Situational 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 Hospital.

Be Prepared: Four swimmers have drowned along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan during 2007. Swimmers should avoid swimming in heavy surf near piers and seawalls. Beach goers should have a rescue plan to assist those in distress like having ready a life ring or rescue heaving line. According 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,” said Berdinski.

I can’t stress enough the importance of maintaining a lookout and bringing back the throttles when operating a boat in confined darkened waters.

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 vigilant.

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 her head.

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 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.