Published: July 2012

Autopilots And Collisions
Every year there is at least one spectacular collision in the BoatUS claim files involving an autopilot and a crew that was either down below, asleep at the helm, or too busy having a good time to notice an approaching boat, marker, beach or, in one head-scratching claim, a towering cliff. Most years, there are several autopilot claims.

The bow of the sailboat shown here being repaired (or, more accurately, being replaced) was smashed after the crew turned on the autopilot and went below to have dinner. The boat was under power a few miles offshore and, to be safe, the crew looked around to make sure they were alone. The boat they were destined to collide with, a trawler, was probably just below the horizon and moving quickly on a reciprocal course.

Ordinarily, when there is a head-on collision, the fault is apportioned 50/50, because the skipper of either boat could have prevented the collision. In this case, the trawler's skipper claimed that he tried to avoid the collision but the sailboat swung into his boat at the last minute. Whether that was true or not is a moot point. With no one on lookout, the sailboat's skipper had to take responsibility for repairs to both boats. Luckily, no one was injured.

Avoiding Collisions With Very Small Boats—Kayaks
A group of prominent engineers recently presented a paper "Visibility Factors in Small Boat Collisions" at the 2012 International Marine Forensics Symposium sponsored by the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers that offers some good suggestions on how to avoid being run over in smaller boats—kayaks—and, conversely, how to avoid running over small boats. In the past few years, there have been several tragic examples of small boats, notably kayaks, which were run down by larger, fast-moving boats.

The suggestions on how to avoid being run over were based on a series of tests on the water using volunteers in kayaks and powerboats. Researchers found that kayaks aren't likely to be spotted by a powerboat until they're a quarter mile-away, which can quickly lead to an "extremis condition." The sooner a small boat is spotted, the better. Seventy-five percent of the powerboat operators first reported seeing "paddle flash" when they saw the boat. A white or lightly colored paddle blade was much easier to see than a dark blade. The remaining 25 percent saw the luminous jersey that was being worn by the volunteers.

Among the recommendations to kayakers: Carry an audible signaling device; wear fluorescent life vests or shirts; use paddles with white or lightly colored blades; and avoid kayaking in areas with high boat traffic. There are also flags available that can be mounted on kayaks Conversely, for owners of larger boats: Wear sunglasses; keep a proper lookout; and be especially alert in areas where you are likely to encounter smaller craft.

Reducing Inflatable RIB Accidents
Because they're far less tippy, RIB (rigid inflatable) dinghies are generally safer than their traditional fiberglass counterparts. In the October 2008 issue of Seaworthy, there was an account of a man in Maine who drowned after his nine-foot fiberglass dinghy flipped over as he was preparing to step aboard his moored boat.

Anyone who owns a RIB, however, should be aware that overinflating the tubes makes their dinghies less stable. Jo Mogle, the vice chair of the Training Committee at US SAILING, wrote Seaworthy a while ago noting that over-inflation makes an inflatable more skittish. He cited Fast Powerboat Seamanship, by Dag Pike, which says the seaworthiness of a RIB is due to its ability to flex in response to the waves. When a RIB is overinflated, it tends to bounce off waves rather than absorb the impact.

To test for overinflation, hit your tube with a clenched fist; if it bounces back, you'll need to let some air out.

Launching A Boat? Look Up!
A member in Las Vegas was launching this 26-foot trailerable sailboat at a public boat ramp last summer when the mast caught on a light post, bringing the whole rig down. Apparently, the operators of the boat ramp don't expect a lot of sailboats because there are signs directing traffic to pass directly under the post (Claim # 1105243). Another member in Washington state told Seaworthy about a close call while retrieving his 22- foot sailboat at an inland lake. As he was trailering the boat out of the ramp, the mast passed within inches of a high-voltage power line and a spark jumped to the VHF antenna, destroying the antenna as well as the cable. If the mast had been any higher, the outcome could have been much worse, especially if anyone had been on the boat. The member noted that there were no signs warning of the power line. If you sail your trailerable sailboat in places not frequented by boats with masts, it's good practice to raise the mast as close to the launch ramp as possible. Be extra cautious and walk the portion of the route you'll be driving with the mast up, checking for obstructions.

It's not just sailboat owners who need to look up. While towing his 33-foot powerboat down a residential street, another member's radar got caught on a low-hanging cable TV wire. The wire ripped off the radar, and damaged the boat's upper helm (Claim #11103045). Wires in most jurisdictions are required to be 14 feet above the roadway, though wires can sag in hot weather; this one was less than 13 feet over the road. The company that owned the line was apparently having financial problems and had not been monitoring for low wires. In another powerboat claim (#1111894), a member was hauling out his 24-foot bowrider last year in Maryland in anticipation of Hurricane Irene, when he ran into a low tree branch damaging the boat's bimini and windshield. Powerboaters, especially those with arches, radars and antennas, need to be aware of the height of the boat, particularly when maneuvering around residential areas, gas stations, and tree-lined drives.

Electrical Faults Ashore
How safe are you in a boatyard when your boat is plugged into shorepower? Not as safe as you may think. In the water, if there is an electrical fault in the boat's AC system, current usually leaks into the water and dissipates (which, while dangerous for swimmers, usually isn't for you if you're in the boat). But ashore, if there is an AC fault and a poor ground, which is often the case at boatyards, any fault current may leak to the boat's underwater metals, which are now overhead. Touch an energized fitting (a prop for example) and you could be seriously injured. Dave Rifkin, a marine surveyor who specializes in electrical safety, says that the best solution is to verify there is a good ground on the yard's shorepower system before powering up a boat on the hard; a simple circuit checker can be bought at home improvement centers. Better yet is to run a ground cable from one of the boat's underwater fittings to a grounded outlet (a ground pigtail can be bought for this purpose). A stake driven into the ground is usually not effective because of resistance in the soil.

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