Boat safer by slowing down

Running the inlet, navigating the channel, backing into the slip: So much of what constitutes seamanship involves forging ahead with confidence. (Poetic license allows me to use the phrase “forge ahead” to reference the phrase “backing in.”) Well, there are times when taking one’s time, if not stopping altogether, proves the best and most seamanlike course of action.

Let’s start with coastal inlets. Approaching from offshore, say at about 3 miles out, suppose you spy a band of white instead of a gap in the beach where the inlet is supposed to be. What then? Maintain course and speed because you have a big-name boat powered by brand-new engines?

Know that Mother Ocean doesn’t give a shiver-me-timbers about labels.

In that circumstance, a better course of action might be to get closer, cautiously. That white band is big breakers, and as you get closer, you’ll be able to see how far out they begin. They may simply be across the mouth of the pass. Then again, there may be three, four, or six or more rows of breakers extending well offshore. These lines of standing, breaking waves may be close on top of each other, just boat lengths apart — or they may be spread out. You won’t know until you get closer in, just outside of them if possible, and slow down or stop to assess the situation. Like a surfer, watch the waves and see if they aren’t coming in sets of five or seven. (These aren’t fixed intervals, though experience teaches they are good starting points when looking for a pattern). ­Often, with some time spent observing, you can determine which wave in a set averages out to be the smallest and make your crossing during that wave. In any event, ­stopping to observe will let you plan your transit, knowing in ­advance where you’ll need to accelerate, where you’ll need to slow down, and where the waves are coming in just a little from one side. This is a good time to break out those binoculars your wife gave you for your birthday a few years ago, if you have them.

Fuel docks are another place it pays to stand off, slow down and observe before rushing in to fill the tanks and buy supplies. As in any human endeavor, the first few seconds of an activity often prove fraught with distraction, and fellow boaters leaving a fuel dock are not exempt from this fact. Consider Joe Boater, tossing the lines, counting his kids, trying to jam his credit card back in his wallet, and all the while manning wheel and throttle and attempting to get clear of the dock in the wind and current.

Hey, I’m not advocating Joe’s approach. I’m just stating that I’ve seen him in action.

So slow down and stand off. Let Joe get clear and, while you’re at it, observe what affect the wind and current are having on his boat. Because they’ll be affecting your boat in the same way momentarily.

Fuel docks and inlets represent two of the myriad boating scenarios in which slowing down and observing makes the most sense. Keep this principle in mind and apply it next time you’re out on the water.

This means you, Joe.

Quick Tip: Fighting the sea and the elements always proves foolish. When slowing down to hover and observe a situation before proceeding, always try to turn the boat into the wind or current. Doing so affords the best control of a non-moving boat.

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The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency’s Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to “Boat Responsibly!” For more tips on boating safety, visit

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