Three priorities you need to know.

Most of our boating activity occurs under ideal or close to ideal conditions. Sometimes maybe we hit some bad weather, or it is colder or windier than we expected, but generally for most of us boating tends to be a relaxing experience.

However, because we place ourselves on the water in close to ideal conditions, one of our natural reactions to a real emergency is panic.  Something goes “bump” on the bottom of the boat, or the engine quits suddenly, or won’t start after a day at anchor, or the bilge pump suddenly comes on and doesn’t stop, or we find ourselves on a shoal such as in my last column, and our mind races.

Our first reaction after, “why me?, why now?” shouldn’t be panic. We should have a clear plan in mind every time we leave the dock about what steps we will take in any emergency situation.

My father was an air force pilot. He was a flight instructor, and then he flew search and rescue helicopters. He explained that in an emergency in the air the pilot focused on three things – aviate, navigate and communicate. Keep the machine in the air and flying, look for the nearest place to land safely – preferably a runway, and then let someone know what is happening.

We can easily use this same formula on the water to help prepare us mentally for steps to take in an emergency beyond making sure everyone is safe and has their lifejacket on and our emergency gear is at hand.

Pilots follow the three steps in order. When something happens to an aircraft they don’t reach for the radio. They first work at keeping the airplane in the air and flying.

On a boat, our three priorities, in order, should be: secure the boat, ensure passenger safety, then call for assistance.

Secure the Boat

Your first and foremost priority should be to keep the boat afloat and either keep it moving so you can get to shore, or put the anchor down to keep yourselves away from danger. The boat is your lifeline so you need to do everything within your ability to make sure it remains afloat to support you.

If you run aground, or hit something in the water, the hull must be checked for leaks or damage. Quickly assess the damage and repair it as best you can to slow the leak. Pre-planning and having items on board help with this part of safe boating.

If there’s a fire, put the fire out first if you can and secure the boat against any further danger.

If your engine won’t start, or stops suddenly, you should ensure the safety of the boat and then start working a checklist to figure out what is wrong with the engine and how it can be repaired or re-started.

Ensure Passenger Safety

Once the boat is secure and safe, if it is functioning, your next step is to get to shore as quickly as possible. A marina would be an ideal destination but in a pinch, if the boat is leaking or the engine is running intermittently, any shallow water or safe dock will do.

It is your responsibility to ensure your boat is safe before heading out and it is an offence to knowingly go boating in an unsafe boat, so just because the bilge pump cycles on and then off, it doesn’t mean the boat is safe. It means there is a leak that could get worse, or could drain the battery. In a case such as this it is your priority to figure out what is wrong and repair it before anything else.

Call for Assistance

The final step in the three stage plan is to signal for assistance when all else fails. On a boat this could range from a visual distress signal to another boat, to a VHF radio call, to a cell phone call for emergency assistance.

For most, and perhaps all of our time boating, we may never have to put an emergency response plan into operation. Being mentally prepared however, can ensure we don’t have any moments of panic.

Two Real Life Examples

When I worked at a marina on the Rideau Canal in the time before cell phones, we once had an emergency relayed from one of our customers whose engine quit half way between the Merrickville and Poonamalie locks. We managed to hitch a ride on a boat going the other way to where our customer had correctly secured his boat by anchoring to await assistance.

He explained the engine just quit suddenly, indicating an electrical fault and it didn’t take long to locate a coil wire that had managed to come loose. It was an easy repair that he should have been able to make himself, but at least he had done everything else correctly. He secured his boat, ensured the safety of his guests, and then called for assistance.

Whenever I write a column I scramble to find a photograph I can use for illustration. So it was with my last column on running aground. I found nothing but a general boating photo.

The week after I submitted the column I was out for a short cruise along Wanderer’s Channel in the 1000 Islands when another boat decided to take a short cut across a shoal within 200 feet of me.

He quickly checked to make sure the boat was sea-worthy, tried to get off the shoal himself and then signaled for assistance. With the aid of another boater in a rubber dinghy who ferried a line between our boats, I pulled him off.

Unfortunately, this was a quickly organized cruise and I didn’t have my phone or my camera with me so therefore missed about a dozen different shots that could illustrate future columns.

Not a safe boating lesson, but a lesson none-the-less.