Small Stuff

Published: October 2010

Anchor symbol Of all the types of accidents in the claim files, none could be more potentially deadly than those involving a boat on a trailer that became separated from its tow vehicle. There are several ways trailers can disconnect: wrong size hitch, wrong size ball, rust, and too heavy a load. A safety chain is supposed to keep the trailer attached to the tow vehicle but all too often the chain proves to be inadequate.

Photo of accident where a boat on a trailer that became separated from its tow vehicle

A rusted bolt that held the latch to the trailer ball on the car above fell off when the trailer hit a bump. According to the police report, a flimsy brass hook used to secure the safety chain burst open the instant the hitch was disconnected. The trailer and boat then skidded into the oncoming lane, colliding with a car and killing the car's driver. A single chain was used, according to the report, and it had not been criss-crossed beneath the trailer.

Aside from making sure the latch and tow ball are the same size, free of rust, and rated for the load they're expected to carry, the safety chain should be inspected as though someone's life depended on it. Rather than use hooks, a far more suitable alternative is to secure the chain with a heavy, captive-pin sailboat shackle. The chain itself should be large — the larger the better — and crisscrossed beneath the hitch, with only enough slack to allow the trailer to make turns.

Anchor symbol One of the nice things about being older is that it helps you appreciate the many new technologies that make our lives easier. Younger people take these technologies for granted, but not us geezers. This past summer, to cite one example, temperatures along much of the East Coast hovered above 100 degrees Fahrenheit for several days. Everyone scurried from their air-conditioned homes to their air-conditioned offices to their air-conditioned cars.

Geezers can remember working in the heat, driving in the heat, and trying to sleep in the heat.

On boats, you don't have to be very old to remember trying to navigate without GPS. Before depth sounders, there were lead lines. Before VHF, there were signal flags and lights. And before radar, the only way to detect an approaching ship or rocky shoreline in a pea soup fog was with your ears. Bill Livingston, a member in Mount Vernon, Virginia, sent along this photo of an early "radar" system. Wonder why it never caught on?

Photo of an early radar system

Anchor symbol Speaking of geezers, Seaworthy editors recently made two more attempts to bring Seaworthy into the digital age. The first involves the BoatUS Float Plan, which heretofore had to be downloaded to a printer, filled in with a pen, and then hand-delivered to whomever you were filing it with. The updated float plan can be filled in online and then filed via email. And since much of the information on the float plan doesn't change — your name, boat's name, hailing port, etc — you'll only have to fill out those sections once.

The other change involves Facebook, which frankly isn't something the aging Seaworthy editors have thought much about, sort of like Xboxes or Lady Gaga.

One of the disadvantages of Seaworthy, however, is that it's only published four times a year and some of the younger staff insist that Facebook is a good way to publish news and ideas that might otherwise be overlooked. It's also a good way to interact with readers and post funny photos and videos. So we're giving it a go:

Anchor symbol In the last issue of Seaworthy, "Mayday Protocol" addressed what you need to know if you receive a mayday call on your VHF. Robert Sheahan, a member in Florida, sent along a few practical suggestions based on an incident that occurred this past June. We'll let him tell the story:

"We were diving 21 miles west of Anna Maria Island, which is just north of Sarasota, Florida. Nice day, calm seas. One of the guys wanted to know how to turn down the music so he could hear the marine VHF radio. When we did, a boat owner was calling a mayday; their boat was taking on water fast and they were sinking! The Coast Guard and the boat owner went back and forth over the radio trying to get the boat's GPS coordinates.

  • 'What is your Longitude?'
  • 'Which one is the Longitude?'
  • 'The one that starts with 82 or 83.'
  • 'Ok 8303.094.'
  • 'Please repeat that.'
  • '8 3 0 3 . 0 9 4.'
  • 'OK copy.'

"I had nothing handy to write down the GPS numbers — no paper or pen. I fumbled with my GPS trying to enter the [lat/lon position] of the boat in distress but kept hitting a menu selection wall that prevented me from changing the numbers of the new waypoint that I just created. I finally figured out that I had to hit 'Move' instead of 'Edit' to change the lat/long for the waypoint. Once I did that, we saw that it was only a half mile away. We pulled up anchor and headed over.

"Another boat already had the distress boat in tow. It appeared that the water was coming in the rear of the boat and it decreased when the boat was moving forward. All the occupants had their life preservers on and were bailing with small cups. I did not see any bilge pump working. The Coast Guard wanted to know the registration numbers of both boats but neither [skipper] knew their boat's numbers. I was able to read them off the front of both boats for them. We offered to help plug the leak with an underwater inspection with our scuba gear but they felt better just moving forward.

"The Coast Guard then told us to switch to Channel 22 Alpha. The boat doing the towing was able to communicate on 22A but I was not. So we lost communication with both boats. At home, reading way in the back on page 47 of my VHF radio owners manual states, 'Alpha channels are simplex channels on the USA or Canadian channel assignments. If you call the Coast Guard on Channel 16, they will sometimes ask you to go to Channel 22 Alpha. If your radio is set for International operation you will go to Channel 22 instead of 22A and you will not be able to communicate with the Coast Guard. To use Channel 22A, your radio must be set for USA or Canada operation. The proper channel is selected based on the U/I/C setting." (USA/International/Canada). Wow, who knew! On page 16 of my owners manual it mentions the three modes and that you can change modes by holding down the 16/9 key and pressing the WX key until U or C is displayed. No mention on that page that our Coast Guard is not using International frequencies and you need to switch modes if you are in the US or Canada.

We continued in a northwest direction for a couple of miles and they appeared to have the flooding under control. I assume they were heading back to the ramp they launched out of, north in St. Petersburg."

Robert's advice:

  • Have a paper and pen handy to write down detail such as the vessel's lat/lon location. Since I have an open boat, I have an underwater scuba slate on a suction hook near the helm. It is waterproof and will work if wet, like it would be in a storm. It only cost a few dollars in any scuba store.
  • Always keep your radio on and tuned to channel 16. If you hear chatter pay attention and listen.
  • Use the One-Button Emergency Transmit capability of the radio to send out the vessel's unique MMSI number and the vessel's lat/lon position. The radio will continue sending the distress signal even if the captain is incapacitated. It is a one button, goof-proof, continuous distress message. Make sure your GPS is connected to your radio to provide current position. The entire Gulf and Atlantic coast is in service with Rescue 21 system.
  • If your radio does not have MMSI capability, learn how to quickly enter a coordinate into your GPS so that you can navigate to it. Check the procedure every time you update the GPS software, the sequence of buttons may have changed. [In his case the GPS did not allow him to change the lat/lon when he pressed "Edit." He had to select "Move" to change the numbers. When he entered the coordinates of the boat that was in trouble, he was surprised to find how close they were.]
  • Not everyone has a GPS; you should know how to do all of the above on a chart. It also helps to know approximately where you are with respect to landmarks.
  • Carry something to bail water. Not only would it be useful on your own boat, it could prove to be handy if you have to help someone in trouble.

Anchor symbol A few words of caution from the BoatUS Claims Department: If you're planning to charter a boat this winter, make sure it's insured. When you rent a car, your auto insurance policy typically covers the car, but this isn't true when you charter a boat. Your boat insurance covers your boat and only your boat. A Member in Iowa chartered a small boat and opted to save a little money by not taking the insurance coverage. The boat was in a collision and the Member found out later that a chartered boat isn't covered by his BoatUS policy. It's an expensive mistake you don't want to make.

Anchor symbol And now for an offbeat piece of news about sailboat racing in Los Angeles that was first published in Scuttlebutt, the online sailing magazine. It seems a member of a local race committee fired off the starting gun in the traditional, time-honored manner, when someone got spooked and called the LAPD, which promptly dispatched a SWAT team. According to Scuttlebutt, the man was cornered at the dock, chastised for shooting a gun, and released.

The moral of the story? We have no idea, but we thought it was something other sailboat race committees should be aware of.

Photo of man corner by LAPD at dock Photo of LAPD at dock

Anchor symbol When it looked like Hurricane Earl might deliver winds of tropical storm force or greater along the New England coast, several hundred mariners did what local boaters have always done to prepare for a blow: they headed to New Bedford, Massachusetts.

This historic harbor, homeport to sailors such as Herman Melville and Joshua Slocum, is also as secure and safe a harbor as a mariner could wish for. The harbor is protected by the New Bedford Hurricane Dike, a stone dike that runs for nearly two miles along the coast. At the harbor entrance, the dike's two pivoting metal gates can seal the 150-foot wide opening in about ten minutes.

While there's nothing that can be done about wind or rain, the gates effectively eliminate storm surge. Since the completion of the dike is 1966, there has never been a storm surge that topped the dike, 25 feet above mean sea level.

Hurricane Earl turned out to be "No-Show Earl," but with forecasts detailing the strong likelihood of at least tropical storm-force winds, New Bedford Harbor was filled with boats. By the time the gates closed on Friday, September 3, the census of boats seeking refuge in New Bedford included 226 recreational/privately owned boats, 130 commercial fishing vessels, four ferries, three barges, two Coast Guard vessels, a cruise ship and the 131-foot Kalmar Nyckel, the State of Delaware's official tall ship.End of story marker