story several days later, I explained that high (or low) tide and slack current in tidal passes seldom coincide and can be more than an hour apart.

Helpful hint: All boaters in coastal waters should have a book of tide and current tables and know how to read them.

No. 5   Ouch

At the beginning of one of my cruise-and-learn courses, I explained to students the importance of always securing the anchor hatch in the open position with the bungee cord provided. Just a few days later Robert was raising the anchor with the electric windlass when the wake from a passing yacht caused our boat to roll slightly, just enough to tip the unsecured hatch past vertical. Unfortunately, he had his hand on the casing when the hatch slammed down. It was not a pretty sight.

After providing first aid, I had him transported to the local hospital emergency department where he received treatment for severe cuts and a broken finger.

Helpful hint:  Always secure open hatches when working around them.

No. 4   Cardinal rules

While anchored in a popular British Columbia anchorage, I noticed a large sailing yacht approaching on the east side of a West Cardinal Buoy. Just as I was thinking, “This is going to hurt,” the boat hit the submerged reef and came to rest at a rakish angle.

I immediately advised the Coast Guard of the situation and agreed to offer assistance. Motoring over in my dingy, I found the elderly skipper and his wife uninjured and their steel hull not leaking. After helping them kedge off with their spare anchor, I asked the skipper what the marker meant to him. He replied, “I thought it marked an isolated rock that I could pass on either side,” which he said he had done on previous occasions, obviously at higher tides.

I suggested he become familiar with cardinal buoys, which are common in B.C. coastal waters: They use compass cardinal points to indicate the direction of safe passage around obstructions.

Helpful hint: Educate yourself about the buoys and markers on the waters where you boat.

No. 3   Log boom

Returning from a classic boat show in his restored 42-foot wooden powerboat, Rick felt the urge to use the head. Proceeding on autopilot, he scanned ahead for traffic and then went below.

He couldn’t have been gone more than four minutes when he heard a loud boom. Returning to the helm, he noticed a partly submerged log behind the boat. The hull was intact, but the starboard engine was running roughly, so he shut it down and limped home on one engine. When he had the boat hauled, he discovered that the log had badly damaged his starboard prop, which cost $600 to replace.

Helpful hint: If you have to leave the helm unattended for any reason, stop the boat. You can’t collide with anything when you’re not moving.

No 2.   Shortcut to the hard

Most accidental groundings occur when the skipper goes below and a crewmember decides to take a shortcut. Ken, a novice boater, validated this statistic when he made a beeline to the intended anchorage while the skipper searched for a chart.

The sailboat’s keel plowed onto a rocky shoal, bringing the boat to an abrupt stop. Aided by a rising tide and a passing power boater who provided a deliberate wake, the skipper backed off and entered the anchorage through the safe channel.

Ken said he had never fully appreciated, until that moment, “how much deep and shallow water look the same.” A subsequent haul out at a local boatyard resulted in a hefty repair bill for fiberglass damage.

Helpful hint: Before leaving the helm, the skipper (or any other helmsperson) should provide course directions to the person taking over, especially when approaching waters that hide hazards.

No. 1   Shaken and stirred

Good friends Mary and Janet decided to fulfill their lifelong dream of being boaters. They began searching for a powerboat that would take them to popular destinations, initially along the coast of British Columbia and perhaps later to Alaska. They responded to an ad for an old but well-kept 32-foot cabin cruiser. As soon as they stepped aboard, they knew they had to have it. The owner accepted their offer, and after being oriented on the boat’s systems, they motored toward home.

Unfortunately, they hadn’t had the boat inspected, had no boating knowledge or experience, and hadn’t checked the weather. Why should they? This was a big solid boat, they thought, and all they had to do was drive it home across 30 miles of open ocean.

An hour out, the weather deteriorated, the sea turned rough and the engine quit. Although so seasick they could hardly talk, they managed to contact the Coast Guard who dispatched a rescue vessel, which towed them to the closest marina.

Mary and Janet have since taken a Canadian Power & Sail Squadrons boating course and a cruise-and-learn on their own boat, enabling them to follow their dream in a more competent fashion.

Helpful hints: Beginning boaters should take a boating course and, if possible, learn aboard their own boat with a competent instructor. When buying a boat, get it inspected, and always check the weather before heading out.

These mishaps have something in common: The person responsible isn’t likely to make the same mistake again, but someone else will. I hope that someone won’t be you.

Larry MacDonald is a freelance journalist from Powell River, British Columbia, Canada, who writes about his sailing adventures at various cruising destinations. He enjoys teaching about boating, his favorite pastime, whether it be a classroom course for Canadian Power & Sail Squadrons or a Cruise-and-Learn on a chartered sailboat. His website (www.sailingaway.ca) provides useful information about chartering, nautical skills and destinations.

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