Never Put Your Guard Down Around
by Tom Rau
|Lake Michigan for a day of fishing. I urge boaters to don a life
jacket at the first sign of disorder whether it be weather, the boat, or
person, and always have life jackets readily available.
Orchard State Park, Manistee, Michigan, April 4, 2007. The view of Lake
Michigan from a high bluff at Orchard State Park blew me away as it so often
does. It’s a life’s sweet moment I often share with Aussie, my Australian
Blue-Heeler cattle dog. While she roams the park’s grassy slopes herding
rabbits, squirrels or any other life-form with four legs, my mind roams the
open waters of Lake Michigan.
It is one of those moments that my dear old friend, Desert Rat Joe, would
refer to as a state of majestic solitude. The moment of solitude, however,
soon turned to concern as I eyed two fishermen off shore in a small outboard
The small craft, which appeared to be around 14 feet in length, was
puttering along approximately 300 yards off shore; its small outboard engine
trailed a tail of white mist. Two lone fishermen, dressed in heavy winter
attire, were puttering along broadside to two foot seas in a small craft,
with water temperatures hovering in the mid thirties—all offered the
ingredients of an ill-fated voyage. Adding to the drama, neither one were
wearing life jackets.
Call me a naysayer, an alarmist, even a safety freak, and perhaps I am, but
after twenty years of writing about boaters tempting fate regarding life
jacket denial and other safety issues, I could give a hoot. Let me share
some cases where boat operators faced obvious danger yet failed to pay heed
to the circumstances. In short, they put down their guard around water when
they should have been foremost on guard.
One case involved a 90-year-old fisherman, the other the captain of the most
noted ship-wreck in history. Both captains shared something in common—they
died as did their passengers and crew.
October 6, 2006, Grand Marais, Michigan on Lake Superior. Coast Guard Sault
Ste Marie received a report of an overdue 18-foot powerboat with four people
aboard. The vessel departed Grand Marais, Michigan, at 9 a.m. but failed to
return as scheduled at 2 p.m. The Coast Guard launched two HH-65 helicopters
from Traverse City, two surface units from Station Sault Ste Marie and
Station Marquette. Also involved in the hunt were a Canadian C-130 and
National Park Service marine unit.
At 1:37 a.m., October 7, the Traverse City aircrew with the aid of night
vision goggles spotted the sole survivor, a male, 62, clinging to the
overturned boat. The aircrew hoisted him to safety with the aid of a rescue
swimmer. The sole survivor told Coast Guard officials that he had seen the
other three, including the 90-year-old captain, “go under.” None of them
were wearing lifejackets. The Coast Guard reported wind speeds at 20 knots
and three-foot seas, water temperature 55 degrees.
On April 15, 1912 the New York Times bold headlines read: NEW LINER TITANIC
HITS AN ICEBERG; SINKING BY THE BOW AT MIDNIGHT; LAST WIRELESS AT 12:27 A.M.
BLURRED. The rest of the story we know all too well.
Both captains involved in these ill-fated voyages had a great deal of
experience on the water yet fell prey to their own shortsightedness. The
90-year-old captain operating a small craft on chilly Lake Superior in
three-foot seas without life jackets, and the captain of Titanic plowing
through iceberg invested waters at 22 knots after being warned of the
dangers, illustrates a common sense override, or for a better word, an
attitude of invulnerability.
Apparently that may have been the case with Titanic’s Captain, E.J. Smith.
In an interview before setting sail on Titanic’s maiden voyage, he stated:
“I have never been in any accident of any sort worth speaking about…I never
saw a wreck and never have been wrecked, nor was I ever in a predicament
that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.” Oh did he swallow his words
hours later as the North Atlantic made due for him putting his guard down on
a quiet night with a sea as unruffled as glass.
I suspect the 90-year-old operator on Lake Superior harbored the same sense
of been there, done that, needn’t worry Pollyanna mindset. It’s a mindset
that I believe underwrites most recreational boating accidents. After all,
it’s only recreational boating, so what could possibly go wrong?
Well, a great deal can go wrong as evidenced by recent boating fatalities.
On May 6, 2007 a fisherman, 58, died after his boat overturned on Lake
Michigan off St. Joseph. The small boat capsized when four-foot seas poured
over the stern. He was not wearing a life jacket.
On June 3, 2007, one of Michigan’s renown sailors, Bruce Goldsmith, died
when the boom of his 29-foot sailboat struck his head knocking him overboard
into seven-foot seas off Monroe, Michigan, Lake Erie. The 1967 and 1975 Pan
Am Games gold medalist sailor was not wearing a life jacket.
And on June 12, 2007, a 75-year-old sailor separated from his 15-foot
sailboat in choppy seas in Lake Michigan near Washington Island, Wisconsin.
An extensive Coast Guard search failed to find the reportedly experienced
sailor. He was not wearing a life jacket.
Considering the age and experience level of the aforementioned, it may be
difficult for some to comprehend their unexpected fate. Be that what it may,
I urge boaters to follow an axiom that I have been preaching for years; an
axiom that I have forged from my many years as a Coast Guard rescue
responder, and boating safety columnist: when you put your guard down around
water, that is when you should be foremost on guard.
I’m sure Titanic’s E.J. Smith would agree.
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
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