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Boat Smart Advisory – Recreational Faux Pas

Monday, September 14th, 2009

From the notebook of Tom Rau

It’s been a while since I sent you a Boat Smart advisory. Believe me, it’s not due to a lack of recreational boater faux pas. Like the one last night, Sept 7, 09 that occurred in my home town when a boater slammed into the Manistee seawall (see attached photo). Was it worthy of national press, even though this was the 6th Lake Michigan seawall collision this year? Hardly.

But the recent national media’s coverage of three fishermen adrift atop their capsized boat for eight days in the Gulf of Mexico apparently was newsworthy. The press, however; failed to get it right. While portraying the survivors as heroes, they were more like the six dimwit boaters that slammed into Lake Michigan seawalls.

The three fishermen did nothing to help the Coast Guard and joint rescue agencies find them despite a massive seven-day search that in scope was nearly the size of Wyoming. If the Coast Guard charged boaters like these for needless prolonged searches, I promise they would learn to boat smart—quickly

Go to my website and click on my latest column “Calling if off” tough” to under stand the edge to my words, and as a tax payer it might put you on edge considering the enormous cost of the search.


P.S. In the photo, notice the red aid to navigation light, which is to the left of the boat. Red Right Return is an old adage that has safely guided informed boaters into harbors at night when approaching from seaward. In other words, keep the red light to your right (starboard) not left as did this boater. But then what can you expect from a boater who is not required to know better as with the adrift fishermen in the Gulf.

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Calling Off A Search Is Never Easy

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

By Tom Rau

Although never easy, the Coast Guard must make the difficult decision of calling off a search that has failed to locate a missing boater. Too often the failure to find a missing boater has little to do with the search process, but rather the difficult challenge of applying the process to a search area that can be enormous, if not mind boggling, in scope.

Making the search even more challenging is the inability of a boater to draw the eye of those searching for them. Such was the challenge the Coast Guard faced in a recent case in the Gulf of Mexico involving a missing 23-foot Sea Chaser Catamaran powerboat.

On August 21, 2009, three fishermen set out on an overnight trip from Matagorda, Texas. When they failed to return as planned, family members notified the Coast Guard. What followed was a massive weeklong search in a search area nearly the size of the state of Wyoming.

The Coast Guard deployed sea and air resources from three states: Florida, Alabama and Texas. The search also drew upon resources from state and local rescue agencies. After seven days of around-the-clock sorties, the Coast Guard called off the search.

As fate would have it, a day later, on Saturday evening, the captain of a pleasure craft spotted the men sitting atop the hull of the capsized boat some 180 miles off the coast of Port Aransas, Texas. The crew of a Coast Guard 47-foot motor lifeboat picked up the survivors and transported them to shore.

The wife of one of the survivors told a reporter from the Houston Chronicle that it was like finding a needle in a haystack.

Believe me; it can be far more challenging than that. Imagine a shifting layer of various sized green and blue-shaded pebbles spread across the entire floor of the Dallas Cowboys football stadium; then toss a tiny ball-bearing into the shifting mix; then, from atop the stadium, try to spot it with binoculars. Imagine, however, if the ball-bearing was a bright point of light. You wouldn’t even need the binoculars.

According to the survivors, waving a white tee shirt attached to a boat rail they had ripped off the boat was the only means they had of attracting attention. One of the survivors said he twice saw Coast Guard rescue planes fly over as well as a helicopter. He also saw Coast Guard boats. Had the fisherman carried an emergency grab bag with various day and night signaling devices they could’ve drawn the eye of the Coast Guard crews. But a white tee shirt waving over a white over-turned hull camouflaged amongst white-capped seas: is it any wonder Coast Guard surface and air crews failed to spot them?

These searches come at an enormous cost. The most recent in the Gulf of Mexico cost a huge bundle of tax-payer money. Then there was the enormous cost involving the search for the NFL players in March in the Gulf of Mexico after their 21-foot power boat capsized. They too lacked the means to attack the attention of searchers. Sadly, the ultimate cost in that case was paid with three lives.

Monetary cost; however, has nothing to do with ending a search, but rather the diminishing probability of detection as time passes, especially in an immense search area that expands in time with the influence of wind and currents on the search object.

Another deadly factor at play is the toll the environment takes on those struggling to survive, especially while battling hypothermia and dehydration. The three fellows in the Gulf of Mexico capsizing managed to siphon water from a 30-gallon water tank built into the hull. That, for sure, helped them beat the survival odds, but barely.

Despite diminishing odds as the days pass during a search, it’s still never easy for Coasties to call it off. It’s in their DNA to rescue mariners: since their conception in 1790, Coasties have saved the lives of over 1.1 million mariners.

In spite of their heralded tradition, their life-saving skills, their state-of-the art resources, the Coast Guard’s surest and most cost-effective asset has been and will continue to be a smart boater.

Tom Rau, a leading authority on boating mishaps, is a retired 27-year Coast Guard veteran, boating safety columnist, and author of Boat Smart Chronicles, Lake Michigan Devours Its Wounded. His book is a 20-year journal of recreational boating mishaps with valuable lessons learned. It, along with recent rescue stories, can be viewed at:

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Another Recreational Fishing Boat Capsizes

Friday, August 14th, 2009

By Tom Rau, Coast Guard Senior Chief (ret)

This is the third boat capsizing story I’ve written this year. The three capsizing involved 12 recreational fishermen, four of which died. The latest involved a 20-foot fishing boat with a loss of life. Now the story.

August 3, 2009, Manistee, Michigan. According to Manistee County Marine Deputy Steve Block, four fishermen departed Manistee harbor about 1 p.m. for a fishing trip on Lake Michigan. According to the captain of the 20-foot powerboat, they trolled for about two-and-half hours when the mishap occurred.

The captain, other than providing the depth of water of 120 feet at the time of the mishap, was unclear as to his position.
At the time of the mishap, they were reeling in fish on two separate polls. Several waves rolled over the stern, the bow shot skyward, the boat then rolled and capsized. Several fishermen aboard were rather large; if they were at the stern reeling in the fish, that could explain why the bow pitched upward.

None of the fishermen were wearing life jackets. As they clung to the over- turned hull, one of the fisherman drifted away. He hollered out that he could not swim. He removed his shoes and pants to keep afloat. The captain told Block that they attempted to pass him a seat cushion. The last they saw of him was his belly sticking out of the water; then he disappeared.

Block figures they capsized just south of Portage Lake, which is located seven miles north of Manistee Harbor. The captain told Block they dove under the boat, at least three times and finally located the life jackets, which were in the forward bow compartment.

After donning the life jackets, they ran several lines across the over-turned hull in order to hang on to the boat. A flare kit popped to the surface; they then fired off a flare that went undetected.

The boat continued to drift northward. At one point, they reported seeing camera flashes on shore and people walking along the beach, which Block believes was below the Arcadia Golf Club. One of the survivors told Coast Guardsman Ryan Zinky that indeed he had seen golf greens.

As they drifted northward, night fell. At about 2 a.m. one of the fisherman decided to swim to shore in the 65-degree water. After an hour or so he made landfall where he entered a vacant cottage and placed a call to 911. Manistee County Central Dispatch received the call at 3:45 a.m..

Coast Guard boats from Manistee and Frankfort responded along with Manistee sheriff’s marine patrol. “When I arrived on scene, I could see rescue responders from shore shinning their flash lights out into the lake,” said Manistee County Marine Deputy Steve Block. The rescuers on shore reported by radio they could see the over-turned boat and directed Block towards the craft. “When I first spotted them it looked as if they were on a surfboard,” Block said. Both were rescued. The over-turned boat had drifted approximately eight miles north from where it capsized.

Boat Smart Brief

Capsizing Coast Guardsman Ran Zinky told me he was out on Lake Michigan early that afternoon and estimated the wave heights between two and three feet with an occasional four-footer. At the time the boat capsized, two of the larger fishermen were reeling in fish when a series of waves rolled over the stern. The captain attempted to fire up the outboard motor and come ahead, but it failed to start. A square cut-out at the stern allowed the rapid intake of water.

Electronic Gear Cell phones, a marine radio, and GPS all were rendered useless once submerged in water. Had cell phones been sealed in water proof bags within a water proof grab-bag the fishermen could have called for help.

Life Jackets One of the larger fishermen aboard could not swim, yet failed to wear a life jacket. He died. None of the life jackets carried a whistle or night illumination devices. When near the golf course, a whistle or strobe light may well have drawn the eye or ear of those on shore, or nearby boaters. It’s unclear why they didn’t fire off another flare unless the flares drifted off or sank.

Grab Lines That the fishermen ran lines over the hull may well have saved their lives. The captain told Marine Sheriff Deputy Block that it was very difficult hanging onto the hull before they ran the lines. This allowed them to stay with the boat, which is highly recommended. That the one fisherman swam to shore was dicey and absolutely unnecessary had they carried signaling devices, including a dry cell phone—carrying these devices on one’s person can’t be stressed enough.

I discussed the case with Lieutenant Chris Yane, a pilot stationed at CG Traverse Air who was involved in the search. After listening to the details, the veteran pilot said, “It shocks him every time when he hears stories like this. Recreational boaters seem so cavalier. Some fail to realize it’s a complex and hostile environment.”

I told the lieutenant convincing recreational boaters of the dangers of the marine environment can be like convincing hormone driven teens the dangers of sex.

Boat Smart. Wear a life jacket and keep your cell phone zipped up.

Note: On August 7, 2009, a 21-foot powerboat capsized off Ludington Harbor, Lake Michigan. A husband and wife and their two sons clung to the boat in the pre-dawn darkness. A nearby boater heard their cries for help and rescued them. One of the boys was wearing a life jacket, which helped him keep his mother afloat. His life jacket did not carry signaling devices like a whistle, flares or strobe light, not even a glow stick.

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Operating in Fog Demands Boat Smarts

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Often, I chat with boaters regarding a wide range of boat-smart topics, fog being one. That topic came to the forefront after a fog bank shrouded the waters off Manistee during the Salmon Splash 333 fishing Tournament. The captains I spoke with emphasized safety and situational awareness when operating in fog: in other words, boat smart.

Manistee’s 2009 Salmon Splash 333 Best of the Best boasted a $10,000 first-place price. Needless to say, fog was not going to deter anglers from pursuing the grand price, even it meant running in fog, which they did on the second day of the tournament. In all, there were 58 boats in the tournament.

With that many boats picking their way through the fog in close proximity, the chance for collisions seemed imminent, yet none occurred, or at least none that were reported. Several captains I spoke with told me they lost fishing lines, severed when boats crossed their stern. “But that comes with the territory,” said one captain, referring to the fog, especially when fishing lines extend well off the stern.

What impressed me about the anglers I spoke with and the tournament guidelines is that safety ruled. Matthew Salerno and his brother Tony, who won the $10,000 prize aboard their boat Living a Dream, told me they troll at about 2.5 knots with a forward lookout at all times. Safety equipment is readily at hand and the crew is familiar with its use.

Communicating with other tournament boats is prohibited, whether it be a cell phone or marine radio, unless in the event of an emergency. These anglers were literally on their own and alone in the fog. “We kept our eyes on the radar at all times,” said Matt Salerno. Not all the boats, however, carried radar but still kept safe by following a basic navigation rule.

Rule 6 of the Navigation Rules states: “Every vessel shall at all times proceed at a safe speed so that she can take proper and effective action to avoid collision and be stopped within a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions.”

One of the conditions addressed in the rules is state of visibility. Apparently, these anglers, some of whom were Coast Guard licensed captains, understood the rules and so complied. However, not all the boaters on the lake that day
were part of the tournament, nor exercising boat smarts: one such boater nearly slammed into one of the tournament boats.

“We were fishing a mile off Big Point Sable in a hundred and thirty feet of water, when out of the fog emerged this 35-foot powerboat heading right at us, pulling a dingy off its stern,” said the captain of the tournament boat Katch-Me. “We waved our arms and hollered as he bore down on us.” The captain figures the boat was traveling about 15 knots.

One of the crewman aboard believes the boat operator was not expecting to encounter in fog a fleet of boats on Lake Michigan on a Thursday morning. Thursday morning or Saturday afternoon has little to do with maintaining a proper lookout and using all available means to avoid a collision in fog. Also, towing a dinghy behind a boat in fog is not too bright. Another boat could run over the tow line and foul its prop(s) , or the boater pulling it might snag the towing line while backing down to avoid a collision.

What I find disturbing about this incident is that the tournament boaters were using all means available to assure not only their own safety, but that of their fellow anglers. Then, along comes a boater who seems oblivious to the safety of others. or worse yet, was just boat stupid.

I suspect it is the latter; until boaters are required to boat smart, those that do must keep a very sharp lookout fog or not.

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Life-Saving Rescue of Four Fishermen Offers Life-Saving Advice

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

The dramatic rescue of four fishermen in western Lake Erie offers life-saving advice learned the hard way after their 19-foot Sylvan Adventure boat capsized. The stranded fishermen spent 24 hours clinging to the boat’s over-turned hull.

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Casting Out The Winter Gremlins

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

“No matter how squared you prepare your boat for winter storage the Winter Gremlins still sneak aboard,” said Dave Gramza, long-time Manistee charter boat captain.

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Avoid Being Blown Away

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

By Tom Rau, Senior Chief (ret), Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan
Author of The Boat Smart Chronicles

On Sunday, October 5, 2008 around 2 p.m. a 41-foot power boat exploded at the Oak Street Marina in South Haven, Michigan. The explosion illustrates the devastation boat fires can inflict not only to the boat itself but to nearby boats and those aboard.

I spoke with Captain Richard Lenardson of TowBoatU.S., a salvage and towing operation. Richard was nearby when the explosion rocked the marina. “I was around 30 boat docks away when I heard a thunderous explosion followed by a fireball and plume of black smoke,” said Richard. “I responded with my 23-foot tow boat. “When I arrived on scene the boat was engulfed in flames with black smoke boiling up from the inferno. The top cabin of the boat lay smoldering on a nearby grassy knoll. A secondary explosion sent debris through the hull of a boat in an adjacent slip.”

The fire had spread to boats in adjacent slips where fire consumed a boat’s mooring lines setting it free into the boat basin where it threatened nearby boats. Richard pushed the flaming boat back into its slip in reach of firefighters. At first, firefighters fought the blaze with water, with limited effect. A fire truck carrying foam soon arrived and joined the fight. “While pushing the burning boat back into the slip I could not see ahead with foam coating the windshield. Off to the side, I saw one of the victims climbing up a nearby dock ladder with the skin on his face peeled way,” said Richard.

The injured included two men, a woman, and child. All were recovered from the water by rescue personnel. Two of the adults were in critical condition. Fire Chief Ronald Wise of South Haven Area Emergency Services, suspects the boat owner and a friend were using a 28-gallon plastic gas container with an electric transfer pump to pump gas into the boat when the vessel exploded. Reportedly the electrical source for the pump was the boat’s batteries. That the cabin was blown off the boat along with the stern suggests that the source of the explosion occurred within the boat. The mishap remains under investigation.

Boat-Smart tips when fueling a boat:

· Open the engine hatches.
· Run the blower in the engine space and check the exhaust port on the side of boat with your palm to make sure its discharging air. During Coast Guard boat inspections I found a number of boats where the exhaust hose had separated from the discharge port. So, rather than discharging gas fumes through the exhaust port it was circulating them around the engine compartment.
· Deploy a sure gas fume detector- your nose. Open those engine hatches and give it a good sniff, especially after refueling a boat.
· Occasionally run a dry cloth over fuel lines especially near connecting points. Sniff the cloth for the odor of gasoline. This procedure is highly recommended after engine work involving gas-line joint connections.
· Michigan rules limit the size of plastic containers to five gallons for transportation of flammable liquid.

Boat Smart, keep it cool. Vent engine compartments before turning the ignition key.

By Tom Rau, Senior Chief (ret), Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan
Author of The Boat Smart Chronicles

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The “Fall Folly”, The Elusive Butterfly of Boating

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

By Tom Rau

The potential for boating fatalities on the Great Lakes this time of year can be linked to what I call the “fall folly.” It brings to mind Bob Lind’s classic 1966 hit “Elusive Butterfly of Love.”

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USCG Report Reminds Us About Prop Dangers

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

By Tom Rau

The Coast Guard’s latest annual report on recreational boating is stained with the blood of boaters dying or being maimed from boat propeller strikes. According to the Coast Guard’s 2007 report, 166 injuries inflicted by propeller strikes resulted in 24 fatalities. Injuries often involve dismemberment, permanent physical scars and lingering psychological trauma.

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Are you prepared to save your child?

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

By Coast Guard Senior Chief Tom Rau (ret)

The recent drowning of a six-year-old girl off Sheboygan Wisconsin gives heed to how a casual swim in Lake Michigan can quickly turn into a causality. Despite the valiant CPR efforts of Coast Guardsman Wesley Koran the little girl later died at Sheboygan’s Children’s Hospital after being removed from a life-support system.

Reportably the little girl was standing on a sand bar and walked off into deep water. A jet skier retrieved her and brought her to shore. Another jet skier raced Wesley from the Coast Guard rescue boat to shore where he performed CPR for approximately 15 minutes until paramedics arrived. “When we transported her to the ambulance she flat lined on the cardiac rhythm monitor. Her father was terrible distraught,” said Wesley.

Could the father have saved his little girl? Absolutely. How? Commander Tracy Wannamaker, a seasoned Coast Guard search and rescue responder and mother of three children, addresses the how…. Listen up; it could well save your child’s life.

During 2004, while commander of Coast Group Grand Haven, Commander Wanamaker had the heartbreaking position of telling a mom and dad that their nine-year-old son had drowned in Lake Michigan. “This is the part of my job that keeps me awake at night, the part that I could do without, said Commander Wannamaker. “ As I read through the search paperwork, I noted that this child was only one week younger than my own son. Immediately I was thrust into the ‘what if’ self-questioning that all parents do, and I came up with a few items that all parents or caregivers need to know.” Her points are listed below:

“You are in charge: respect the water. Our beautiful lakes are also very unforgiving at times. You need to understand how the water moves, how deep it is and what is on the bottom. You also need to understand rip currents and explain them to children that are old enough to understand. I make my kids recite what they would do if caught in a rip current every time we go to the lake. The Beach and Pier Safety Task Force, based in Grand Haven, has a useful website that discusses rip currents and other hazards:

“Invest in swim lessons for the whole family. Non-swimming parents can’t help when the children are in trouble in the water, and often get into trouble as well while attempting to help. I can think of nothing worse than watching your child drown because you are not equipped to help him or her. Swim lessons not only teach children how to keep their head above water, but also promote safety and confidence in the water.

“If you or your children cannot swim, a proper-fitting life jacket is a must for both of you. On more than one occasion my kids have fought me on this, but it’s not open for discussion: ‘put it on or you are sitting on the beach.’ Many drownings occur when non-swimmers suddenly find themselves in water over their head. In addition, many ‘good swimmers’ drown because of fatigue, panic or medical issues. Unfortunately, rescuers don’t get called until someone goes under, and there are only a few precious minutes to save a life. Often it’s too late. Pride is never a good excuse for drowning. Wear a life jacket.

“Be vigilant. Don’t take your eyes off of them—we all know how fast the little ones can move, in or out of the water! Know how to respond in case of emergency and run these scenarios through your mind—you may be the one that saves the unsuspecting swimmer. I strongly suggest having available a flotation device like a rescue heaving line with a flotation ball that you can toss to a person struggling in the water. Also, carry a whistle to draw attention to an emergency.

“Avoid Dangerous Waters. Stay within designated swim areas. Do not swim near breakwaters or piers. Turbulent water and wave backlash can overcome the best swimmer and jagged rocks that line breakwaters and piers can inflict lacerations, broken bones, and head injuries. Pay heed to red warning flags or pennants that warn of dangerous surf conditions.

“A myth. There’s a wide-spread belief that an underwater force ‘sucks’ or ‘tows’ a swimmer under. The fact is there is no such thing as an undertow in Lake Michigan. The force that most waders feel pulling at their legs in shallow water results from retreating waves that have washed up onto the beach. A sandbar can act like a dam that traps retreating water that can break down a section of a sand bar, thus creating an opening through which the dammed-up water escapes. This force can carry a person away from the sandbar and into deep water. Do not panic: you are not being sucked under. Float on your back or stomach to negate current effects.

“Do not allow kids to float out into deep water on rubber rafts or inner tubes. Should they separate from the flotation device, they could find themselves in deep water.”

One particular important beach safety item the Commander addressed besides a rescue heaving line was a whistle. Not only does it attract attention it can be used to beckon kids should they wander to far off shore or near hazardous waters like near piers and breakwaters.

A whistle complements a recent brilliant beach safety program implemented by the City of Manistee, 911, the local Revenue Sharing Board, and Rotary club. This joint effort culminated in the deployment of three beach aid stations, allowing beach goers access to safety equipment and 911 access. A whistle would draw attention to an emergency allowing those near the safety beach station to take action.

“We want the public to be able to assist themselves,” said Dave Bachman, Manistee chief of police. I couldn’t agree more with the Chief. Too often it’s too late despite the quick efforts of rescue responders. Those initial critical moments often lay in the hands of the public. It’s your call, take command.

Note: Tom Rau is a retired Coast Guard Senior chief, boating safety columnist, and author of Boat Smart Chronicles, Lake Michigan Devours Its Wounded. The book is a journal of recreational boating rescues he has written about over his 27-year career.

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