How Much Do You Need To Know?

LESC Laser

Sailing a dinghy in strong winds takes a different set of skills from driving a runabout.

Originally published in several Maryland newspapers 2/17/89

How much does a boater need to know? 
by Tom Dove

Each spring, hundreds of people buy boats and go out to enjoy the Chesapeake and other bodies of water. Almost all of them get back home. Boating on semi-protected waters like the Bay is a relatively safe sport, certainly less threatening than leaping out of airplanes and probably less hazardous than sliding down mountains on pieces of wood or than driving to work in the morning rush hour.

Still, there are things every boat operator should know for the sake of safety. How much you need to know depends on the type of boating you will be doing.

Small-boat operators may be at the greatest risk, as a little vessel may be swamped or overturned by storms or by the wake of carelessly run big boats that race close by. Canoeists and rowers should be good swimmers, have a good sense of balance and always carry life preservers and a small anchor. They should know how to right a capsized or flooded craft, bail it out and get to shore without assistance.Anyone who relies on manual power must recognize his or her range limits as it is not fun to run out of energy and still have “Miles to go before [you] sleep.”

Generally, rowboats, canoes and kayaks should stick to rivers and creeks and not venture into the open Chesapeake where a swiftly approaching storm could be a serious threat.Sailors in little boats must be cautious, too. A one-design racing sailor should carry an anchor and 100 feet of light nylon anchor line for emergencies. It adds little weight and a lot of security.

Small-boat sailors are often proficient in racing rules and ignorant of the standard right-of-way rules under which we all must navigate. For example, darting across the bow of a sightseeing vessel is not only foolish, it is generally illegal, whether you are racing or not.
Most people enter boating with runabouts in the 15- to 20-foot size range, so experienced skippers know they must beware when they encounter almost any vessel of this type. It is legal to operate a boat in Maryland without any experience, instruction or certification if you were born before July 1, 1972 (people younger than that must take a boating safety course). It’s legal, but not wise.

Captains of small runabouts need to know about right-of-way, weather, wake, piloting, charts, anchoring, firefighting and engine maintenance. Little powerboats are capable of long trips at high speed and their skippers should be, too.

Most families move up from the runabout to a small cruiser after a few years. The bigger boat demands additional knowledge.A cruiser often weighs more than a large car and this extra mass makes it less quick to respond. The basic handling techniques learned on a small boat still apply, but they must be modified.

Too often, skippers of cruisers in the 25-35 foot range plow along, oblivious to the destruction caused by their wake as they run close aboard piers and smaller vessels. The sternwake doesn’t look nearly as big from the flybridge as it does from the canoe you just swamped.Docking a medium-sized boat in a crosswind or a current provides its own education, but owners of such craft should have some idea of what is happening and why.

Coastal cruising sailors must have a high degree of independence because they move too slowly to escape rough weather and must learn to deal with it. They must also be proficient in navigation and shallow-water piloting. On the Bay, it helps to learn the tricks for getting off sandbars.

Ocean sailing is a different game and in many ways, it is simpler; there is nothing to run into and knowing your exact position is not as critical as in Bay sailing.On the ocean, you must be totally self-sufficient, so you must have a very strong, well prepared boat that you know intimately. You must be willing to endure a lot of discomfort and broken sleep patterns. 

We all have heard of someone without any experience who bought an unmodified production sailboat and set off around the world. We have also heard of people who have gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The odds for success are not too different.

Before the boating season begins, analyze what you need to know and start learning it. Investigate the courses offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary, Power Squadrons and Department of Natural Resources. See what your local community or yacht club offers.It is easier to learn what you need to know before you get onto the water than it is to acquire it the hard way: Out There.

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