• Defensive Boating - How to Handle Problems and Stay Out of Trouble

    It was around 3:15 in the morning when the anchor alarm went off, up until that point I had still maintained my hourly routine of checking on the boat's condition. I could tell this time was different. The rain was louder than normal, and I could hear the canvas popping with the rapidly shifting wind. I glanced quickly at my iphone and bounded up the stairs headed to the helm.

    As I emerged from the cabin, the lightning was so frequent that a flashlight was not necessary. I checked the anchor alarm on my chart plotter and noted that the boat's position, this alarm was not the one that had activated. The anchor alarm app on my iphone was the guilty culprit and comparing it to my chart plotter confirmed the truth. We were drifting. I quickly flipped on the radar and started the engines just as the alarm went off on the chart plotter. As the radar glowed to life, I compared the picture it was painting to the moving map display and shut down the engines as the boat slowly stopped moving, I had run aground.

    First off, it is not my intention to encourage you to venture into conditions you are not comfortable with. Stress levels can increase rapidly to levels that will easily overwhelm the unprepared boater sometimes leading to a disastrous outcome. Instead, my intent is to help you learn how to recognize, avoid and handle stressful situations.

    Fireman, Policeman, Pilots, and Trauma center personnel are just a few of the professionals who find themselves in stressful conditions regularly. How do these professionals learn to handle these situations? They spend an extensive amount of time training that not only includes classroom activities but practical exercises as well. This helps to learn how to operate under pressure. This is where the average boater is at a disadvantage, access to this type of training is normally not readily available, and if you are fortunate enough to find it, the costs would likely be prohibitive.

    For this reason many boaters are left to rely on knowledge and skill gained during their infrequent trips to the water. This works well for most as long as things go smoothly. However, when the situation begins to deteriorate, people often get hurt, equipment gets damaged or worse. Hopefully, after reading this article you will think about boating and the responsibilities it brings in a new way.


    Many boaters, especially our newer ones may not realize that legally every vessel regardless of size has a Captain. The Captain is ultimately responsible for the conduct and operation of the vessel and its occupants at all times. Even if the Captain is not at the helm, he/she still retains that responsibility and in the event of an incident or accident will be held liable along with the person at the helm.

    For this reason, it is important that not only the Captain but the person at the helm know the applicable rules regarding the operation of the vessel. Additionally, they should also be familiar with all aspects of handling the boat not only during normal operations but during emergency and abnormal situations as well. For example, can the helmsman use the VHF radio, signal flares, bilge blowers, radar, etc.?

    Knowledge and Training

    So how do you get the necessary training without spending a small fortune? There are several avenues available, and it will be up to you to choose what fits your needs. However, proper training should occur in two parts, academic training (books) and practical training (operational).

    By far, the easiest way to gain this knowledge is through the United States Power Squadrons, the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary or similar organization. They provide extensive online, classroom and in-water boating training that covers all of these important topics. These training sessions and classes will help make you a better and safer boater. They provide a broad-based level of boating knowledge while concentrating on items specific to the recreational boater. In recognition of the quality of training these organizations provide, many insurance companies offer a substantial policy discount to their members.

    If you are not interested in classroom training of this type, then home self-study is an option to increase your proficiency in academic knowledge. These organizations also make their course materials and books available for non-member purchase. Normally self-study is not as thorough as classroom style training but you can still gain considerable knowledge.

    Finally should you prefer you can find a myriad of excellent books from basic to advanced boating available on the internet.

    For the operational (on the water) portion, you can hire a Licensed Captain to provide the training for you. You can inquire at most marinas, and they are likely to have a list of Captains that provide for on the water training. These sessions normally only concentrate on the operation of your boat and can be quite expensive yet personalized.

    Personally, I combine all methods of training from classroom, practical and extensive self-study. One of the most common comments I receive from other boaters is "that was more than I needed to know" or "I will never remember all of that." On more than one occasion I can recall specific examples of how having a broader boating knowledge has come to my aid, and you will be surprised what you are able to remember when faced with a stressful situation.

    Regardless of the method chosen, your goal should be to become the most knowledgeable and proficient Captain you can possibly be.

    The topic of this article is Defensive Boating, but this is very misleading. Defensive implies that you impulsively react as the result of the actions of another entity. This entity could be weather, another boater or really anything deemed as a threat or potential danger.

    Instead of being reactive, be proactive! Always think several steps ahead of the situation and don't always have an out, have several outs. In other words, have several choices to choose from to avoid or escape from threatening situations. This is known as being an Offensive Boater.

    Offensive Boating, Be Proactive.

    Offensive boating is the process of recognizing threats and minimizing the risk in advance. An offensive boater is the one that has already considered several different options before having made the decision. Their actions will not be based on impulse but on careful advanced evaluation. You can recognize these boaters as they are the ones that have already placed a fender, or added a line, or added another anchor before you even think about it.

    So how do you become an offensive boater?

    First, it begins by being proficient in boating knowledge and operational skills as we discussed above. You must know the rules of the road and extensively familiar with the operation of your boat and its systems.

    You must also maintain your boat and its equipment in proper working order. A blown out light bulb or an engine that is hard to start will only exacerbate a threatening situation. Don't procrastinate, have all the items that need repair taken care of. Additionally have spares and back-ups where necessary.

    With those items taken care of now it is time to change our mindset. We need to change our thought process in how we operate our boat.

    Learning How To Think!

    This sounds easy enough doesn't it? After all you already think and plan when you are on the water, and for the better prepared you probably have some idea of what kind of weather to expect, right?

    A good Captain is thinking about where the boat will be, not where the boat is currently located!

    The one key advantage the professionals discussed earlier have over the average boater, they are taught how to think ahead, to expect to the unexpected, to have contingency plans. They are taught to constantly think, what if?

    Our thought process should always keep these three key items in mind during all of our decision making, life, boat and property.

    What does Life, Boat and Property mean and how do we use the chart? If only your vessel is involved (white arrows) your priority should be to protect all persons aboard first, then protect your boat and finally property. If another vessel is involved (yellow arrows) your priority is to protect all aboard your boat first, then protect life on the other boat, next protect your boat, then assist to protect their boat and finally property.

    As you can see your ultimate job is to ensure the safety of the persons onboard your vessel, care should be taken when assisting other boaters to avoid jeopardizing the safety of those under watch. What this means is that you must be willing to sacrifice lower priority items on the list to protect your crew. The Coast Guard has ample evidence of boaters attempting to assist others in need only to find themselves in the same situation, use good judgement.

    Okay so now you have learned the priorities upon which all of our decisions should be based. You may be saying to yourself, well duh that makes sense but how do I use that information? Well here is how, prior to making any decision ask yourself this simple question: What impact will this decision have on Life, Boat or Property?

    Let's look at an example. You and several of your friends are enjoying a hot summer afternoon of water skiing, but it is time to go since several of your guest have to leave now so they won't be late for work. As you turn out onto the main lake, you notice that the wind has really picked up on the open water and the waves are beginning to build rather quickly. You have an alternate path that will take you along a more protected side of the lake but add an additional 45 minutes of travel time. Which choice do you make? Remember, protect Life, Boat and Property!

    Evaluating Threats and Risk

    What you have just done is participate in a risk-management exercise. To become a good offensive boater you must learn to be a good risk manager.

    Risk is the potential of an undesirable outcome due to your action, inaction or the action of another entity. You deal with risk everyday as you go about your normal routine and can probably name off a whole list of things that present a risk.

    A Threat is anything that could cause or increase the possibility of an undesirable outcome. In the boating world, there are many types of threats that can challenge us at anytime. Although most common, boating threats aren't limited to the capabilities of the boater, the equipment or the environment but additional factors as well.

    Perhaps the most difficult part of risk management is the ability to identify all possible threats. If a threat goes unrecognized, it becomes harder to counteract although not impossible as we will see later. To become a successful offensive boater you are going to have to hone your skills to recognize threats before they become a factor and assess the level of risk posed.

    Most everyone is familiar with the phrase "ignorance is bliss." This is true in boating as well up until the point that the threat reveals itself leading to a bad situation. Have you ever found yourself in a situation that caused your heart to beat a bit faster, your palms to get sweaty or the hair on the back of your neck to stand up? All of these are examples of the way your body reacts to stress when a threat is identified.

    Normally, we spend most of our life on land and become intimately familiar with our environment and the most likely threats we can expect to encounter. We know that if our engine stalls while driving we can pull over and investigate the cause. However, when we head out onto the water for the first time we find ourselves in a less familiar environment and a whole new realm of threats. Some of which may be obvious while others may be more subtle.

    So how are risk and threats related? If there are only a few threats, then risk is generally low, while as the number of threats increases the level of risk tends to increase as well. There are exceptions to this rule as the severity of the threat will also have a direct bearing on the level of risk.

    Lets look at some examples.

    John became a new boater after buying a used cruiser. He didn't have a formal survey on the boat, but it looked in good condition. John doesn't have any formal training and is just developing his basic boating skills. He has checked the weather and there is a possibility of thunderstorms later in the afternoon. John has radar and a chart plotter but he has not learned how to use it yet. Today might be a good day to practice while he navigates the narrow channel leading to the main lake. John heads out for a day on the lake but decides not to mess with the chart plotter since he must keep his attention devoted to navigating the channel. He waves to folks sitting on several of the docks as he heads up the channel. He successfully makes it out to the main lake but doesn't stray too far since he wants to keep an eye on the weather. In the early afternoon, John notices clouds building to the west and begins to head back to the marina..

    First lets identify the threats:
    - new boater
    - used boat (reliability unsure)
    - basic skills lack of training
    - lack of knowledge on equipment operation
    - weather (possible thunderstorms)
    - narrow channel

    What level of risk would you assign John's trip, high, medium or low?

    Now let's look at Bill. Bill has been boating on this same lake for years. He has extensive knowledge of the lake and its associated features. Bill's cruiser is in good shape, and he properly maintains the boat while regularly checking for anything that may need attention. Bill also has radar and a chart plotter and uses it extensively. After checking out his cruiser Bill heads down the narrow channel to the main lake to begin his day of fishing. He heads several miles up the lake to one of his favorite fishing holes where he will spend most of his time. Later in the Afternoon Bill notices the clouds building to the west and continues to fish.

    Lets identify the threats for Bill:
    - weather (possible thunderstorms)

    What level of risk would you assigne Bill's trip, high, medium or low?

    At first glance, it may appear that John is at a higher risk since he has more threats, and that would be a true assessment. However, what has John done to help mitigate the risks? First, he remained closer to the marina, so he would have less distance to travel, and he left as soon as signs of inclement weather appeared.

    Now looking at Bill you may be inclined to assign his risk level as low since he only had one obvious threat, the weather.

    Let's continue with the scenario to see how it evolves.

    As John enters the channel, the clouds are growing darker and appear to be moving pretty fast. John wants to hurry to seek the safety of the marina, but it is impossible as other boaters crowd the narrow channel headed toward the marina. Rain begins to fall and a lightning begins to streak across the sky. John also notices the wind is increasing and becoming quite gusty. He knows he is making progress as he passes the docks he saw earlier and notices the people are no longer there.

    Bill sees the lightning and begins to head back in. As soon as he is in sight of the narrow channel and notices all the other boaters headed that way he decides to turn around and head further up the lake.

    Does this change your perspective of the risk for each of the boaters?

    John makes it through the channel and now can see the distant marina as the rain intensifies. Not only does he regularly lose sight of the marina, but he loses sight of the other scurrying boaters as well. He keeps the boat pointed in the direction that he thinks the marina is in (he has never learned to use the compass either) and narrowly misses a buoy.

    Bill rounds a corner and recognizes the small cove he is seeking. The rain has intensified for him as well, and he keeps a close watch on his radar. He enters the small cove and his friend's dock comes into view. He carefully ties up alongside and walks up to the house for a visit.

    John still hasn't made it to the marina!

    Hopefully, from these scenarios you can see that risk is highly subjective and variable as conditions can change quite rapidly and new threats arise. John realized the risk to him and made plans to stay in close and return early. However, he wasn't an offensive boater. He did not have any backup plans. He should have had several options to choose from that always left him with a way out. Remember the docks he passed on the way outbound, and on the way in. He could have tied up alongside one of them, but many boaters become too focused on the goal to realize there are better options available.

    As you can see Bill had a backup plan. What we also didn't know was that Bill had several options that he had planned for. He had the locations of different safe weather docks and protective anchorages marked on his chart plotter. With his experience, he quickly recognized the threat presented by attempting to navigate the narrow channel to the marina and adjusted his plan accordingly.

    Your job as a Captain is to recognize threats and plan or act accordingly to minimize the their risk.

    Attachment 2191
    Weather is one of the most common threats to boaters
    as demonstrated by this fog bank moving in.

    So how do I learn to recognize threats you may ask? Most of the time this will come naturally and the threats will be quite obvious. Threats can exist in many aspects but most commonly found in three broad categories, yourself, your equipment and the environment. A good method to help you identify possible threats is to begin by asking yourself the following questions:

    1. How is my physical condition? (for instance, if you have a head cold you may want to avoid rough water since this can increase your likelihood of getting sick)
    2. Am I up to speed on current rules and regulations or other pertinent information concerning my boating area (it is possible that navigational aids are out of service or have been re-located etc.)

    3. Is my boat in good working order? (remember don't procrastinate, ensure everything works as it should).

    4. What is the current weather and forecast?

    5. What is the condition of the water, tide status etc.

    6. What unique features are presented by the area I plan to boat? (shallows, narrow, rocky, strong current, a large concentration of other boaters).

    You should now have a list of possible threats to consider, but how do you handle threats that aren't evident or the ones you didn't recognize in advance? You have to play a game. That's right you need to start playing a game every time you head out on the water. This is the game of "what-ifs".


    Initially, this game may sound like non-sense to some, but it works and it works well. It is used by many of the professionals mentioned earlier in this article. For instance, airline pilots are trained to have the what-if scenario playing in the back of their minds constantly. From well before the flight begins until the engines are shut down at the destination this process is used to plan for any eventuality. The game works to sharpen your skills and prepare you for both known and unknown threats. You are likely already doing what-ifs and may not realize it but here is how it works.

    The game begins by asking yourself questions and developing plans based upon what information you have available. The questions are designed to stimulate the thought process and reveal options in a low-stress situation. You are simulating an emergency or abnormal situation in your mind; you are practicing! This practice teaches your mind to think more clearly in a stressful situation.

    Here are just a few possible what-if questions:
    What if the engine quits as I leave the slip?
    What if I discover I am taking on water mid channel?
    What if the waves are higher than forecast?
    What if I am caught off guard by a thunderstorm?

    You should also involve the family in these what-if scenarios. Get them to ask what-if questions. The more you involve them in these scenarios the greater confidence they will have, and they will become an asset in stressful situations. This brings them into the decision-making process, and they may provide excellent alternatives that you may have missed. Make them a part of your team.

    Here are a few possible what-if questions to ask your crewmates:
    What will you do if I become unconscious?
    What if I fall overboard?
    What will you do if you notice we are taking on water?

    Additionally have them come up with what-if questions to ask you. They may surprise you! The goal in asking the what-if question is to come up with several safe alternatives for each one. Don't worry you will get better at this with practice and will even likely come up with better alternatives over time.

    If you regularly have guests aboard, depending on their boating experience a good Captain will always brief them on what to expect, when to keep distractions to a minimum and always speak up should they notice something that doesn't look right.

    Taking It To The Next Level - Simulation

    Once you become comfortable with the what-if questions and can provide reasonable options quickly, it is time to take it to the next level and practice. The idea is to simulate one of the what-if scenarios. Pretend the event has actually happened and go through the steps as though it were a reality. However, use good judgement and don't place yourself in situation that is not recoverable should your plan of action fail. For instance, if you want to practice a what-if your engine quit, don't shut down the engine, just place it in neutral simulating it's failure.

    If your family is involved you can further hone skills by accomplishing unannounced drills. However, do not do these unless they have had the opportunity to practice, nothing destroys confidence faster than asking them to accomplish a task they are unfamiliar with. These drills provide an opportunity to see what works, what doesn't along with building skills and confidence. Afterwards ask them to tell you what they did well or could have done better, this lets them critique themselves and learn from the experience.

    Here is an example. I had been teaching the Captain (my spouse) how to handle the boat. She had become quite adept at close quarters maneuvering and was more than capable of getting into and out of our slip at the marina. She was equally as good on the open water, and we regularly played the what-if game. On a previous outing, we had discussed and practiced the steps she would take if I were to fall overboard, so the next weekend, I decided to let her practice unannounced. While she was cruising along at a pretty good rate of speed, I took our life ring and tossed it off the stern of the boat. She did not see me accomplish this devious task, so I tapped her on the shoulder, pointed to the life ring and told her I just fell overboard, and that life ring was me. Her initial reaction was to ask me a question to which I responded; I can't hear you, I am out there pointing again to the life ring. As I sat down and watched she performed flawlessly as she brought the boat around and made the pickup without incident. Afterwards, we talked about what she thought she did well and what she wanted more practice on.

    Hopefully by now you are thinking of ways that you can incorporate some of these ideas into your boating. If done properly you will further not only your skills but those of your crew-mates. This will not only help you become a better offensive boater and a true Captain but also have a strong team.

    Offensive Boating Summary:

    Continually increase your knowledge and skills
    Maintain your equipment in top shape
    Constantly be aware of your environment


    Risk Management
    Identify the threats
    Develop several options
    Constantly re-evaluate the threats and change options as necessary

    Play what-ifs


    After I had run aground I opened the hatches and checked to make sure I was not taking on any water. Everything looked fine, so I just sat back and waited for the storm to pass. You see I had what-if'd this scenario many times in my mind. This was one of our favorite coves to anchor and during the summer, it is quite common to get late-night thunderstorms in this part of the country. They are usually pretty intense for a short while but will pass quickly. I had surveyed this cove pretty thoroughly and knew that the upper end was quite shallow but had a soft mud bottom while moving out toward the main lake with deeper water yielded a shoreline consisting of rock ledges. The storms would usually come from the southwest with strong winds, and as they passed the wind would become erratic as they passed off to the northeast. This lay out prompted me to set my anchor more toward the shallows than I normally would, and it would oppose the initial blast of wind to fend me off the rocks. This set up provided me with approximately 300 yards of clearance from the rocks compared to less than 100 yards from the soft muddy bottom. Should the anchor break out with the initial strong winds I would have more time to take the necessary action before encountering the rocks and should it break out after the wind changed directions I would be pushed onto more forgiving ground, which is what occurred.

    Once the storm had passed I began retrieving the anchor rode in the hopes that it would grab again, and I would be able to kedge off the mud. After a few turns, the anchor grabbed and the boat began to rotate. As the windlass tension increased the mud relinquished its grip and the boat began to slowly move. Finally, I was floating freely and after another quick inspection, I was able to start the engines, re-set the anchor and climb back into the bunk.
    JAT and fish_fear_me like this.


    Comments 9 Comments
    1. JAT's Avatar
      JAT -
      Excellent article!! A must read even for the experienced!!
    1. TimG's Avatar
      TimG -
      thank you!
    1. lotus's Avatar
      lotus -
      Great article, it all seems common sense but I guess (and have seen from experience both on the water and on the road) that common sense isn't all that common.

      It also highlights that, while we in Switz grumble about having to pass a difficult exam (both theory and practical) to be licensed for anything over 8 hp, we do, at least, ensure that anyone on the water has at least a basic knowledge of chart reading, navigation, weather patterns and boat handling.
    1. TimG's Avatar
      TimG -
      Lotus thanks for your comments. I do find quite a few boaters that already think like this, especially those with some sort of formal training. I hope with this article to spur the interest of others, hopefully fine tuning their thinking patterns and giving them tools that they will find useful.

      Over the last few years a group has pushed for laws requiring some sort of basic boating skills training for every boat owner. However, I am not aware of its current status. Boating certainly highlights the talents of some people and when combined with alcohol it is at a minimum comical and sometimes deadly.
    1. Hendo78's Avatar
      Hendo78 -
      Quote Originally Posted by lotus View Post
      Great article, it all seems common sense but I guess (and have seen from experience both on the water and on the road) that common sense isn't all that common.

      It also highlights that, while we in Switz grumble about having to pass a difficult exam (both theory and practical) to be licensed for anything over 8 hp, we do, at least, ensure that anyone on the water has at least a basic knowledge of chart reading, navigation, weather patterns and boat handling.
      Over here in Australia anything over 6hp requires a license but unfortunately the tests and license regulations don't "really" filter out the idiots :-/

      iPad Forum Runner
    1. lotus's Avatar
      lotus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hendo78 View Post
      .... unfortunately the tests and license regulations don't "really" filter out the idiots :-/

      iPad Forum Runner

      As a uni prof I can assure you that the tests, regulations, exams etc. are there to provide a formal distinction between the informed idiot and the un-informed idiot.
    1. Cap'n Ray's Avatar
      Cap'n Ray -
      Sadly, no matter how hard any group tries, you can't legislate common sense. Lacking that (common sense) is one of the most common breaks in the chain of events causing most incidents- minor or otherwise.
    1. TimG's Avatar
      TimG -
      Very true! Additionally I don't think there are many training programs that teach how to avoid a crisis, or how to manage one....that is generally where the damage is done it seems.
    1. Timboson's Avatar
      Timboson -
      Excellent article. Over here in Norway there is also a compulsory test for anyone born after 1.jan.80 for anything over 25hp.

      Very amusing lotus, "tests, regulations, exams etc. are there to provide a formal distinction between the informed idiot and the un-informed idiot."
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