by Tom Rau

Of all the seamanship disciplines that the Coast Guard drilled into me over my 27-year career, none carried greater importance than: always maintain a proper lookout. Chiefs and officers drilled it into me as a seaman apprentice aboard cutters, chiefs and officers drilled it into me as quartermaster of the watch aboard cutters, chiefs and officers drilled it into me as an officer of the deck aboard cutters, and chiefs drilled it into me as a coxswain aboard search and rescue boats.
An 18-foot Bayliner powerboat sustained extensive damage after a 38-foot powerboat ran over the smaller craft on Lake Macatawa, Holland, Michigan. A family of four leaped off the boat just before impact. Photo, Andrew Duhaime, CG Station Holland, Michigan.

Coast Guard chiefs and officers drilled it into me so often that it’s now attached to my sailor physic like zebra mussels to the hull of a Great Lakes’ ship. So, understand then when word reached me that the operator of 38-foot powerboat nearly ran over a family of four in a 18-foot power boat due to lack of a proper lookout, I found it incredulous, to say the least.

Admiral law frowns unkindly on any boat operator who collides with another vessel due to lack of a proper lookout whether it be night, day or somewhere in between.

Let’s review this recent boat collision with its valuable hard-earned lessons that, in time, could prove to be very costly lessons for a captain who failed to post a proper lookout. Now the story:

June 15, Lake Macatawa, Holland, Michigan., 2:30 p.m. According to Coast Guardsman Andrew Duhaime, at Station Holland, Michigan, an 38-foot Sea Ray collided with an 18-foot Bayliner at the east end of Lake Macatawa. According to Duhaime the 18-foot Bayliner powerboat, with four people aboard, had passed the larger Sea Ray on its port side. The larger boat was moving at a no-wake speed, the smaller one on a plane.

As the smaller boat quickly moved ahead of the larger boat, for what ever reason, it experienced an engine failure. The boat now lay in the path of the Sea Ray whose captain, unaware of the stalled boat, came ahead on his throttles. As the Sea Ray gained speed, the bow rose, obstructing the smaller craft.
Those aboard the stalled craft, a man, wife and two daughters, watched as the larger craft bore down on them. The mother later told Grand Rapids Press reporter Theresa Mcclellan the larger boat “was so high it looked and felt like two or three stories,” she said. The mother and her 16 and 12-year-old daughters leaped off the boat. The father then jumped; he later told Duhaime that he could actually feel the concussion from the impact as the larger boat plowed over his boat. A nearby boater assisted the family of four; although unharmed, they were visibly shaken by the ordeal.

It could well be the operator of the 38-foot Sea Ray may have assumed that when the smaller craft had passed his boat, it was safely ahead of his boat. However, before coming up on the throttles, he should have sent forward his shipmate to make sure it was safe to come up on the throttles.

Of the 38 Navigational Rules, none is shorter and more to the point than Rule 5, which reads: “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriated in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and the risk of collision.”

Both the Coast Guard and Ottawa County, who also responded to the accident, cited the operator for negligent and reckless operation due to failure to post a look out. The Coast Guard’s negligent citation carries a maximum fine of $1,000.

In all due respect to the captain of the Sea Ray, he apparently made a faulty assumption that the smaller boat was free and clear, and who would’ve thought it would lose it power. Yet it did, and that it did is reason enough to post a lookout. To a degree, I can empathize with the captain, but I hold no empathy for boaters who fail to post a lookout when they should know to be foremost on guard.

On July 4, 2007, a 30-foot Bayliner powerboat slammed into a 22-foot Crestliner powerboat off Ludington Harbor, Lake Michigan. The mid-morning collision occurred in fog. The larger boat hit the smaller boat, with two people aboard, at 30 knots. The operator, Dave Edwards, told Ludington Daily News report Brain Mulherin: “I turned the wheel as sharp as I could and he hit us…He was going to split us in half.” Ludington Coast Guard officials cited the operator of the 30-foot Bayliner for negligent operation.

Failing to post a proper lookout and flying along blindly in fog is as egregious as flying along on autopilot. Kathy Wrzesinski, owner of North Shore Marine & RV Supply in Manistee, recently told me that one of her customers was fishing off Manistee, Lake Michigan, when a large powerboat flying along on autopilot nearly crashed into his boat. “He told me he had to maneuver so quickly to avoid the boat, which had no one on deck, that it tangled up his down-rigger lines and canon balls,” said Kathy.
That is definitely material for a remake of “Jackass: the movie.” Unfortunately this is not whimsical wacky motion picture stuff, but rather the all too common events that play out upon the waters according to Coast Guard figures. The latest Coast Guard Boat Statistics on recreational boating report that 42-percent of boating injuries resulted from collisions: that equates to 1,464 personal injuries requiring medical treatment beyond first aid.
Boat Smart.—Post a lookout.

Tom Rau is a long-time Coast Guard rescue responder and syndicated boating safety columnist.

Look for his book, Boat Smart Chronicles, a shocking expose on recreational boating — reads like a great ship’s log spanning over two decades. It’s available to order at: www.boatsmart.net,
www.seaworthy.com, www.amazon.com, or through local bookstores.

All contents are copyright (c) 2007 by Northern Breezes, Inc. All information contained within is deemed reliable but carries no guarantees. Reproduction of any part or whole of this publication in any form by mechanical or electronic means, including information retrieval is prohibited except by consent of the publisher.