Maritime Safety – Best Practices

Maritime Safety Balance

Maritime Safety requires a balance between practicality and paranoia.

While my wife and I were at Watmough Bay on Lopez Island, some spring weather caught us off guard. The forecast when we left the dock on Friday was for calm, sunny weather all weekend. However, on Saturday afternoon the winds started picking up and the forecast had changed to 25 mph over night. We were OK. In fact, we were hardly inconvenienced, but the fact that I let the weather surprise me was bad boat safety. I foolishly didn’t check the weather forecast on Saturday morning.

In Malcome Gladwell’s book, Outliers, he discusses the fact that (on average) a plane crash required seven mistakes. Planes don’t typically crash due to some massive, single failure, but instead it is typically due to many small failures by the captains and crew. I suspect that boats are no different in this regard.

This weekend’s events inspired me to write down all the maritime safety steps I take when I’m out on the boat. Can you think of any? Have I left any off? I’d love it if you added your marine safety tips in the comments.

  • Have paper printouts or books containing the following before you leave the dock:

    • Weather forecast (hour-by-hour if you can)
    • Tide levels: high and low
    • Ocean currents: magnitudes and times
  • It’s good safety boating practice to check the weather forecast every morning when you wake up and every evening before you go to bed. (This is what I failed to do this time around)
  • Always be aware of the direction of the wind and how it will affect your anchorage. For instance, the dominant wind here in the San Juan Islands is from the southwest. Therefore, anchorages that open to the northeast are typically the calmest, most comfortable anchorages.
  • Always pack a spare propane tank
    • The Rock ‘N Row is dependent on propane for cooking and heat when on the hook. We have a wood stove that we make a lot of use of, but in high winds it doesn’t work very well. We also have electric heaters, but that only works if we are connected to shore power.
  • Have lots of extra rope
    • When the going gets tough, the tough get rope. You can solve a lot of problems on the water as long as you have enough rope. Any sailor worth his salt can attest to this fact. (Extra buckets often come in handy too)
  • Before going to bed, make sure you do the following:
    • Bring in all the fenders
      • On my boat they end up hitting the side of the hull and making it hard to sleep.
    • Batten down anything that might be susceptible to a gust of wind (furniture, buckets, etc).
    • Turn on the anchor light
    • Turn on the anchor alarm
    • Turn on the depth alarm
      • Even the least expensive depth finder (like the Hummingbird 160, which is what I have) includes a depth alarm.

    Even when I do all these things, I still have a hard time sleeping; especially on the first night out. A lot of that has to do with just getting use to the boat movement and sounds at night. I find that I mentally have to ‘give myself permission’ to relax enough to get anything resembling a sound sleep. This is much easier if I know that I’ve done everything I can to avoid a mid-night mishap. The recent edition of the electronics, capable of sounding alarms, has drastically improved my sleep too.

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One Response to “Maritime Safety – Best Practices”
  1. Ken says:

    I know what you mean! We have had a few nights of anchor watch, and a couple of close calls. Our worst night was at Spencer Spit on Lopez Island. We tied off to a State Park buoy on the the South side of the spit. We chose this because the North side is prone to wakes from ferry traffic. We tied off, running two separate bow lines to the buoy ring. These were both heavy lines, at least 1/2″ – 5/8″. The wind picked up out of the south around midnight, and we were getting bounced around a bit at our mooring. We listened, felt the boat, periodically went on deck with the flashlight and checked the lines. At about 4:00 am, things started to settle down a bit and I quit hearing the lines rubbing against each other. I fell asleep on the quarter-berth. At about 6:00 am, we were awoken by a sudden bang and jolt. We thought we had been run into by something. You’d be amazed at how fast you can get moving!

    Upon gaining the deck, we discovered that our mooring lines had separated and that we were on the beach! We were fortunate in that we probably hit the only sandy beach in the entire San Juan archipelago. After a failed attempt to get ourselves off of the beach, and with falling tides, we called Vessel Assist, through West Marine. They were prompt, professional, and personable. Three years later, we still stop by and say hello whenever we are in Friday Harbor.

    The important thing we learned, on advice from our saviour, was to “double wrap” your mooring line to the rings on the buoys. To double wrap, run your line through twice instead of once. A single run lets your line saw back and forth against the rusted and rough galvanized mooring ring. By double wrapping, you can minimize this sawing action.

    I have been boating a lot of years. I am still learning.


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