By Capt. Fred Davis

There are remarkable differences between professional boat operators and pleasure boat operators. During over 30 years of operating my salvage company on the Great Lakes as well as boating in the Florida Keys, I witnessed many incidents depicting these differences.

One incident involved a very close call, a toss-up between life and death for a group of six people as they approached a harbor chased by a storm. Their high performance boat encountered problems and when a vessel is a “go-fast” type, problems develop faster and are often more severe.

I was parked at the harbor, talking to a local marine deputy about the severity of an approaching storm while he scanned the water with binoculars. He handed them to me and asked, “What do you make of that?” I looked to the east, beyond a reef (clearly charted) three miles offshore and saw a fast moving vessel, set low to the water. We were unable to determine its type and size but because of the speed it was traveling we knew it was a high performance powerboat.

The operator of the craft was obviously unaware of the approaching reef and the hazard it presented. He was probably attempting to make landfall before the storm hit. Little did he know the storm would be the least of his problems in a matter of minutes.

I hurried down the dock, boarded my boat and attempted to hail the vessel on Channel 16 on my VHF radio. There was no reply. The marine deputy continued to observe the vessel very closely as I prepared to get my boat underway. We both hoped we could reach the area and warn the vessel off before disaster struck.

As we cast lines off, still observing the boat, it happened. The vessel came to an abrupt halt appearing to hit the reef so hard the occupants were thrown out of it. The deputy got aboard his shallow draft vessel docked nearby and we both rushed to aid the stricken craft.

The deputy arrived on scene first and began assisting the people in the water. As I approached, I called to him indicating a man going under in the deeper water at the reef’s edge. He quickly maneuvered his craft over and rescued the man along with the five other people floundering nearby.

Winds and waves increased as we began our return to the harbor. The salvage crew I had placed on alert awaited our arrival and assisted us at dockside.

After all the terrified persons were safely ashore, I returned with my crew to retrieve the sunken craft. Waves had blown the partially submerged vessel off the reef. We towed the vessel to port and had it hauled out at the local marina.

Examination of the 30-foot fiberglass hull revealed one out-drive sheared off at the cavitation plate and the other ripped out of the transom completely. Had it not been for built-in floatation, along with air trapped in the bow, the boat would have sunk immediately and been a total loss.

After he had a chance to recover from his ordeal, I met with the owner operator and we discussed the accident. I told him I had tried to hail him on the marine radio to warn him of the reef he was approaching. He explained, “I never put a radio aboard because an antenna sticking up would ruin the sleek lines of my boat.”

Inquiring about the man who nearly drowned, I was told he had not been able to get to the life jackets stored in the bow. After entering the water, he grabbed a suitcase floating nearby and wrapped his hand around the strap to hold on. As its contents absorbed water, the suitcase became heavy and started to sink. The man could not free his hand, entangled in the strap, and the heavy object began to pull him under.

Looking through the boat later, 2 life jackets (4 less than the amount required for the number of people aboard) were found stowed neatly in the most forward section of the bow below deck. The owner said he had never considered stowing life jackets on deck in a PFD case.

No lives were lost in the above incident. Only minor injuries resulted from the harrowing accident but two men, two women and two children had the scare of a lifetime.

The “go-fast,” high performance, muscle, offshore (and other descriptive variation) vessels have beautiful lines. Most folks that view them are avid admirers of this type of watercraft, me included. As a boating safety advocate it is my observation (for the reason given by the captain in my story) few of these vessels are equipped with VHF radios. In addition, life jackets are stowed well forward below decks on most of them.

As you flip through the pages of boating magazines, viewing the photographs, observe the professional is almost always shown wearing a life jacket. Many times they are also shown wearing helmets. Non-professionals often run their vessels at the same speeds as the pros but rarely are they seen wearing life jackets or helmets.

If you want to drive like a pro, you should act like one. If you’re in unfamiliar waters, obtain a local chart and read it. If one is not available, contact (by VHF) the harbor you are approaching and obtain local navigation information.

Although antennas are not evident on pro-race boats, each is equipped with a radio for instant contact with shore crews. During most races, water and air rescue craft are on scene and are in constant communication with crew who may be wearing radio equipped helmets.

Vessels venturing offshore on large bodies of water should have a marine radio, no matter what the lines of the boat dictate. If cost is a factor, the thousands of dollars invested in a boat warrant a few more dollars spent on equipment to protect lives and property.

A radio can save lives if properly used. Had the captain of the boat referred to in my story had a radio, he could have called ahead to the harbor master and received instructions to safely enter the port. If he had not thought to do that, his VHF tuned to channel 16 (which is required) would have received my warning and saved himself and his passengers from a life threatening experience.

Beware, VHF hand-held radios have a limited distance capability and may be of little help when most needed. A 25-watt radio with a good antenna is the best bet. Modern technology produces radios in small sizes, easily installed. Ratchet-type antennas or lift and lay mounted types will allow lifting to position when needed.

Equally as important as obtaining a radio is acquiring the ability to use one properly. Most radios come with instructions for use. The United States Power Squadron and Coast Guard Auxiliary conduct excellent classes on radio procedure and operation.

With your vessel properly equipped, necessary charts aboard, life jackets accessible ­ stowed on deck, and your VHF 25 watt radio turned on, you are prepared to depart ­ see you “safely” on the water!


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