Small Stuff

Photo of aerial view of the Great Lakes frozen

Anchor symbol For most of the country, this winter proved to be one of the coldest in recent memory. All-time seasonal snowfall records were set in cities across the country including Detroit and Toledo; Chicago experienced its third coldest winter on record; a snowstorm brought Atlanta to a standstill; and record snowfall and frigid temperatures dominated the headlines well into April. All of that cold weather froze the Great Lakes almost solid — 92 percent of the lakes were iced over on March 6, 2014, the second highest ice cover on record. Heading into May, the Great Lakes remained 26 percent ice-covered, with Lake Superior more than half-blanketed in ice. The ice cover also contributed to below-average temperatures through Memorial Day and delayed the start of the boating season in much of the country, but most especially in the Great Lakes. And the impact is likely to be felt well into the summer, according to Jia Wang, an ice climatologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor. "This prolonged winter will affect summer temperatures. This summer will be cold, and then a cooler fall," he said. Other meteorologists agree with his assessment. Hopefully they'll be wrong, and this photo of the ice-encrusted Great Lakes will cool you off and make you appreciate the summer heat. If not, it will serve to remind you of why this summer has a decidedly chilly feel.

Anchor symbol Does the Coast Guard have an obligation to launch a rescue effort? Some boaters assume that informing the Coast Guard of a potential problem means they must respond. That assumption was tested in a court case that was resolved in November of 2013, and the court's finding may surprise you.

A husband and wife were boating in the coastal waters of North Carolina in rough seas when the wife fell overboard. She was not wearing a life jacket, and her husband turned the boat around and then dove into the water to rescue her. When the couple failed to return home as expected, the husband's father called 911. They transferred him to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NC Wildlife) who in turn passed the information on to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard had no way of knowing whether the couple was actually in distress or where they were, and their search assets were already deployed responding to a confirmed emergency. The Coast Guard advised NC Wildlife that they would not be initiating any search at that time. The next day, the Coast Guard dispatched a utility boat that found the couple's empty boat, and then deployed 12 boats and planes to search the area. The wife made it ashore without assistance 12 hours after going into the water, and the husband's body washed ashore two days later. The wife brought suit against the Coast Guard for breaching its "duty of care" by not attempting to rescue the couple immediately.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, ruled that federal law authorizes but does not impose a duty for the Coast Guard to launch rescue efforts. "Because the USCG has no duty to rescue, the law imposes no standard of care until an attempted rescue commences," U.S. District Judge John Gibney wrote.

The Coast Guard takes very seriously its search and rescue responsibilities, and it's rare for anyone to think they have not gone beyond the call of duty in responding to an emergency. But that doesn't mean that we, as boaters, should take for granted what they do or their obligation to do it.

Anchor symbol We are constantly impressed by the depth of our readers' knowledge and the range of their experiences, and not just when it comes to boats. After our piece on the potential issues with lithium-ion batteries in April, we got a very interesting email from Dan Van Sickel near Panama City, Florida. After 27 years in the United States Air Force, Dan fetched up in the Pentagon with the rather overlong title of Division Chief for Requirements for Strategic Defense Forces right when President Carter was elected. "Carter made it clear he wasn't going to defend anyone," Dan wrote, "so I didn't have a job." Not to worry, the Directorate of Operational Requirements had something for Dan — running the remnants of the Deputy Directorate for General Purpose. If anyone needed anything that was not a weapon or munition, Dan was their guy.

His assignments were many and varied, and some were quite interesting. "One of my troops ran the development of the GPS system we all know today. Another had responsibility for all the satellites that make up the space-based Strategic Warning systems we depend on for earth-wide surveillance, and another directed the development of lithium-ion batteries that are now in demand for powering many of the electronic gadgets we carry in our pockets and purses." These high-energy batteries were being developed to replace the huge quantity of lead-acid batteries used to provide the backup power for the Minuteman ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) in silos all across the country.

After a year or so of research, the Air Force Electronics Laboratory in Rome, New York came up with the lithium-ion scheme. "Development progressed to the point," Dan wrote, "where a demonstration of performance was required before the program could proceed. The lab ran a full-scale rehearsal of the demonstration to be conducted the next day, and then put the new battery, which was huge and heavy, on recharge and went home for the night. That night, the lithium-ion battery exploded and burned the whole laboratory to the ground." That could have been the end of the story, but obviously, it wasn't.

"That was over four decades ago," Dan said, "and now we have lithium-ion batteries powering all kinds of gadgets. These batteries are still occasionally burning down houses and autos. About a year ago, a house two blocks from ours went up in flames from a lithium-ion battery associated with a model airplane being charged in the garage. They are still temperamental and unpredictable. Treat them with great respect and caution."

Photo of green sea boots

Anchor symbol Many old salts will tell you that if you ever go overboard, the first thing you should do is to toe off your boots because they will fill with water and make it harder to stay afloat. John Aldridge knew that when he fell off his lobster boat 40 miles off the tip of Long Island. But then something funny happened. He realized that his boots, heavy industrial ones with extra-thick soles, were actually lifting his feet out of the water. Having gone overboard while his partner was down below asleep, Aldridge knew that he might be in the water for a long time. If he were to survive, he'd need every advantage, and it didn't make sense to throw away something that floated.

Aldridge did take off his boots, but he kept hold of them. He took each boot and turned it upside down, then plunged it back into the water trapping air inside. He put one under each arm, and there he was, floating on twin boot pontoons. This is just the beginning of an amazing survival story. Aldridge ended up spending almost 12 hours in the water, kept afloat by his boots, while 21 fishing vessels and several helicopters searched for him. His rescue was a combination of science, skill, and luck. But all would have been for naught if he hadn't had those boots.

Anchor symbol Most insurance policies — whether for a car or a boat — don't cover things that break. If your car's transmission dies, you don't call your insurance company; you get the car to a mechanic. Similarly, if the gears get stripped in a boat's lower unit, you have no choice but to reach into your own pocket to get the boat running again.

But now, if your boat's relatively new, you may have a choice. BoatUS Marine Insurance has just started offering a new supplemental coverage in 23 states that will pay to repair or replace the lower unit of an outboard motor, or the upper and lower units of a sterndrive motor, in the event of a mechanical breakdown. The parts will be covered for any sudden failure even if it is due to wear, tear, and corrosion, a common exclusion in most insurance policies.

The boat must be less than 10 years old when the coverage is purchased, and it can then be kept until the boat is 15 years old. You will have to pay an additional premium, which starts as low as $23 per year. This coverage does not apply to any of the internal components of the engine itself. But if you have a relatively new boat and want some additional peace of mind, this may be an inexpensive way to get it. To find out if this coverage is available in your state, call 800-283-2883. 

— Published: July 2014

Seaworthy, the damage-avoidance newsletter, is brought to you by the BoatUS Marine Insurance Program. For an insurance quote, please call 1-800-283-2883 or apply online at


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