By Capt. Fred Davis

Boating education classes are available during off-season months when boats are laid up for winter storage, but many vessel owners give little thought to boating once their craft is tucked away. Many do not even check their boats during the winter, nor do they take advantage of this time to make improvements or gain education. They just forget about boating until winter passes, and at the first sign of summer, want to get their boats in the water and underway.

It seems obvious; winter months are the time to increase ones knowledge and ability through education. Unable to go boating, there is extra time to learn more. The ones to learn from are most often other boaters, thus they too have more time to teach. U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and U. S. Power Squadron instructors are boaters too. Many are eager to share their vast knowledge through boating classes. Unfortunately, many of these classes lack attendance.

A boat owner and a good boat operator are not always the same. Some very smart boating enthusiasts do not even own boats and some very poor boat operators own very big boats. The latter become obvious as soon as the boating season begins. I encountered one the very first busy weekend last summer.

I was listening to my VHF marine radio and heard a boater call out the name of his own boat, and then ask for directions. It was obvious he lacked boating knowledge, as evidenced by the improper use of his radio. After a few calls, another boater answered. The caller asked for coordinates to a specific harbor and the other boater responded with the numbers.

A knowledgeable operator would have acquired all numbers he could possibly need before starting his voyage. He would have aboard a current chart to verify these numbers and would have charted necessary courses to arrive at his predetermined destinations without incident.

A little later, I heard the same boater calling a nearby dock master. Once again, displaying his lack of knowledge regarding radio use, he asked how to get into the harbor. He said he was between a grassy island and shore in six feet of water.

I was out with a charter and my location, just two miles away, gave me good visual contact of a 35-foot cruiser. I noted immediately the boat was on a very dangerous reef. I responded on the radio advising the operator to stop his boat and then radioed the dock master explaining the situation. The dock master said she could not see the boat at all and would clear the radio so I could talk to the boater and try to get him safely out of shallow water.

The boater was not aware of his danger but he was very lucky. He had not hit bottom and thus avoided damaging his underwater gear. I advised him of my experience with the reef and said I would attempt to help him get off. I told him if he did not use extreme caution, he could go aground on rocks.

My first instruction was to have him put someone on the bow to spot the big rocks, then change course 180 degrees to an east heading. I advised he should carefully, at idle speed, proceed on the easterly heading until he reached 15 to 20 feet of water, then turn due north and, still slowly, proceed to a depth of 35 to 40 feet.

As I watched the vessel turn and head east, I was hopeful he could pick his way off the reef. Realizing it would take some skillful maneuvering and continued good luck, I was not sure it could even be accomplished. Many boats have been damaged beyond repair in this very same area. Watching and hoping, I could not believe my eyes when I saw the boat turn to a northwest heading- right toward the lighthouse perched on top of the reef.

I quickly explained the danger of his position, saying he could not possibly get off the reef without damage on his present heading. After considerable discussion, the operator turned back to the east and slowly picked his way between the rocks.

After three course corrections and an explanation of how to read a compass, the boat was out of danger and able to continue to its destination. The captain said he had not hit bottom and I knew how fortunate he was. It took four or five more discussions on the VHF radio to help the captain get his boat safely to the harbor. He arrived without further problem and I thought I had heard the last of him.

I was wrong, his problems continued and actually got worse. Once in the harbor, he stopped for fuel. When he attempted to back away from the dock, his port shaft dislodged from the coupling, leaving him with one engine and very little maneuverability. Still close to the dock, he was able to throw a line to the dock master. With help from other boaters, his vessel was pulled in and secured at the fuel dock.

Local boaters on the dock that had overheard VHF radio transmissions gathered to discuss the situation with the boater. They asked how he got his 35-foot cruiser in such a dangerous position. His explanation was, "I had an old chart that did not show the lighthouse." The lighthouse was erected over 100 years ago and the chart clearly indicates the aid and its position. The operator simply did not know how to read a chart.

Luck, as mentioned earlier, was definitely with this man. Hopefully, he will get some boating education before his luck runs out. If not, he will likely be another boating mishap statistic. During the off-season this boat operator would benefit from a few evenings spent at classes. His boating would be a more enjoyable pastime and a safer experience for his guests on board.


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