Never Put Your Guard Down Around Water
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 boat.

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:,,, 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.