Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Navigating Your Way Through A Vessel Safety Check

Kids love the water, and boating. They also love to dip their toes and fingertips in it as they ride.
But law-enforcement sees this as a ticketing offense, bow rail notwithstanding. If the motor is on and the boat is making way, no part of a passenger's body may be outside the boat.

My friend Brian was returning to Savannah from Daufuskie last weekend. South Carolina DNR was responding to a flood of recreational boat-traffic with a significant on-water presence to ensure safety and sanity on the water. Brian observed a DNR boat coming his way and announced to his passengers, "okay guys, we are going to get stopped and checked, could everyone sit down and be quiet, please."

Just then, another boater on the far side of the DNR boat entered the "no-wake" zone at "plow" speed. This is a relatively slow speed with the motor pushing hard enough to raise the bow and bury the stern, and it results in a massive wake that rocks boats violently and can damage docks and erode shorelines. A novice boater might not understand the logic and intent of a no-wake zone, but trust me, law enforcement is ready to explain.

Plowing is a visual "screw you and your wake zone" signal to any officer of the law. As the DNR officer approaching Brian's boat swung his head and saw the other boat's massive wake, he smoothly swung his bow in that direction. That guy got the blue-light special.

Don't be that guy.

This weekend I had a charter trip with a family on a USCG-inspected vessel with rails taller than 39.5 inches above the deck. The high rails negate the requirement for children younger than 13 years of age to wear a life jacket.

While idling through the Isle of Hope section of the Skidaway River I was explaining to my African-American passengers the history and etymology of Freedom Creek.  I was on a roll and working the tip hard.

As this was happening, the mom moved to sit on the front deck of the boat, with her feet and legs inside the hull and railed area, but her upper torso out. The mom then lifted her toddler onto her lap. So now the toddler was just outside the railed area as well. And that was when we idled by the Chatham County Police boat.

I waved at the officer while giving my spiel, and saw him giving us a long look. That look raised my situational awareness antennae and I quickly discerned what he was thinking. "Are they in compliance? Is that kid--not wearing a vest--being protected by the rails?" I snapped out of my tour-guide role and back into role as the safety-monitor.

"Hey mom! Could I get you and your baby to come all the way back inside the hull of the boat please? I need you both inside the rails." She smiled and complied immediately (and I still crushed the tip.). Story continues below...

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A small vessel captain has to be both host and safety-monitor, no matter the size of the boat or ratings held. If you captain a recreational boat and take guests on a ride, this applies to you too. It's hard to think of everything and have your attention everywhere at once, but it's part and parcel of being a successful and safe boater. You must be prepared to shed distractions and ignore distracting passengers. (Note to self!)

If you get stopped by law enforcement for a safety check it's best to remain calm, polite, and helpful. Keep in mind that these are the folks who deal with the aftermath of violent and sometimes fatal boating accidents. They have been there and seen what happens when things get out of hand, and their job is to protect us. Sometimes from ourselves.

There are things you must have onboard your boat, like the previously mentioned life-jackets, and depending on where you are and what type of boat you are in or on, flares that aren't out of date,  and a daytime distress signal. (There is a newer approved signal device that uses batteries instead of pyrotechnics). It's common practice for folks to keep out of date flares in addition to "fresh" ones, as they will probably work fine in an emergency, and more is better, right?

Well, some law-enforcement folks will take you to task if you have the old flares stored together with the newer ones. Another sticking point is not having your throw cushion (or throw-ring on an inspected vessel) "readily available." If you have the throw cushion stored in the center console under a pile of stuff, the officer may ask you to keep it closer to hand, perhaps hanging from a rod-holder behind the center seat. Some of the rules are subjective and the officer is the one doing the interpretation. Best to politely roll with that interpretation and thank them for their advice. One Type IV throwable device must be on board all vessels except Class A vessels (boats less than 15’ 11” which also includes personal-watercraft, canoes and kayaks).

In most cases a law enforcement officer (or team) will not board your boat. They will put large fenders out and pull up alongside you. As long as you are polite and aren't obviously impaired, you will probably come through this experience with some advice, maybe a verbal or written warning, and maybe even a citation. If you are drunk you are going straight to jail. If there are illegal drugs on the boat it's getting impounded. Marine law-enforcement officers have breathalyzers just like their brethren on the roads. The Coast Guard may board you if they stop you.

Law enforcement is familiar with Freedom Boat Club boats and they know that these boats have all required safety equipment. This may preclude you from getting a safety check on a Freedom Boat. Even so, it's a good idea to periodically refresh yourself on exactly where on the boat these items are. In an emergency you might need something in a hurry. The fact that someone else takes care of the safety stuff on a Freedom boat can lead to complacency, and complacency is the key that unlocks the brain-box in which all other hazardous attitudes are waiting to have their way with you.

Click here for the Georgia Boating Rules and Regulations.

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