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Smooth sailing ahead
Casual boaters can enjoy worry-free outings with just a little preparation.
By DAVID A. BROWN
Published June 30, 2007
Independence Day no doubt will see an influx of infrequent boaters taking to area waterways. Many toil long and hard for a few such days at the helm.
Limited involvement in any activity often leads to diminished skills, therefore those who only hit the water a few times a year should heed the advice of Crystal River charter captain Dan Clymer.
Besides the obvious pre-trip items such as fuel and oil levels, Clymer advises a dockside check of all safety equipment. Are your signal flares and fire extinguisher current? Do you have a throwable flotation device, as well as a Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device (life vests) for each passenger? Make sure you have the correct PFD size for any child passengers.
Though adults do not have to wear PFDs, Clymer said it's a wise move, especially on solo outings. "Also, make sure your kill switch lanyard is attached, " he said. "That way, if you were to get thrown out of the boat, your engine would stop."
Also carry plenty of water and sunscreen. Summer heat exhaustion is a real threat. Cell phones offer nearshore communication, but a VHF radio (mounted or handheld) is a wise investment that keeps you connected if you venture more than a couple of miles offshore.
For offshore runs, an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon provides peace of mind by transmitting your location if your vessel loses power.
Clymer said one of the common mistakes of summer boating is getting caught up in the moment and allowing a nasty thunderstorm to overtake you.
"Don't wait until it's too late and the weather's on top of you, " Clymer said. "The storms can build quickly during the summer, so keep your eye on the horizon."
Clymer looks at his local televised weather forecast, then checks the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's marine weather forecast. It's good to know the day's rain probability, but wind matters to boaters.
"Usually if you see a wind of 10 mph or more, it's going to be a little bumpy out there, " Clymer said. "If the winds are more than 15 mph, you can have 3- to 4-foot seas, and if you're in a small boat, you don't want to be out there in those conditions."
Also check the day's tide schedule. Shallow water access is important for the fishing angle, but when wind and tide conflict, boaters can face "confused" seas that require heightened awareness. Moreover, outgoing tides drain the water from boat ramps, so plan accordingly.
Clymer notes: "The most important thing is to tell a friend about your float plan - where you plan to go, what time you plan on leaving and what time you plan on returning. It doesn't hurt to have a 'buddy boat' out there with you."
In addition to planning what happens during your trip, you'll also want to consider the details of the front and back ends.
Not withstanding the common goofs, gaffes and gone-wrong moments observed at area boat ramps, several common-sense moves will help simplify the operation and keep everyone in good spirits.
- Prep your boat for launch before approaching the ramp. Nothing infuriates other boaters like unprepared boaters tying up the ramp as they fiddle with coolers, rods and beach towels.
- When launching a boat solo, back the trailer to the depth necessary for floating your vessel, put the vehicle in park and apply the emergency brake. Don't forget the latter, as gravity and wet ramps are not to be tempted.
- Secure a bow line to a forward cleat before launching. This allows a boatmate to guide the boat off the trailer and secure it to the dock. When launching alone, tie the free end of the bow line to your trailer's winch stand and leave sufficient slack for the boat to slide off the trailer, while remaining tethered.
- Show courtesy for fellow boaters who may be launching after you. Park your tow vehicle and clear the launch ramp as quickly as possible. If you're launching alone, move your boat to the end of the dock to allow room for another launch until you return from parking.
At day's end, you'll face a new set of challenges back at the ramp. Generally the vast majority of boaters wrap up their trips around the same time, so that means a line at the dock. Throw in an afternoon thunderstorm, impatient kids and a strong current and you have the makings of a Dr. Phil moment. Save yourself and other boaters undue stress by minding a few more tips:
- If you use bumpers, hang them before entering the loading area. Scrambling to get this done as you approach complicates matters.
- Keep an eye on other boaters - they won't always return the courtesy, but a collision is bad no matter who causes it.
- Respect the arrival order and don't block the approach of an earlier arrival, particularly if they already have a trailer at the ramp.
- If you send a boatmate to back down your trailer, make sure they are up to the task. Trailers have a way of sneaking off track and overcorrecting can create an embarrassing round of back-and-forth frustration.
(We'd like to think other boaters will exercise patience and understanding, but that's just not the case.)
- After trailering the boat, pull well away from the ramp and its approach lanes for any unpacking, draining and trash disposal.
Fun worth the work
Clearly, there's a lot to consider when boating trips are few and far between. But don't let the level of responsibility dissuade any plans. Boating remains one of the all-time classic family recreational activities, and a reasonable level of planning and caution will deliver pleasant memories that warrant future outings.
The U.S. Coast Guard offers extensive information and links to various resources at www.uscgboating.org/