Recreational boaters can learn a lot from commercial fishing fleets. While we may not spend days at sea with trained personnel aboard our boats, we share a common goal of departing and returning to the dock safely every time we go out on the water.
According to fishing vessel accident data compiled by the U.S. Coast Guard, commercial fishing has become safer since the requirement to conduct safety drills was implemented in the industry. Crews must perform and document safety drills on a regular basis for potential situations such as persons overboard, fire, flooding and personnel injuries.
Statistics show fishing vessels continue to sink due to poor maintenance or going out in adverse weather; however, the loss of life in these accidents has trended down over the years. This increased personnel safety largely attributed to the crews practicing safety drills.
Unfortunately, when most recreational boaters free their lines and head for open water, they do so in a mild state of denial, an innocent but dangerous unwillingness to admit something could go wrong aboard the boat. They are understandably but also unfortunately more focused on the day’s adventure.
You may believe you are heading out as a safe boater, after all, you carry all the required emergency equipment onboard, but having it and being prepared to use it are two very different things. Many who work in an environment where the unexpected could occur, regularly rehearse safety drills of emergency procedures and practice them repeatedly, so the response behavior becomes second nature.
Aboard your boat, you are not just the host to your friends for a fun day on the water, with your spouse or regular fishing buddies along as good company for the day, you are also the emergency personnel. Only through repeated practice and rehearsal of emergency situations will you be fully prepared to handle an unexpected event.
Most boaters, however, are reluctant to rehearse emergency drills, feel a little silly, or don’t want to ruin the excitement of the day with the dose of reality that an actual emergency could occur. But if you are not prepared and willing to practice safety drills, you are not prepared to be a safe boater.
Wired for Safety
It is well known that different activities you perform are controlled from different regions in your brain. Routine activities like brushing your teeth and activities you do repeatedly in life are controlled from a specific part of your brain. You perform these activities with very little conscious thought.
You do them so frequently, they are permanently wired into your brain. On the other hand, activities that require reasoned thought come from a different place in your brain. If when turning on the faucet no water came out, the reasoning part of your brain would go into action to figure out why. In an emergency aboard your boat, wouldn’t it be nice to rely on response behavior that was well wired into your brain? Trust me, there will be plenty of need for the reasoning part of your brain to figure out what is going on, but the ability to place well-rehearsed behavior into action could make the difference between tomorrow’s dock story and something more tragic.
State of Mind
Safety aboard the boat is more than the latest safety equipment, it is a state of mind, a willingness to say “what if ” and an unwillingness to become a statistic. A safety drill rehearsal is the only way you will know if your emergency equipment is in the right place and can be accessed quickly.
Safety drill rehearsals can be used to finds holes in your plan — problems that can be worked out before the boat or someone aboard is in real danger. Is the fire extinguisher easy to take out of its bracket when you’re in a hurry? Are the life jackets easy to get out of the locker quickly? Time yourself or a family member as you go through the drills. A safety drill rehearsal will allow you to determine critical roles each can fill quickly without time-consuming conversation when the emergency is real.
Unquestionably, it’s easier to get into the right state of mind when the danger is real. During a peaceful night at anchor recently, my wife was awoken by the boat anchored next to us engulfed in flames, it was a terrifying event to witness. Fortunately, those aboard escaped into the dinghy they were towing.
Suffice it to say while underway the next day, it didn’t seem silly for us to rehearse firefighting and abandoning ship procedures. This is not a tutorial in safety drills, this is a call to action. A plea to encourage you to take performing safety drills aboard your boat seriously.
Different Boat, Same Risk
Every boat is different. The safety drills on a 30-foot center console fishing boat will be different from those rehearsed on a 60-foot motor yacht, but all boats share the same risks of fire, flooding, first aid emergencies or person overboard.
Decide the situation, determine what resources you have to address the problem and assign roles for each individual onboard to help. Walk and talk through the actions to address each situation. Literally, find the life jackets and put them on, take the fire extinguisher out of the holder and go to the galley with it. Time yourself and others on the boat to see how long it takes. If you regularly have children on board, it’s easy to make a game of it, while you know this is actually for their safety.
Of course, safety drills don’t have to be practiced every time you go out, but a few times each season would be helpful. If you boat regularly with the same people, include them in the drills. If you frequently have new or different guests aboard, script a non-alarming but thorough briefing of what they should do in an emergency and get over being embarrassed to deliver it. Be willing to practice “what if,” because only through practice are you truly prepared to be a safe boater.