Boating Basics: Room for Improvement
The more experience I gain, the more I want to work on improving my boating skills. In my business, we have a concept of continuous improvement. I try to do the same with my skills as a mariner, continuously improving over time.
I have used autopilot on my boats for the past 20 years, but I’m lazy when it comes to setting a course. I set a destination on my GPS, point the boat so it’s on the rhumb line, press AUTO, and sit back. It’s easy to monitor and adjust a couple degrees if wind and current take me off course.
At times, I turn off autopilot while in sight of land and set a course using a landmark as a reference point. I focus my attention on cutting an arrow-straight course at my target. As with driving a car, a straight line takes less effort. The more I focus on minute corrections, the more my wake zigzags behind me. I sometimes practice the same thing well offshore while bored on a long ride home. Without a landmark as a reference, I practice steering by compass, cloud formation, the location of the sun, or even by the sea direction. My wake tells the tale of how straight I am steering. This is good practice for the day the autopilot breaks and I have to steer home for five hours by hand.
Many years ago, I was offshore on someone else’s boat, a person far more experienced than me. He looked at me and said, “The electronics just failed, and I have passed out on the deck. What’s your course to Gay Head and how long will it take to get there?”
Time, course, and distance all come into play with dead reckoning. That same person taught me to log a GPS location each hour and keep a paper chart handy – using these, I could make a quick plot for the course home. When taking a captain’s class, the students spend days plotting course and estimating time and distance. It’s good practice to know how many minutes it takes to cover a nautical mile: 3 minutes at 20 knots, 2 minutes at 30 knots, or even 10 minutes at 6 knots trolling speeds. A second skill is the ability to apply that time and distance to a nautical chart as well as plot a course on that same chart. These skills, combined with a last-known GPS location, mean I always has a reasonable time and distance estimate to my destination.
As someone who grew up boating before GPS, dead reckoning is a natural habit to practice. If you started boating when GPS was standard, dead reckoning is a great skill to pick up and put in your mental toolbox. Every one of my trips starts with a dead-reckoning calculation of time, course, and distance. Before you turn on the GPS, get in the habit of doing that mental calculation. Ninety-nine percent of the time you won’t need it, but in that 1% of the time when you do, it could save your life.
A truism with radar is use it before you need it. As a licensed captain, I am supposed to have mine on and keep a radar watch at all times while my boat is underway. I confess to not being perfect in either requirement, but on every trip I take on the water, the radar is always powered up and I do a few cross-checks on buoys and ferries to make sure what I see on radar matches the reality I see with my eyes. Even on a clear and calm day, I will deliberately make a 2-mile run to pass a buoy at ¼ mile and work my way through the ranges to match the visual state with the radar view. At some point in dark or fog, I will have to do the same thing and I want to understand exactly what a ¼- or 1/8-mile pass looks like on radar.
I also do the same match of radar view to eye view with passing and crossing boat traffic, using boats of all sizes as references. I want to know exactly what that 15-foot Whaler looks like at 1 mile, at what point it first appears on radar, and whether I will lose it in clutter as I pass close to it.
One of my scariest boating experiences was in the early 2000s when I was heading offshore in the dark on a commercial striped bass day in Massachusetts. I had a small blip in front of me as I went down the East Beach of Chappaquiddick. I saw it at a mile, then perhaps ¾ mile, but could not pick up a stern light. I was not well versed in radar back then and I didn’t understand that I had to decrease my range as I approached a target to keep it in radar view. To shorten the story, I lost the target at ½ mile and forgot about it. By dumb luck, I picked up his wake 50 yards in front of me before I ran up his stern. While he was unlit, it was still my responsibility to have kept a better radar watch.
I have previously written about the ARPA feature, which provides a calculated course, speed, and closest point of approach for a radar target. I practice regularly with a crossing or approaching boat by putting my cursor on its radar target, making it an ARPA target, and comparing what the ARPA calculation says with what my eye sees. This is a good skill to practice before you find yourself needing to use that feature in the dark or fog.
Courtesy and Wake Management
You are responsible for your wake. We have all had the experience of going too fast in constrained waterways and tossing a moored or docked boat with our wake. We have all glared or screamed at someone who blew by at speed, tossing our boat and passengers with their wake.
I was recently fishing with my wife in a local rip. The bite was on, and a dozen boats were lined up drifting the rip, with everyone happily enjoying the wide-open early-season bass bite. A Coast Guard patrol came into the rip, settled down-current, and started to do safety checks. Off in the distance, I saw a large yacht coming at high speed toward the rip. I had enough time to warn my wife, “If this guy doesn’t alter course, I’m going to have to pivot to take his wake bow on.” I watched in disbelief as a million-dollar yacht with a boatload of laughing people split the 50-yard distance between me and the next boat at 30 knots and roared through the fleet in the rip at full speed, clearly on an autopilot course from one port to the next. Remember that Coast Guard boat doing safety inspections? He idled out of the fleet, powered up, and ran down Rodney Dangerfield within a mile.
Long ago, I was on a friend’s boat as he roared through a cut in Woods Hole at high speed, right through the houseboat field. I said to him as he did so, “Isn’t this a no-wake zone?” He replied that since it wasn’t marked as such and the no-wake buoy was clearly visible 200 yards ahead, he was within his rights to charge through at 25 knots even though his wake was causing rafted-up boats to slam into each other. At the time I was far less experienced than he was and didn’t argue. Of course, two days later I got an email from someone who had seen me that day, reading my friend and me the riot act for unsafe boating.
While it may very well be within your rights to hold course and maintain speed, there is a very complicated set of navigation rules for all vessels at sea. Within those 150 pages of various regulations is this very simple and nondescript Rule #2:
Rule 2 – Responsibility
(a) Nothing in these Rules shall exonerate any vessel, or the owner, master, or crew thereof, from the consequences of any neglect to comply with these Rules or of the neglect of any precaution which may be required by the ordinary practice of seamen, or by the special circumstances of the case.
In simple terms, what the bold section says is no matter whether you are in stand-on or give-way position, or have precedence over other vessels, use common sense and caution in what you do on the water.
I do everything I can to manage my wake for a few hundred yards around me. If I pass a sailboat or come up on a cluster of boats fishing, I alter course a half mile away to give them at least a few hundred yards space whenever possible. If I am on a direct line through a restricted area and boats are fishing or anchored on my course, as much as it’s an annoyance, I slow to displacement speed as I pass the boats as opposed to tossing them with my large wake.
I periodically torture my wife by tossing a cushion overboard and saying, “That’s me. Go get it.” It drives her nuts as I critique how well she responds to the emergency, but it’s a very important lesson for anyone who boats regularly and is not fully familiar and versed in boatmanship. I have also stepped away from the wheel and said, “I’m hurt. Get us home,” and helped her figure out how to navigate back to a safe port. Finally, I have a laminated sheet by the helm with MAYDAY instructions for her to follow should an emergency occur. I have covered that procedure in detail in previous articles, but in summation, an emergency call must have four pieces of information: boat name/description, boat location, nature of distress, and the number of people on board.
The other emergency practice I have followed for years is to keep an ear out for any emergency calls on Channel 16 and quickly jot down the location in my log. I then make a mental calculation as to where that boat is in relation to mine and what it would take for me to render aid.
The more time you spend on the water, the more you can anticipate what is going to happen before it actually does. When aboard, whether on open waters, a crowded channel, or at the dock, I think ahead to what could happen and what other boats or conditions are going to affect me. Summer weekends bring out the worst in boatmanship, when navigation rules and common courtesy don’t enter the minds of some boaters. If you pay attention to what boats are doing and their course and speed, you can often see a problem developing minutes before it occurs.
My slip is at the end of a harbor near a popular boat ramp, a busy fuel dock, and a large ferry. On summer weekends, the harbor turns into a four-lane free-for-all with the half-mile journey between slip and open ocean an exercise in avoiding a variety of poor boating habits. As I enter or leave the harbor, I try to anticipate what will happen far enough in advance to take evasive action. Ducking into the mooring field to give the ferry way, slowing to a crawl before traversing the narrow jetties so an incoming boat has more room, and giving way for a boat backing out of a slip are all examples of being situationally aware of a crowded waterway space.
My route home from offshore takes me by Edgartown and Oak Bluffs at about a 2-mile distance. This gives me time to see boat traffic in and out of those harbors and plan for evasive action as needed. Just because I understand the navigational rules and the difference between stand-on and give-way doesn’t mean other boats do. Whether I am right or not, having a close encounter with a large center console crossing my bow port to starboard at 100 yards is dangerous; it’s easy enough to see the problem two minutes in advance and give-way by ducking behind the crossing boat.
I am always both amused and concerned as I watch sailboats traverse a very crowded and busy Woods Hole Passage, slow-dancing in front of ferries, fishing boats, and power boats in a very restricted channel. Without a deep dive into the details of the navigational rules, sailboats do not always have the right of way. A sailboat under power with an engine, as is required in Woods Hole, is a power boat and not a sailboat.
Whenever I see a sailboat in that passage, I expect the unexpected and have an evasive plan in place before I need it. Also, while traversing any narrow and high-current passage, I try to anticipate the effect my wake plus the current might have on a smaller boat and throttle down as needed so I don’t swamp a small skiff passing me in the opposite direction.
Accurate Assessment of Capabilities
My final comment on being a great boater is to always have an accurate assessment of you and your boat’s capabilities as well as the capabilities of all on board. Combine those capabilities with weather and sea states before you plan a trip.
It’s far better to plan a trip based on your weakest link as opposed to finding out 30 miles offshore that one of the crew cannot handle an ocean swell. Seasickness is not rational, and 30 years of boating have taught me to do my utmost to know who is on board, what they can take, and avoid situations where you, your boat, or your crew is in over their heads. There is no place for false optimism on the ocean.
If you have a 32-foot center console and you’re used to dashing around at 30 to 40 knots, it is false optimism to assume you can travel at that speed in all conditions. Vineyard Sound, where I do much of my boating, regularly blows up from a calm summer morning to a windy and choppy afternoon as the sun warms the land and a sea breeze develops. At 11 a.m., my slow Downeast is passed left and right by one center console after another. At 5 p.m., when it’s time to head back and Vineyard Sound is a wall of white water and wind, my crew and I chug home dry and comfortable at 18 knots, passing one set of soaked boaters after another, just barely making headway. I have seen a lot of miserable passengers jump off the boat at the Falmouth Harbor ramp, soaked and miserable because their captain did not assess the situation in advance. Many years ago, when I was still running small center consoles, a seasoned fisherman taught me the “safe” path home from the Vineyard. It was not direct, but it avoided a number of rips, used the lee of the island, and put the wind at my back on the way home. It probably took twice the time of a direct course, but my family arrived at the dock dry and unconcerned.
Boating is a Skill, so Work to Improve It
Boating is a skill that needs practice. Whether it’s a quick cruise to lunch, a planned trip to an island, or an offshore adventure, work on your skills and use the experience you gain to become a better boater. The most experienced captains I know are the most thoughtful and conservative when it comes to operating a boat. They are the ones who work on continuously improving their skills.