Before the days of electronic fuel-flow monitors, we used to measure a boat’s fuel burn rate by attaching a mechanical fuel-flow transducer directly into the fuel line. Once, after hooking up to the fuel line in the motorwell of a center console with twin 150 hp outboards, I stood and turned to the captain and said, “OK, we’re ready.” I had meant for him to slowly idle the boat to start the testing process. He thought I meant to go full throttle. He firewalled it, and I flew off the back of the transom, saved from certain doom by a hard slam into the outboard cowlings. While I lay in the motorwell nursing a bruised back and ribs, the captain killed the engines and offered me a concerned apology.
The lesson I took from this near miss? Before you do anything on board a boat that puts you in a vulnerable position, always make sure that you and the person at the helm are on the same page. Here are some other lessons I learned the hard way.
One Hand For You…
Another time, I was testing a small two-person RIB with a jet engine. The builder had touted it as a safer alternative to the personal watercraft. To prove this point, the company test driver decided to do a hard-over turn of the wheel to carve a watercraftlike near spinout that is so fun when you’re holding the handlebars. Unfortunately, he didn’t share this idea with me first. As I flew through the air in the opposite direction of my sunglasses and test notebook, I thought to myself, “It’s a good idea to always let the crew know what you’re going to do at the helm.” (Actually, what I really thought is unprintable, but the words above came to mind when I resurfaced.) This relates to the first anecdote, in that communication between captain and crew is vital at all times. Now I always make it a point to let people know when I’m making a hard turn to port or starboard, or crossing a large boat wake before I actually execute it.
Also, as it’s smart to have your seatbelt on at all times in an airplane, it’s prudent to always have a hand on a grab rail while the boat is underway to protect against unforeseen turbulence and bad decisions.
Then there was the time I spent the whole day on Long Island Sound running and gunning after fish that were busting through the surface. The fuel gauge never moved below a quarter tank, so I didn’t bother to monitor my fuel consumption. When the engine conked out about 300 yards from the no-wake zone leading into port, I assumed it was something else until I opened a hatch and noticed there was no fuel left sloshing in the plastic tank. After flagging down a good Samaritan for a tow to the nearest fuel dock, I refilled the tank. The gauge on the dash remained stuck on a quarter full. From that point on, I always monitor my fuel consumption to make sure I have enough in reserve to get home.
One of the first times I ran outside the inlet on my own, the waves were small and benign. But when I returned a few hours later, the tide had changed against the wind, stacking up nasty breakers in the mouth of the inlet. I decided to run it anyway, and wound up taking a little surfing adventure and stuffing the bow. Thankfully, the decks cleared quickly and no one got hurt, but I sought counsel from an old salt at the docks who taught me to trim the bow up and work the throttles to ride the backs of the waves as they roll into the inlet. Since then, thankfully, I’ve managed to make it home high and dry without incident.
Bumping into the dock back at the marina? That’s another story.
Quick Tip: Keeping the bow up while running before the waves (or in a following sea) is critical. Trim out your drive to inhibit stuffing the bow and broaching.
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 www.uscgboating.org.