Safe Boating on the Bay and Beyond
Accidents happen on the water. Boats sink, unsinkable boats capsize, people fall overboard, vessels collide. The Chesapeake can become violent in an instant. During our hot summers, storm cells can form and travel down the Bay at high speed, sometimes giving little or no warning of their approach, especially near or after dark. They can have winds in excess of 70 knots.
Never think it won’t happen to you. It is always wise to be prepared.
Last week’s high winds and uncomfortable seas did not help anyone track the rockfish bite. The odds are, however, that the fish will be regrouping somewhere near where they were before weather fronts moved through. Start at the mouths of the tributaries: Podickery, below the Bay Bridge, Hacketts and Thomas Point; or try Gum Thickets, Love Point and Poplar Island. You’ll surely spot some good marks on your finders near at least one of those locations.
Personal Floatation Devices are the first and most critical boating safety device, a never-forget requirement. They must be on every boat of any size, even kayaks and canoes. Have at least one PFD of proper size for every person on board, and make sure everyone knows where the PFDs are stored. If things begin to get dicey, have your party put them on immediately. Do not wait for a problem. By then it could be too late.
Youngsters under the age of 13 on boats of less than 21 feet, by Maryland law, must wear a PFD when under way. My kids wore them until they were 15 on boats of any size. I recommend that youngsters on your craft do so as well.
All boats over 16 feet must have a throwable, approved floating device that is within reach — not stored with the PFDs under a hatch. The necessity of the within reach requirement becomes immediately evident if someone falls overboard while you are under way, or if they go over in heavy weather or while your boat is disabled.
A sound-producing device must also be in your emergency kit. If this seems superfluous, try to think how long you can scream for help when you really need it. Not very long. Air horns using compressed air are the best; always have a backup can of air. Whistles are good as well, and each PFD should have one attached.
Distress signals such as aerial flares (minimum of three by law) must be on board with effective dates clearly noted. More than that are desirable. If you’re in real trouble no one may notice the first three. Think about that.
Have at least one operational fire extinguisher on board and stored away from the areas where a fire is likely to occur, such as near a gas tank, battery or the engine compartment.
Always be sure you have enough fuel and oil. If you don’t have a fuel gauge, tote an extra fuel can along with at least enough to get you to the closest port.
Carry at least one good strong flashlight with extra batteries, and check it before you depart. If you get stranded at night, it will be priceless. Be sure all your navigational lights are operational and your boat’s batteries are fully charged. A low battery is a sign of an electrical problem. No matter how reliable an engine is, if you don’t have cranking power, you won’t be getting home.
It is always a good idea to have a portable two-way VHF radio on board with extra batteries. It is a good backup to the boat’s radio, which won’t work if you lose electrical power, and cell phones that won’t work if they get wet. The radio will also give you constant access to the most current weather forecasts and updated storm warnings.
Having a GPS system is also a good idea. If you’re in need of assistance, it is very difficult to guide people to your location if you don’t know precisely where you are.
Always have an anchor on board with adequate line attached, 150 feet if you’re boating the Chesapeake mainstem. If you lose power and the wind is blowing, without an anchor you can drift for miles and often into rocky, shallow and otherwise dangerous areas. The anchor rope can also serve as a towline if another boat offers assistance.
Keep spares on hand of critical items such as hull plugs, spark plugs, navigation bulbs and fuses. You’ll also need the tools to install them.
Always remember to check your safety list plus the latest weather forecast before starting out. The lives you save may be those of people you love, yourself included.