Safe on, safe off

Daniel Fannon

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Make a plan for maneuvering on and off your vessel

Walking the deck, inside cabin or the catwalk of a boat can make for quite a dance given that the surface under foot is always moving and unstable in one way or another. It’s the most obvious difference we feel when leaving solid land and being on the water. It’s also the first experience our nonnautical guests encounter when coming aboard, which makes it the first safety lesson we need to teach them.

The never-ending rule for everyone on board—old salt and novice alike—is constant diligence in watching your step and being prepared for all sorts of rolling and rocking. Take nothing for granted.

I remember the first year I had Melodic—in particular, one warm but breezy afternoon on New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay. This was my first season on my first boat, and with only the beginning United States Power Squadrons, America’s Boating Club, course under my belt, I asked then-Bayside Squadron Commander Sharon Molteni for advice on learning to control this unruly bucket of wood. Sharon told me that since every boat is different, the best approach is to take the boat out and observe how it reacts to the water. In other words, Melodic itself would teach me, so I should listen to it. Excellent advice that has remained with me every moment I am at the helm. Thank you again, Sharon.

As I said, it was a breezy afternoon which, in the shallow waters of Barnegat Bay, meant serious waves of short duration. I stopped for a moment and walked to the aft open cockpit to take in the joy of the sea air and sunshine—a peaceful moment that quickly turned into my first lesson in boat dancing (or as it’s known in District 3, the “Long Island Sound Two-Step”). Melodic has a round bottom, which responded to the waves by violently rolling 20 degrees starboard, 20 degrees port, back and forth.

Suddenly, I found myself on an uncontrollable Coney Island Tilt-A-Whirl and had to figure out how to get the 15 feet from the stern back to the helm so I could correct the bow toward the waves. Of course, as the boat rocked on its axis, I realized that the keel line was the only stable area. I did a tightrope walk dead center along the spine of the boat and gratefully reached the helm without injury.

Aside from being underway, the danger of falling or losing my footing most often happens when I am getting on or off the boat at the dock, particularly when I am coming into port and need to quickly jump off to tie up. Melodic has a high freeboard, so the step from the gunwale to the dock can be a dangerous one. When I’m in too much of a hurry, it’s easy to lose my grip and fall. To avoid that, I devised a step-by-step procedure for where to put my hands and feet and how to orderly and safely step onto the dock.

As Sharon says, every boat is different, so I encourage each of you to make a definite on/off plan for yourself. Better to have a specific practice drill in mind when the situation arises than to wing it and risk the indignity of hitting the deck face-first.

I also have a stable step box that makes a big difference in getting on and off the boat. Made of heavy mahogany with a nonskid surface, it has the added benefit of being a storage box for brass polish and boat cleaners. It’s just one more way you can make getting on and off your boat safer.

Daniel Fannon

Dan Fannon joined Bayside Power Squadron/3 in 2003. His boat, Melodic, is a fully restored 32-foot wood Elco cruiser built in 1936. Dan regularly sails Melodic from its homeport on the Hudson River in New Hamburg, New York, to the Long Island Sound, New York Harbor and the New Jersey coast.

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The Ensign magazine is an official channel of United States Power Squadrons, America’s Boating Club, a volunteer organization whose members teach boating skills and best practices to help improve the safety of our nation’s waterways. Learn more.

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