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Navigational Hazards or a Hazard to Navigation?

An experienced marine-accident investigator who has seen it all explains how it's easier to probe a case involving a hazard to navigation than one where the skipper is the primary navigational hazard.

Are you plotting your way to disaster? When plotting your course into an unfamiliar harbor, you may want to use a variation of that great carpenter's motto, "Measure twice, plot once."

A navigational hazard is pretty clearly defined as something you might hit on the water. A "hazard to navigation," however, could very well be the person at the helm. BoatUS Marine Insurance claims files show that one of the most expensive claims — as well as one that frequently causes significant injuries — is when a boat hits something while underway. Investigations show that these incidents are almost always avoidable simply by using some common sense and exercising some basic skills.

The 'Sunglasses Effect'

It was a first for me the day one of my clients ran into a buoy. It was a sunny, calm day with unlimited visibility. How did that happen? The answer, according to the owner and skipper, was "my new polarized sunglasses." He was looking at his navigational display, and the polarized lenses of his sunglasses made the screen difficult to read. With his focus distracted, he hit the buoy.

Forget the fact that the buoy was bright red and dead ahead for a mile or so as he approached. Strange things happen on the water, right? Sure, but this incident got me thinking that not all navigational hazards are outside the boat. The more I see helms filled with an array of gadgets, the more I harken back to the good old days when we had a compass, perhaps a depth sounder, and a knotmeter. The simple helm — most of today's wonderful technology had yet to be invented — forced us to focus. It made us keep a proper lookout. It made us plan ahead.

Today we may plan our day out on the water the day before, on the computer at home, plug in waypoints, arrive at the boat, push some buttons, and off we go. This, I think, is where the story of "hazards to navigation" begins.

Have you ever punched in directions on your car's GPS, hit "go," then diligently steered the route the machine on your dashboard is dictating to you? Had you paused and thought it through, you might know a better way to get there, right? Well, your boat's navigation equipment can also only do so much of the thinking for you. Consider that jetty inconveniently located between your position and the mark inside the harbor? The penalty for not paying attention and preparing properly may result in you running hard aground on the jetty — or worse.

Technology can only take you so far. You, skipper, need to know what your boat is and isn't capable of. Is your vessel, to put it in legal insurance terms, fit for its intended voyage? Is your boat suited to navigating offshore? How much rough weather can your boat handle? Are you GPS- and radar-equipped?

One thing very obvious to people in my vocation is that the primary cause of most, if not all, accidents involving collisions (hitting something moving) and allisions (hitting something stationary) is human error, poor decision-making, and complacency.

What You Can See

Day markers, buoys, jetties, other vessels, bridges, big rocks, granite ledges, and sandy beaches are all hazards that are visible. Is a day marker a navigational hazard? It shouldn't be because its sole purpose is to notify a skipper of a real hazard ahead. But if the speed is fast enough and the lookout not good enough, this aid can suddenly become a hazard.

I'm big on strict adherence to COLREGS (the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea), or as you know them, the "rules of the road." COLREGS require you to proceed at "safe speed" (Rule 6) so that you can "take proper and effective action to avoid collision and be stopped within the distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions." They also require a proper lookout (Rule 5), which calls for both seeing and hearing as well as other means, "so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision."

Off the coast of New England, there is an interesting navigational spot affectionately called "The Graveyard." This is an area just south of Massachusetts' Elizabeth Islands chain, where the current flows north to south, through the "holes" between the islands and Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound. This current has set many a vessel attempting passage through Vineyard Sound onto the rocky beaches of the islands. The bottom line is simple: You need to know your real course. Don't trust only one instrument; verify by using your compass and chart.

This vessel was making passage around Cape May Point and the captain did not clearly understand the currents in the area, which set the vessel toward the beach. It broke up in the surf in just a few hours.

Today's navigation equipment is amazingly accurate. We now take GPS for granted and are entering the world of self-driving cars. Interestingly enough, we in the marine universe have had autopilot for years. Punch in coordinates to your GPS chartplotter and voilà! Let the boat take you there! What could possibly go wrong?

Well, years ago, I investigated a claim in which two sailboats collided in dense fog off the coast of Maine. They were obviously both traveling at slow speed, but were heading in opposite directions, toward each other. The problem was that they had both done the same thing that morning: They had plugged waypoints into their navigation and autopilot systems using the same charts. They hit stem to stem at dead center. Among the reasons causing this collision: Neither boat sounded fog signals, neither posted a proper lookout, and both overrelied on the technology that put them on a collision course.

What You Can't See

I've found very few reasonable excuses for hitting visible obstructions — sunglasses or not. Sometimes there are uncharted hazards floating just a few feet under the surface that are unavoidable. I've investigated boats hitting pilings, trees, cargo containers, submarines (yes, submarines), and even whales. Now, those are real, honest-to-goodness navigational hazards.

There is a good reason we go slow speed at night near pilings: Cement pilings don't move out of the way.

What would you do if you were running along at 15 to 20 knots when your vessel hits a floating cargo container resulting in a 2-foot hole in the bow? Well, if you were the four retired naval officers off Cape May, New Jersey, heading north on your way to Maine, you'd stop, calmly assess the situation, affect damage control, stop the down-flooding, pump the bilges, and slowly head to a harbor of safe refuge under your own power to be hauled out for repair.

You and I may not have the skills and know-how of those officers, but you should have a plan for what to do if you end up with a hole in your boat. Of course, not hitting something in the first place is the easiest way to avoid sinking your boat. But consider that in good weather, a proper lookout can usually spot most barely floating hazards. And a good skipper will understand that after heavy rains, storms, or exceptionally high tides, there may be much more flotsam and jetsam in the water, and he'll know to slow down and keep an extra-sharp eye.

The takeaway: Hazards to navigation are not necessarily the same thing as navigational hazards. Both have similarities — some seen, some unseen. For me, it's easy to investigate a case involving a hazard to navigation, but sometimes the lines get a bit fuzzy when investigating an accident involving a navigational hazard. Why? Because sometimes that navigational hazard is the very person you're interviewing.

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Daniel Rutherford

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine

Daniel Rutherford is director of claims and risk management for Maritime Program Group. A licensed private detective and ocean marine adjuster, he's handled more than 9,000 field assignments and recovered more than $20 million in stolen vessels and property.