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Lesson learned: Be safe on water

TERRY TOMALIN
Published January 11, 2004

TAMPA - Working in the U.S. Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office, Lt. Scott Muller has heard his share of bizarre boating stories.

"From time to time I try to share them with headquarters," Muller said. "The idea is that somebody might learn from them."

These incidents occurred around Tampa Bay. Muller, interviewed in his office on Davis Islands, discussed some of the high points:

THE BEER CAN ISLAND INCIDENT: Any weekend when the weather is good, you will find dozens of pleasure boaters crowded on this island near the junction of the Gadsden Point Cut and the Big Bend Channel.

"You don't have to worry if you are pulled up on the far side of the island," Muller said. "But if you are anchored on the channel side, watch out."

A tanker, barreling down the channel a half mile from the island, threw up a wake that reached 5 feet at the shoreline. The waves picked up one boat and deposited it 100 feet inland. A sunbather was tossed onto the rocks and suffered a broken jaw.

Lesson learned: Be careful where you anchor.

POWER BOAT VS. TUG AND BARGE: Two men aboard a pleasure boat near the Egmont Shipping Channel went for an unexpected ride.

"They were fishing near the dropoff," Muller said. "When they saw that they were a little too close to the tug and barge, they tried to pull their anchor."

The tug and barge missed the boat but not its anchor line. The fishermen ended up being towed for 200 yards and nearly sank.

"That is why it is so important that you think before you drop your anchor," Muller said.

Lesson learned: Be careful in and around shipping channels. SAILBOAT VS. TUG AND BARGE: On the gulf early one morning, a sailor noticed a set of navigational lights in the distance.

The sailboat had the proper lighting, but the operator was not familiar with the configuration of the commercial vessel.

The sailboat continued, but the operator did not realize he was on a collision course.

"By the time he did," Muller said, "it was too late."

The tug and barge narrowly missed the sailboat, but the tug's wake forced the sailboat off course and the two vessels made contact.

The sailboat did not sink, but one of its crew was injured.

Lesson learned: Understand navigational lights and rules of the road.

SMALL BOAT VS. BIG BOAT: The weather looked good inshore, but when three fishermen hit open water on a cool winter day, the visibility was poor.

But the fishermen, thinking nobody in his right mind would be out on such a day, continued full speed ahead.

"In limited visibility, you have to slow down," Muller said.

Mariners should also attempt to communicate with other vessels, either by marine radio or with some noise-making device, such as a horn or whistle.

Unfortunately, the fishermen never saw the large passenger ship. The small fishing boat hit the larger craft. One man was killed. His two companions were injured.

Lesson learned: Slow down in fog or low light.

BOAT EXPLODES AT DOCK: Two men were getting ready to go fishing, but when they started their vessel's engine, gas vapors in the bilge exploded. The blast blew off the center console and damaged one of the men's legs so severely it had to be amputated.

The boat's owner said the previous owner modified the deck and placed the battery in the compartment with the fuel tank.

Lesson learned: Consult manufacturer's specifications before altering your boat.

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