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Oct. 17, 2019
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Steve Johnson's Boating Safety

Here's the question: Can you feel it?

The following is the third installment of a series about the five human senses as they apply to Safe Boating and Navigation:

This month’s is about the sensation of touch. The faculty of feeling is unique in boating considering all the different motions you may encounter on the water. Recognizing the cause of the sensations is paramount to a safer and more enjoyable experience when underway. Here are but a few samples describing the tactile input called touch for you to consider.
Sometimes the vibrations that you feel when operating your boat play an important part of the assessment of the seaworthy condition of the vessel. Take the situation when moving in rough waters called “pounding.” Even the largest of ships that ply the high seas are affected during severe inclement weather. When a vessel, regardless of size and design, begins to pound, you will immediately know it.

A shock wave travels from the impact of the water on the hull and the resulting vibration is unmistakable. You can have the same effect on the lake when you begin to notice a hard slap of a wave on the boat that is reoccurring at intervals growing faster in frequency. That condition needs to be quickly addressed by slowing down. The ride may become somewhat rougher with the waves moving you back and forth. However, the most important benefit is the force of water impacting your craft is diminished greatly by this action. It will also help reduce or eliminate the chance of damage to the structural integrity of the vessel.
Another form of touch is the sensation of heat. It is obvious that engines produce heat. However, take into account whether you should feel radiant high temperatures from places where it should not be present. If so, then you may have an urgent problem that needs immediate action. Fires on marine watercraft can be fierce and cause complete destruction in a short amount of time. Take for example the recent maritime tragedy off the coast of California on the dive boat that was destroyed in minutes by a raging fire, killing 34. If you feel something, then investigate the source. It could save everything by quick response.
And another touch: know your way “in the dark.” It is crucial for getting out of a space when there are no lighted conditions to guide you. The best time to learn and practice this skill is when you can see and closely inspect the area of travel. Commit to memory how to move about quickly by feeling the surroundings. Keep in mind there are also other safety factors to take into account such as hazards of knife edges or other obstacles that may be in your way. Some of you may recognize this requirement when you fly on passenger planes. The flight crew will always ask you to identify the nearest exit. That’s the same concept for the maritime environment.   
As you can see, there are many variables to the sense of touch when it comes to boating safety. Experience will be your best guide. Learning the many sensations of boating will keep you informed, make your voyage safer and definitely much more satisfying. There are many ways to say ... Can you feel it?

Steve Johnson, US Coast Guard (ret). is with CPO Johnson, Inc. More info:

September 2019 column

Lookout ... here it comes!

The following is the second installment of a series focusing on the human senses of hearing, sight, touch, awareness, and balance and how they relate to safe boating. 

A “lookout” is mandatory, according to maritime collision avoidance regulations also known as the Rules of the Road. 
The rule states: “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper lookout by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.”
There’s a lot of substance in that small paragraph. What exactly is a Lookout and how is it effectively used to help you avoid an incident? That depends on a multitude of factors, one of initial importance is the location where you are operating the vessel. Lakes are only one of a numerous marine environments, each having its own characteristics. What all safe navigation operations have in common is a dedicated lookout, one that is not encumbered by interference, noise, distractions, and other inhibitors. The lookout must also be able to describe what they are seeing adequately enough to make a correct decision.
Regardless of where you are boating, it always pays to conduct a visual search of your surroundings, at all times. It is also framed as a segment of sensory input relating to Situational Awareness, something we will digest more in detail as this series progresses. 
When would be a good time to practice this much needed skill to remain safe while on the water? Well, all the time would be the answer. And it would greatly reduce your chances of an incident. Think of it this way, please. Just as you do visually with driving your vehicle on roadways, so should you apply the same care while operating on the water, even more so in the marine environment given the variables of the watercraft and other conditions. 
Only a fraction of the available courses of instruction in the maritime training marketplace address this requirement for a proper lookout. Two of the prominent ones: Bridge Resource Management and Officer in Charge of a Navigational Watch. Both cover a vast array of possibilities and situations, plus testing the pilot of the vessel. The next best thing beyond VR simulation and these training courses is actual experience. That’s where most boaters learn how to conduct an effective lookout regiment enhancing the ability to avoid danger. Each and every time you go out on the water you should be asking: do I have a proper lookout? 
Things can happen very quickly on a vessel underway. Developing this vital human sense of Sight can benefit you, your passengers, and others on the water in many ways. Most mariners would agree: accidents are not planned, so plan not to have one.

August 2019 column

Hey, can you hear me now?

The next few articles will be a series dealing with the five prominent human senses as they apply to safe boating and correct navigation: hearing, sight, touch, awareness, and balance. 
Let’s begin with hearing. Imagine if your ability to see with unrestricted visibility on the water was quickly reduced to almost zero. You have probably experienced this weather situation driving your vehicle on the roadway. It can be a very disturbing event. 
When it comes to boating operations, it is best served safely and that includes confidently maneuvering in adverse conditions. If you go out on the water, for whatever reason, you will someday most likely encounter the scenario of low visibility. It comes in a variety of forms; fog, rain, smoke, day or night, and various combinations of all factors. This dangerous  encounter doesn't have to be the end of your voyage, but it does require you to engage other senses, especially hearing, to navigate safely through the risky situation. The proficient use of advanced electronics such as Radar, GPS, and FLIR can be of great value. There is no room for error, everything is at stake, with final decisions to be made expressly by you, the person in charge of piloting the vessel. How’s that for pressure? 
Something remarkable happens almost immediately as the ability to see begins to diminish. Unlike a road surface where you can feel a subtle change in your movement by the tires as the vibration reflects off the surface of the pavement. Even a sense of direction by your vehicle is discernable within close proximity and markings on the traffic lanes. On the water, those sensory impressions do not exist. The audible input of hearing sound now takes an even more profound importance to your journey. By proper listening methods, you can calculate approximately whether the object is close by, approaching, crossing, and even moving safely away from your position. It is called the Doppler Effect (for info search Wikipedia). This boating safety capability does take some practice and is very achievable with time and experience.
How would you practice something of this nature and complexity? The next time you’re underway or at the mooring, in any condition of visibility, safely close or cover your eyes. If the unwanted noise level on your vessel is low enough, you can begin to experience the sense of hearing and how it is described in the Doppler Effect. If the sound increases then the object is moving toward you, lowering of the audible signal shows divergence. Ascertaining lateral movement by sound, to the right or left demonstrates bearing drift meaning the object will most likely pass your position without incident, although risk is always present until it is well past and clear.
If you should ever experience this situational risk while underway, immediately slow down, affix your navigational position with waypoint on your Multi-Function Display if you have one and intently listen to what is going on around the vessel. You'll be amazed at how keen your sense of hearing becomes in times like this. Sound travels in a distinct pattern that is very recognizable with practice. Also let other nearby boats know your location with proper sound signals as listed in the Navigation Rules of the Road. It all comes down to this: Can you hear me now?

July 2019 column

Journey to everywhere

Where do you want to go? Just plug the information into your GPS device and the voice on the other end begins to speak to you, turn by turn directions to your destination. Factor in user preferences, multiple routes, even the different types of views and map orientation, plus many more options. That’s a fair description of what is commonplace now, regardless of application in a vehicle, boat, or aircraft. Imagine what the near future holds for GPS and multi-function displays that will receive the broadcast of reliable guidance from space orbit … and other technology platforms.
This commentary is specific to the Global Positioning System, GPS, as it pertains to the maritime realm. There is a very interesting timeline you can read on the link below from another professional blogger that just about sums it up in a few pages answering when, how, and who was responsible for this remarkable innovation of geo position finding capability:
Beginning with Sputnik in the late ’50s, then progressing to the military, especially the U.S. Navy, the technology was finally released for public use during the latter period of President Bill Clinton’s time in office. It has definitely become one of the main components in our society for an immense variety of applications and utility.  
There is another side to this incredible advancement in capability with marine navigation that has a not-so-positive image. It all seems made possible because of over-reliance by the operator on one sensor or standard to safely pilot a watercraft, big, small and all others in between. I highly recommend you fully understand your GPS system and complete utilization of all available features. It will protect by providing precise geographic information and other control data at extremely fast intervals. If you have questions or want to know more about advanced maritime technology please contact me or visit
With all that high tech, it is always accurate. That is actually not a completely correct statement, although the large number of operators believe it is valid. History records that some users complained years ago that the government was intentionally adjusting the data, giving less than accurate geographic position with GPS. In today’s modern world of transportation there is the possibility that navigational fixes by satellite might have some error, infrequently. There are numerous variables in the way the receiver is designed, if the latest software updates are installed, or the Multi-Function Display is not up to date.
Why look out from the helm at the surrounding area when I can just rely on my GPS? That frequently happens and it all falls back to the mandate clearly stated in the Rules of the Road, Rule 5 – Look-out – 83.05 Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision. 
There is an ever expanding evolution of navigational devices in the marketplace. They comes in all shapes and sizes, with the ability to deliver lightning quick positional information and direction to just about any place on Earth. Now you really can ... journey to everywhere.

June 2019 column

Watch for dangerous curves ahead

There are countless reasons and causes for unsafe navigation resulting in risk of collision or grounding. Most of them include one undeniable truth in vessel control, and that is: Advance and Transfer.  The diagram in this article shows graphically how all this works. Let’s break it down to its roots and see where the hazards reside in this critical aspect of piloting.  
All watercraft behave differently when underway, even those of the same design and class. Considerations could be weight, weight distribution, position of the pivot point, height of the center of gravity, environment, and other factors. These elements are some of the prime components in this curve representation.  
Reliable geographic positioning of a vessel must always incorporate Speed, Distance, and Time. That’s the Big 3 as I like to refer to them. They constantly change, and so does the shape of the curve on the diagram. High speeds will give an extended Advance, increasing the distance traveled in the original direction. This is exactly where a great percentage of the maneuvering risk is located and these multiple characteristics have to be understood by the person in charge in order to safely pilot. The Big 3 are connected, each value of the equation effecting the Advance and Transfer uniquely. 
One of the biggest misconceptions by inexperienced boat drivers is that the vessel will act like a vehicle on a roadway. That may be true in some aspects, as if driving on ice or a slippery surface, but that’s where the resemblance abruptly ends. Comprehending how your craft reacts under all conditions is a sign of good seamanship and remarkably increases boating safety.
There is a remedy – a control point to Advance and Transfer – that is so easy to master, all operators can perform this action effectively. It is mandated in the USCG Rules of the Road in various sections, with the most profound being: Rule 8 – Action to Avoid Collision. It states: If necessary to avoid collision or allow more time to assess the situation, a vessel shall slacken her speed or take all way off by stopping or reversing her means of propulsion.  

Next time you’re driving your boat please remember t here might just be a Dangerous Curve Ahead.

May 2019 column

Safe boating is no accident

The title of this article can be interpreted in a few different ways as in: preparation, education, and the positive results of these types of actions. Compared to other modes of transportation, boating is unique. Boaters are not required to have a USCG License unless taking passengers for hire or commercial application with a larger vessel.

Driving your vehicle is demanding enough, now factor in boating which most enthusiasts do at part-time intervals. Remember the road driving test? The final exam with actual demonstration of the newly acquired skills and abilities for maneuvering. With experience, handling became almost second nature. The same mindset applies to boating.
In the maritime world of schooling and assessment, that’s where VR simulation now comes into play in a big way, complementing actual experience and lecture based instruction. Virtual immersion of the student into various scenarios, some hazardous, provides the opportunity to apply skills learned in the classroom. It’s a perfect platform for a training element called Error Trapping, learning from mistakes and isolating the behavior to reduce further incidents. 
A frequent question: How does boating safety education correlate to a better actual experience on the water? To discover that answer you should check out the many options and training organizations available to you or contact me to find out more. It’s all about creating awareness that with knowledge you will become a better all-around mariner. 
Redundancy is high priority in boating safety. Familiarization with your vessel by having an additional person qualified to handle the craft properly, sometimes referred to as the Second in Command is a valuable asset. I am not suggesting that everyone should attend some type of formal education, unless required by law, but each operator should be proficient in all aspects of safe boating and prepare for any and all contingencies. This can be accomplished with briefings and practice events to hone skills.
Here are five things that can make a difference in safe boating: 
  • Know How to Stop 
  • Wear a Life Jacket
  • Be Aware and Lookout
  • Learn Emergency Equipment
  • Proper Use of Radio and GPS 
It is absolutely true ... Safe Boating Is No Accident!

April 2019 columm

The Mercator Madness

According to the prime reference for all things Maritime Navigation; Bowditch Volume One, the chart is one of the most important. Mastery of the science is sometimes a difficult issue for mariners, especially when under taking the deck officer license examinations. 
Accuracy, correct utility, and design of the voyage is represented on this flat, large piece of paper representing a small portion the globe. Actually, the shape of the Earth is an Oblate Spheroid, but considered a perfect sphere for navigation purposes and the mathematics applied to solve it. 
Finding your position utilizing this method requires some form of a paper chart, the most common, is called a Mercator Projection. 
One of the primary duties relegated to the Officer in Charge of the Navigation Watch is to understand how to plot on these types of navigation devices. Each detail of course, speed, and time, along with the corrections, are applied to give a real picture of the vessel’s location. Oftentimes there is a lack of verifiable information sources to affix your position accurately so you rely on what is referred to as Dead Reckoning. Knowing your location is a major factor making a decision as to maneuver while piloting or to avoid a collision. 
With modern GPS and applications, the use of paper charts and the plotting procedures are seldom, if ever, used by mariners. Still it’s required for license examinations both USCG and International, and can be used as a back-up for advanced Electronic Charting Systems, and will remain a requirement for the foreseeable future.
There is a feeling, commonly shared by experienced boaters, that there is an over-reliance on advanced technology, especially GPS. Please don’t misconstrue, I really like satellite connectivity, not only with charting, but communication, and timely, accurate weather data. 
The entire system delivers benefits and opportunities well beyond anyone could have imagined. The problem is not with the advances of the multi-function displays, it resides in the basic understanding of navigation and the importance of reading a conventional chart. If you lost your GPS capability could you find your way safely? 
For those of you are taking a USCG License course, preparing for the upper level exams at the Regional Exam Centers, or a boater that wants to understand more there are resources on the educational market that can guide you through the learning curve of charting. There is training media that is easy to comprehend, and follow with detailed instructions and examples for a professional experience. Mastery of this skill is possible with the right instruction. Contact me to discover how, and the cure for ... The Mercator Madness.
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