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Planning Ahead for a Boat Outing

A little preparation goes a long way toward thwarting potential problems at sea.
Boating Safety

That's strange, he looks seasick," a boater thinks of his son. "He never got seasick before." The plan was just a three-hour excursion off the Louisiana coast. Thankfully, no one was hurt when he missed a marker and ended up hard aground in the shallows so common in that particular stretch of the bayou. Miles from anywhere and without cell phone coverage, he feels a little uneasy but shrugs it off as he wonders about his prop and waits for the rising tide. His 12-year-old boy disappears into the salon to escape the mosquitoes. Emerging from the cabin a few hours later, the boy looks pale. "Dad, I'm so sorry." His look isn't strange anymore. He isn't seasick. "Oh God, we didn't bring your insulin!" the father realizes. Boredom turns to panic in an instant as the father claws at the radio: "Mayday, mayday, mayday."

The lesson learned from this case — like so many at-sea emergencies — begins not at the missed channel marker but at the marina, hours before starting the engines. It was a simple planning mistake I'd seen all too often in my 10 years as a Coast Guard rescue swimmer. It could have turned out much worse than it did. Within 30 minutes, my crew from Air Station New Orleans was over the vessel. The boy was at the hospital within an hour and just fine, but his father learned the hard way that successful trip planning is not just getting ready for "what" you are going to do (i.e., going fishing); it's primarily about getting ready for "where" you are going. They were fishing 40 miles from the nearest hospital. Before your next trip, make sure you're equipped for "where" you will be — out in a very unpredictable place in an machine with 1,000 moving parts — so that common delays don't turn dangerous.

When unforeseen weather pops up, having pre-identified bailout points can help quell the desire to make it back to the marina you came from. I've seen dozens of rescues where captains passed up safe harbors in an effort to get back to their own, significantly increasing risks unnecessarily. Local knowledge and having the right charts or chart chips aboard to put in early can turn big problems into minor inconveniences — making repairs or waiting out weather with passengers safely ashore, not on deck in life jackets.

Spare clothing may seem like excess baggage for a half-day excursion, but warm days can turn into dangerously cold nights if things don't go as planned. I once pulled three hypothermic survivors off a 23-foot center-console in early September. The T-shirts and shorts they wore on their sunny day-trip were no match for sub 60-degree overnight temperatures and constant rain. An otherwise boring wait for a tow turned into a genuine medical emergency for want of a few sweaters and $50 worth of rain gear. Fleece jackets, rain gear and blankets should be vacuum-packed and permanently stored aboard for use during unexpected delays.

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