Awareness Key to CG Mid-Season Concerns
by Tom Rau
Oh my, how summer is racing along.
Already it’s that time in the boating season
to pass along Coast-Guard concerns regarding recreational
boating and other water-related activities. Although
many of the concerns weave familiar patterns over
the years, it seems that each season a certain
boating behavior stands atop the fold.
This year’s standout boating
behavior is boat collisions. The most recent collision
occurred on Muskegon Lake. On July 25, 2007, a
22-foot powerboat slammed into a 16-foot powerboat
at 11 p.m. The larger boat went up and over the
smaller boat, slicing off a portion of the stern.
A 25-year-old male aboard received head injuries
and was transported to Muskegon’s Hackley
to Muskegon Marine Division Sgt. Gary Berdinski,
the larger boat was eastbound and the other boat
westbound. “Had the smaller boat not swerved,
it would have been a head-on collision,”
I can’t stress enough
the importance of maintaining a lookout and bringing
back the throttles when operating a boat in confined
Muskegon Lake, as with so many
inland lakes, appears as a darkened void beaded
with shoreline lights that can distort a boat
operator’s judgment while creating a sense
of detachment from immediate surroundings. While
operating a Coast Guard 25-foot inflatable rescue
boat at night on Muskegon Lake, I was forever
The boat carried a center console
with an overhead canopy. Protective glass shielded
the console, which housed radar, GPS, a radio,
depth finder and engine gauges. These devices
emitted light that degraded my night vision. I
would often step aside from the center console
to avoid the glare. Meanwhile a crewman focused
on the radar while I peered into the darkness
and steered the boat. I wore protective eye gear
to prevent eye-strike from insects.
Even then, I felt a certain
degree of apprehension like one might experience
while walking into a darkened room as familiar
as it might be. In fact, familiarity, I suspect,
contributes to boat collisions: at least that
seems to be the case with a recent seawall collision
at Ludington Harbor.
On August 2, 2007, a 19-foot
aluminum boat slammed into Ludington Harbor’s
south seawall at 10:30 at night. The four people
aboard escaped serious injury, including an 11-year-boy.
The operator told Coast Guardsman Dustin McClelland
of Station Ludington that he was steering on a
waypoint for the Loomis Street boat ramp. The
boat ramp sits inside a boat basin that is protected
by seawall arms that extend hundreds of feet out
into Lake Michigan.
Whether it be distraction, confusion,
or familiarity that caused this veteran boater
of Ludington waters to run into the seawall matters
little. What matters is that he was racing towards
a darkened harbor at night rimmed by distracting
shoreline lights that would lead any prudent boater
to bring back the throttle.
Several days before, another
boater, while approaching Muskegon harbor at night,
ran into the north breakwater while steering on
a waypoint located within the boat basin. This
careless, if not reckless, boating behavior, tempts
me to change the name of the column from Boat
Smart to Boat Stupid.
Please, I don't mean to be mean,
bitter or sarcastic; my displeasure stems from
neither, but rather from utter frustration dealing
with these needless mishaps. Yet as frustrating
as it can be at times, these vexations pale in
comparison to my contempt for boaters who call
the Coast Guard for assistance on VHF-FM Channel
16, the International Distress and Hailing Frequency,
and then fail to follow up once they make the
initial call. The Coast Guard refers to these
calls as “uncorrelated” calls.
Across the Great Lakes, between
2003 and 2006, the Coast Guard responded to 881
such calls that resulted in the needless deployment
of rescue resources and time. Some of these calls
were false Maydays made with sinister intent;
others were made by children. The Coast Guard
urges boaters to educate their youngsters on the
proper use of the marine radio, and to monitor
its access by children.
For those folks who initially
call the Coast Guard for assistance, they must
respond once the Coast Guard has responded to
their call. Should a boater’s radio malfunction,
a response to the Coast Guard by cell phone would
be in order. Requesting Coast Guard assistance
brings us to our next mid-season concern—beach
and pier safety.
Already this year I know of
four beach and pier fatalities along Lake Michigan’s
eastern shore. The latest beach fatality occurred
on July 19, 2007, off Douglas Beach, near Saugatuck,
Michigan. A ten-year-old boy drowned in heavy
surf. His parents made the initial call for help
on a cell phone. Unfortunately, victims often
drown before rescue responders can reach the scene.
In most cases the burden of
saving a floundering person in the water falls
on those nearest the person in distress. So the
question beckons to be asked: how does one assist?
It’s a crucial question that any beach goer
should ask and, in particular, parents or guardians.
If any doubt exists on how to respond effectively,
then perhaps removing a person from the water
or the wearing of a lifejacket, especially if
he or she is in turbulent water or over his or
I’m a frequent beach goer
myself, and I carry a 70-foot rescue heaving line
with a flotation ball at the end. This will allow
me to toss the device to a floundering person
while maintaining a safe distance especially if
the person is in deep water. Like any rescue method
or device, it takes practice. The important thing
is to have a game plan and a means to effectively
carry it out in due haste.
In other words, the key to water
safety is situational awareness. Or as I often
say: when you put your guard down around water,
that is when you should be foremost on guard.
Tom Rau is a long-time Coast
Guard rescue responder and syndicated boating
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,
or through local bookstores.