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The Experienced Captain?

Lacking basic seamanship skills and being reliant on technology gets some boaters into trouble.

September 2, 2020
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“The professional skipper had few distractions. He did his chartwork and held a course by looking across the compass and out the windshield.” Steve Haefele

This past month, a boat plowed into a navigation aid not far from our dock. The local news reported on the rise in boating accidents in our area. After noodling the statistics, I discovered that, given my tenure in the pastime, I was at risk. I went to sea in a bassinet, practiced naval architecture and earned a captain’s license. How could this be?

The numbers in the report suggested that those with the most time on the water—sober or otherwise—are increasingly running into stuff and into one another. It seems that skippers who claim to have boating “experience” are the most likely to become a statistic. Experience just isn’t what it used to be.

Back in the day, there were no online exercises or certificates. I earned a position at the helm of a 13-foot Whaler after several years of hands-on tutoring in seamanship and the rules of the road. Most boats were incapable of more than 20 knots back then, and there were fewer boats on the waterways. Aids to navigation were just as plentiful, and skippers used their eyes and a chart to avoid collisions.

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At the time, radiotelephones were just a bit more reliable than Morse code. Radar sets fitted with blackout cones were disorienting when functional, and radio direction finders were almost useless. Electronics gave the owners of larger boats something to brag about, and generally, skippers only turned on the stuff to impress the guests. The professional skipper had few distractions. He did his chartwork and held a course by looking across the compass and out the windshield. It was a brilliant setup.

By the time I graduated to yacht designer, primitive flasher sounders had become “fish finders,” a troubling term for one seasoned skipper I can recall. I was working on the design of a large sport-fisher for his boss when the skipper pulled me aside for a talking-to. The boss had traded the guest head for space to implant a 4-foot retractable side-scan sonar fit for a navy frigate. The skipper explained that his boss seeing fish, and then not catching them, could threaten his job security. “I’m being paid to be the fish finder,” he said.

The skipper’s point is still timely. Back in the day, experience meant making landfall in the right ZIP code. This can now be accomplished hands-free or via point-and-click. Modern electronics are great tools, but they might not spot a 50-knot center-console on a winding waterway or a knucklehead fishing a mile offshore in a kayak, buried between 5-foot seas. And most certainly, “experience” does not mean using electronic tools to speed down the waterway in the darkness. I see it all the time.

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While reading about the most recent incident near my dock, I remembered a boater who suggested that all the navigation aids should have lights. If this was an experienced boater’s view, then I suggest we add stop signs and a double line down the middle of channels as well.


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