No boater can say they will never need
assistance. The key to safe boating is to plan ahead of time to minimize
the risks you may face. You should focus your planning on two main
points. First, there are certain things you can do to limit your chance
of trouble. Second, you can make sure that if you do need help, you will
be able to stabilize your situation until it arrives.
Before you set out from the pier, ask yourself a few questions:
Is the weather going to cooperate today? - Rain may not be a big concern for a die-hard fisherman on a properly equipped boat. If you're just planning a family trip in the bay runner, however, do you really want to go out if rain is threatening? Besides making for a riskier voyage, how much fun will it really be? Consider how well equipped you are for bad weather. How seaworthy is your boat if you find yourself in a storm? Are you skilled enough to handle heavy seas? Do you have RADAR or GPS to find your way if visibility drops? If you can't comfortably answer these questions, it may be a good idea to stay closer to the dock, or even find something else to do entirely that day.
If I can't get the boat back, is there someone else onboard who can? - Handling a powerboat is not the same as driving a car. This is even more true about sailboats. If the only other person onboard doesn't know the difference between a halyard and a head, you may want to take a few trial trips just off the marina to go over some basics. Think also about your electronic equipment. Do any of your passengers know how to read a position off your GPS? Do they know how to dial up Channel 16 on the radio? If they do manage to call someone, can they correctly explain where they are and what kind of help they need? Does anyone know first-aid? If you are like most people, you probably use your boat with the same group of people (family, fishing buddies, etc.) most of the time. Take the time to train at least one or two of them about running your boat. Lastly, if some of these questions left you scratching your head, take a short trip or two near your marina with someone who really knows what they're doing. Even if you never find yourself in distress, I guarantee you'll learn something you'll use later.
If I get in trouble, how is someone going to find me? - An even better question may be, "How will anyone know to look?" The best answer is to purchase a 406 MHz EPIRB. If you do not wish to purchase an EPIRB the next best things to have onboard are a radio and GPS. By a radio, I mean a marine VHF-FM radio, not a CB. The Coast Guard and almost everybody else is always tuned in to Channel 16, and if you call, someone will answer. You may also now get marine VHF-FM radios that have Digital Select Calling (DSC) now FYI not all Coast Guard Units have the capabilities to monitor DSC other boaters in the area are able to hear the signal and respond if able. Cell phones are good but you should remember these things. First, you can only call 1 person at a time. Calling for help on a radio is not only going to notify the Coast Guard you're having a heart attack, but also anyone else who happens to be listening, including that heart surgeon who just happens to be on his yacht only a few minutes away. Second, how does the battery in your phone stack up next to the car battery your radio is wired to? Assuming both start with a charged battery, that radio is going to hold out a lot longer. Certainly that phone is a great thing to have, but in addition to, not in place of a radio.
For passing position information, your GPS is the best thing going. It gives your position accurate to within yards. As stated earlier however, both the radio and GPS are only as useful as the operator. Make sure someone on board can tune the radio and read the GPS. If you don't have these items you may still be OK, but you'd be prudent to remain in an area where folks on shore would know to look for you and you should avoid going out when there is the possibility of not being able to find your way visually, such as at night and in bad weather. Your last best option is to leave a "float plan" with a friend. This is basically an itinerary of your trip, a description of your boat, a list of people on board, etc., etc. Click here to obtain a good sample float plan. It is also a good idea to leave this plan with someone who is familiar with boats. If you fail to return as scheduled, it is often a lot easier for another boater to explain your situation to the Coast Guard. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard does not have sufficient personnel to allow us to accept float plans.
If I run into trouble, how long can I hold out? - Unfortunately, while California can boast of beautiful beaches and dreamy ocean sunsets, one thing it cannot offer is warm tropical waters. The California current ensures that the water along our coast stays uncomfortably cool. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that once you get wet you are going to have a hard time staying warm. Plan accordingly. If you are going to be far from shore, or if you are worried it may be hours before anyone gets worried (such as when you don't return according to the float plan you will now leave every time you go boating) you should invest in the equipment to keep warm. A survival suit, costing a few hundred dollars, will do the trick. These have saved people in Alaskan waters only a few degrees above freezing. Can't spend the money for a survival suit (for everyone on board)? You're not alone. However, you should factor this into your trip plan, however. Confine your boating to places where you think you can swim to shore, or stay in areas where you can expect someone to quickly see that you're in trouble. On the subject of swimming, don't operate under any illusions about how far you can go. Right outside our headquarters sits Alcatraz. If you've ever visited San Francisco you can see just how close to shore it is. Yet its reputation was largely the result of the fact that it was still too far for most normal folks to swim. Consider also that if you do find yourself swimming, it may be after a fierce struggle to keep your boat afloat. You could be at the point of exhaustion even before you start swimming. For a few hundred dollars, you can buy a suit that will not only keep you warm, but actually almost 100% dry, will keep you afloat without having to swim, and presents a nice orange target for the rescue helicopter.
So what if you don't sink? - There are still a few things it would be nice to have if you get stuck for a while. Food and water are always a good idea. It is very easy to become dehydrated. A gallon or two of water can go a long way. Beer is not an acceptable alternative! It is well known that alcoholic beverages only increase dehydration. Besides, boating while intoxicated is against the law! Another good idea is some warm clothes and blankets. If you get stuck after dark, these will keep you from getting hypothermic. If you get stuck before dark, a bottle of sunscreen is a great idea. We love our California sun, but it can quickly turn into a nuisance if there is no way to protect ourselves from it. Another often overlooked item is medicine. Unfortunately, we too often get phone calls like, "My father is going to need his insulin and he was supposed to be home hours ago!" Always plan to be out just a bit longer than you thought. Hopefully, these few tips will ensure you stay healthy until help arrives. A rescue is always easier when the victims can help themselves