Melissa Walsh

Melissa Walsh

Stay Safe, Fear the Lake

Great Lakes Scuttlebutt | May 1st, 2019 | Summer Issue 2019 May/June


Stay Safe, Fear the Lake By Melissa Walsh

Lessons in boating safety are too often learned the hard way. With a healthy fear of the power of the lake comes attention to boating safety.

In the tone of tough love, a skipper I know quips to new passengers this curt, morbid “safety speech”: “If you fall overboard, you will die.”

Everyone chuckles, but the danger is real.

Next, the same skipper launches his real safety speech, showing passengers where the MOB (man overboard) button is in the galley and where the MOM (man overboard module) unit and the Life-Sling are located on the life lines and how to use them. He also instructs passengers that whoever sees a person fall overboard becomes the spotter during the crisis, pointing at and keeping their eyes fixed on the PIW (person in the water) until recovery.

It’s a serious speech, because falling overboard is the primary cause of boating-related fatalities. According to the Safe Boating Campaign, drowning was the cause of 76 percent of boating fatalities in 2017, and 85.5 percent of those were not wearing a life jacket.

An investigative report released following the fatal man-overboard event at the start of the 2018 Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac is instructive for anyone climbing aboard a boat — powered by wind or motor— especially for those who are overconfident with their sea legs and swimming ability and under-practiced in emergency recovery of a fellow passenger.

According to the report, the man who drowned was an advanced sailor and a strong swimmer. Though he was wearing an auto-inflatable jacket, it failed to inflate. The report details the crew’s response. Lessons learned, as recorded in the report, conclude that captain and crew should know and follow a clear command structure during a crisis, wear a life jacket, know how to use safety equipment on board, and practice person-overboard recovery drills.

The first step in preventing a person-overboard event is being mindful of the possibility of falling overboard. A captain should communicate to all on board sudden changes in speed and direction. And passengers should hang on.

“One hand for you and one for the boat,” U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Central Region Ninth District Caption Chris Stevens told sailors during a safety seminar sponsored by the Detroit Regional Yacht-Racing Association last February.

Renee Yax, Public Information Officer with the Macomb County Sheriff Marine Division of Lake St. Clair, says person-overboard events occur too frequently.

“We wish everyone would prepare for that whether they’re powerboaters or sailboaters,” she says. “It’s a huge issue.”

A boat must have a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each person on board. Boats 16 feet and over also must have a Type-IV throwable device.

Life jackets must fit properly, snug enough that the person wearing it would not slip through and out of it if overboard. Each boating season, life jackets should be tested for buoyancy; water-logged and leaky jackets must be removed from the boat.

States regulate who must wear a life jacket. The U.S. Coast Guard recommends children under 13 wear a life jacket when on a boat that is underway, unless in an enclosed cabin. Non-swimmers of any age should wear a Type-I or Type-II life jacket. These types are designed with a pillow around the neck to keep the head out of the water. In Michigan, children six and under must wear a Type-I or -II jacket. Fitting a child this young with the Type-III floatation-aid vest for boating is not legal — a common mistake made by parents, according to Yax.

Inspections conducted by officers patrolling the lakes zoom in on ensuring life jackets are “easily accessible.” Enough of the right type of life jackets for all passengers must be on board and easy to grab and use quickly.

“That’s extra seconds to get the life jackets out,” Yax says. “Boats have a lot of compartments, and passengers need to know where the life jackets are, where the fire extinguisher is, and how to work the [VHF] radio.

“It’s best if everyone knows how to use the radio. You never know who on the boat will have to use it,” she adds.

Boaters also should know that the alert for communicating a PIW via VHF is “pan pan,” not “mayday,” which is used for more immediate danger.

While waiting for help to arrive, all on board should be pursuing recovery of the PIW. Someone will be the spotter. Someone will toss the MOB module, if available, which should have reflector tape on it to be easily located in the dark.

Someone will hit the distress button on a GPS-equipped boat, which leads to a call center

“You’d want to hit that button ASAP,” says Yax. “If you can mark where they fell, you can get exact coordinates.”

Several boating phone apps include emergency-alert features. Yax recommends having at least one charged cell phone on board with an app that reads coordinates, adding a 911 operator might also be able to read coordinates.

Stevens recommends emitting a light signal to draw assistance. Static lights, he says, are not as effective for recovery as a firefly strobe, which can be seen from two to eight miles away.

Sounding an air-blaster five times also communicates an emergency.

As for maneuvering the boat for the recovery, Stevens says, “We have a mental block and our instinct is to go parallel back instead of a reciprocal turn like the ‘Williamson’ [turn].”

The Williamson turn search pattern rotates the boat 60 degrees four times after a strobe-light marker is set in the water. For the person at the helm in a person-overboard situation, Stevens urges, “Don’t overreact and go full blast. Take time. Don’t panic.”

“The first thing they should do is reduce speed and toss a life jacket out if the person overboard doesn’t have one on,” Yax says. “Or they could toss a T4, or ring, with a line on it,”

If anyone enters the water to assist the PIW, they should wear a life jacket and be tethered to the boat with a line.

Like laws prescribing life-jacket use, requirements for boating education vary state to state, but Yax recommends anyone who might find themselves at the helm of a boat becomes certified in boating safety.

“We have a driver’s license to drive on the road,” she says.”Boaters should know how to operate a boat safely.”

In Macomb County, which sits on the shores of Lake St. Clair, middle schoolers undergo instruction in boating safety and earn a certificate.

”And they learn all these things,” Yax says.

So that boating fun doesn’t turn tragic, it’s important that, like Macomb County middle schoolers, adult boaters also learn these things.