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Steve Johnson's Boating Safety

Texas chicken and ships

That may be a strange title for an article, but it is actually a famous name for a ship maneuver in the Galveston, Texas Ship Channel. You can see the videos on YouTube if you search for Texas Chicken.

Basically it is when two very large and heavy ships steer directly toward each other at close proximity to successfully pass in a narrow channel. To disregard this almost bizarre procedure could cause a collision and is something that defies maneuvering logic, especially when you witness it in person for the first time. This is the story of my unforgettable new experience with such that type of situation:
SS Exxon Baton Rouge, a very heavy and large crude oil tanker inbound, was loaded to maximum draft with Valdez crude oil bound for Baytown, Texas, a vast sprawling oil refinery just outside Houston. This landscape of tanks, pipelines, and towers was the very beginning of the process to convert this black gold into petrochemicals and gasoline that we depend on for just about everything.
 
Slipping through the water in the channel at about 10 knots this massive vessel of about 200,000 tons was literally shoving the water out of the way with tremendous bow pressure and violently sucking the water behind, almost ripping it from the shore. Given the sizable mass it was also extremely difficult to steer, and was especially vulnerable to loss of heading control by touching the bottom because of such a deep draft. 
 
Another, even more profound reason of steering failure is from the hydraulic effect from a nearby passing ship, especially something comparable in tonnage and depth. Galveston Bay, may to some extent appear to be an expansive body of water, but it is actually a dredged channel below the surface sometimes referred to as the “The Ditch,” allowing large, deep-draft commercial vessels to transit into and out of the Port of Houston and surrounding areas. 
 
Knowing this was my first time entering Galveston on this class of ship, the Captain ordered me to go up to the bow and help the forward lookout. Working as the 3rd Officer on this trip my collateral duties included safety and training. Clear day, calm waters, was no consolation and comparison to what I was watching unfold right in front of me. An extremely large container ship outbound coming right at us. (Discovered after the incident that the lookout was also in on the prank.) His report of the incoming ship was correct to maritime professional standards but there was something disconcerting about his lack of concern. 
 
Passing the other ship safely now looked to me as almost an impossibility. As we began to get closer I urgently ordered the lookout to abandon the area and quickly head back aft, almost 750 feet just to the superstructure where the navigation bridge was located. My adrenalin kicked in and I was in a fast sprint to the rear part of the tanker. Eye witnesses reported my speed and agility were impressive. What they did not know is that halfway back I gave a serious, but brief moment thought about jumping off the side of the ship. This almost irrational action would not have been a smart thing to do. 
 
For the remainder of the voyage and the few trips that followed I remained silent, still in shock of how close I came to real disaster. Reflection on this incident, although somewhat humorous at times, still brings back the rushing memories. It also taught me a valuable lesson: be aware of my environment and keep situational awareness. Most of all it instructed me to prepare for the unexpected and avoid ... Texas Chicken and Ships.
 


Steve Johnson, US Coast Guard (ret). is with CPO Johnson, Inc. More info: Steve@CPOJohnson.comwww.cpojohnson.com.






January 2019 column

It's all about time ...

Welcome to the 2019 Atlanta Boat Show. There’s plenty of things to see up close and satisfy your desire for all things on the water especially with the upcoming season rapidly approaching. As there is a time and a place for everything, now would be a good moment to consider specialized training to further protect your investment or to find additional safe boating knowledge. Whether it’s for serving as a guide carrying passengers for hire or just the need to understand more, there are some absolute great options to consider. 
 
Every one of us has been given the same count when it comes to time. Exactly 24 hours a day, incorporating minutes, seconds. It’s not the sole factor of the measure of this element, it’s what we do with it that resonates most. Many deterrents wait in line to waste this precious resource, with procrastination leading the way. This article addresses time and effort you spend obtaining a USCG License and will show you innovative ways to achieve the objective of getting credentials with less expense, particularly in regards to time.
 
Traditional curriculum methods propose sitting in class for almost 60 hours listening to an instructor present you the information. It’s up to you to absorb the content and then also effectively study to further hone the newfound skill set. Then follows the examinations, another day of the already very long, consuming, arduous process.
 
How much time do you think you truly are engaged while in the learning mode, understanding a new volume of information or method to solve a navigation problem? First, let’s get through the detractors when it comes to a normal in-class training syllabus: coffee breaks, lunch, more breaks, other class members recounting experiences, instructor stories of previous voyages, and more breaks. Many times it has been said that “Time is Money” and that is exactly what it is in pure form. Taking time from work, family, and other things in your life has a cost implication attached to it. It is still a very influential part of everything. Another point to remember: lodging, food, fuel, and other expenses begin to get expensive. Then comes driving to and from class which, depending on the location, can be a challenge. 
 
By my long-term and proven calculations you spend over 20 to 30 percent of the time in factors other than actual learning. In some cases the percentage is much higher. That’s something to consider when planning an educational venture such as this. 
 
Do you want to know how to get a U.S. Coast Guard License, OUPV, Master, Towing Assist, Sailing, and other certifications in less time, with a much more productive learning environment, taught by some of the best instructors in the business, minus all the extra fees? Contact me to discover the huge benefits of blended learning and I will show you how to achieve this training with options that can suit your needs. Not only learning and passing the examinations, but full professional service regarding your application to the National Maritime Center by experts, helping complete the goal, license in hand.
 
Total license success … It’s about time.
 
December 2018 column

So exactly what is distracted boating?

Distracted driving – It’s not a breaking-news topic for drivers on the road, especially with the motor vehicle laws now in place. We all know from the media or even personal experience what results from this type of driving – like texting, a classic example of loss of situational awareness. This form of risk also applies to other modes of transportation, in particular: boating. The Navigation Rules of the Road are primarily designed for one purpose and that is, collision avoidance. Sitting in the helm chair has a lot of responsibility attached to it. Other passengers on your boat are counting on you to get them to the destination safely, without incident, to enjoy their trip. That specific objective cannot be accomplished if you are distracted when operating a vessel, especially at high speeds in congested or rough waters. Sounds just like a precise description of the lake during the busy season, a prime time when the weather is perfect and the crowds are large. 
 
That’s not the only distraction of course when operating on the water. The whole perception of risk assessment, the very same thing you do when driving your vehicle, changes slightly in this aquamarine environment. Now the “roadways” are not restricted to route, speed is seldom controlled by signage and law, except in no-wake areas. What was once directed in paved traffic patterns now becomes an arena of paths and situations. This difference of how to accurately perform risk assessment is where collision avoidance on the water is found. 
 
The secret to absorbing all this extra information is learning the fine art of situational awareness, which always precedes collision avoidance. Knowing how to recognize situations, before they happen is the key to safe boating. 
 
Full awareness of your overall surroundings without distraction may sound simple, in reality it is far from it. The only way to develop this much needed mind-set is practice. You can study every book on the subject, take every examination that exists, and it still would not prepare you for what comes next, mainly because the learning approach lacks action. The absolute best way to gain that crucial experience is either witness by demonstration or do it yourself, with simulation or real-time. Operating your vessel safely and having a proper lookout at all times are fundamentally required. The greatest value of effective boating safety education is the long term positive influence in your actions, especially gauging results before making decisions in handling or navigation. Sometimes the real beginning of the instruction process, the proficiency of boating operations, is the study of previous incidents, observing all types of scenarios. Application of that same knowledge with realistic clear and understandable training is the best way to eliminate or reduce distractions. 
 
On the water there is always the chance for conditions to rapidly change, priorities can alter, but always the primary focus of the boat operator is safely moving the vessel through any situation, at the proper speed, and completely aware of their surroundings without any distraction.
 
Expect the unexpected … and nothing becomes a surprise.
 

November 2018 column

The Johnson Curve

Each and every time you set out on the water there is the chance of something undesirable happening. Safe boating is a duty achieved by experience and proper application of training. There are basically three levels of risk when it comes to vessel operation, regardless of location and type of boat. This premise also incorporates the use of advanced marine electronics versus more of a visual method of directing the vessel. It’s a comparison that needs to be understood by anyone in charge of navigation.
The first is the GREEN sector to the left of the gauge, the beginning of the curve. Calm weather and smooth water, all systems functioning as designed, voyage plan being followed, the driver at the helm is capable and properly trained. The main method of piloting is visual reference, also utilizing GPS charting on a multi-function display, practicing with other sensors if equipped to learn how they operate. Situational awareness is at high levels. 
 
Second in line on the curve is the AMBER sector, positioned in the middle. It signifies the norm when it comes to boating. Seldom is the water surface completely smooth, with weather causing some disruption, and increasing traffic requiring more alert operation. This is where some boaters get complacent and unwanted events can follow. Recognizing the colored zone you are in on the curve is half the battle and will alert you to be increasingly aware of your surroundings and act accordingly.

The use of advanced electronics is more pronounced. Decisions for safe navigation and collision avoidance are weighed more using this technology. However there are at times problems with lack of training or familiarity with the advanced sensors resulting in misinterpretation of the data. Situational awareness is at moderate levels.
 
The last segment of the curve is ORANGE in color. Conditions for safe boating are greatly reduced due to restricted visibility, mechanical failure, injury, grounding, boats in close proximity, and other operational issues. This is where USCG license and Safe Boating training comes in handy. There should always be other methods of navigation in order to verify information and execute proper decisions to safely move on the water. Advanced navigation, communication electronics are used and relied upon almost exclusively, especially radar if available. First action should be to slow down, don life-jackets, and stop if necessary to further assess your situation. Understanding the Rules of the Road is key to reducing risk in this environment. Situational awareness is extremely difficult and at the lowest level.
 
To successfully operate in the last part of the curve will require concise attention to detail without distractions. Crew, even passengers, should assist where able or assigned. Always remember to plan and get ready for the possibility you will encounter this scenario. Preparation instead of reaction is always the best way to counteract and avoid these situations. If you want to know more, contact me to discover how to expertly prepare for ... The Johnson Curve.

October 2018 column

Mae West and the Goldfish Club

The year 2018 proved to be a devastating period of time for boating accidents throughout the country. The tragic events all caused by different factors, most connected by one common thread: not wearing a life jacket. Personal Flotation Devices, also known as PFDs, are the invention of genius. Evidence of their existence and use dates back many years to improvised apparatus, some made from hollow dried animal skins tied together to trap air inside used by Norwegian seafarers. The first flotation device sold at retail in the 1800s was constructed of cork providing even more buoyancy. Fast forward a few hundred years and there have been vast improvements in the technology ranging from thermal protective immersion suits to upside down looking versions of life jackets called U-Float. 
 
Mae West was a nickname that was bestowed to the lifesaving cover, referring to the Hollywood actress of movies and stage during WWII, by both sailors and aviators alike. The famous Goldfish Club were distinguished survivors, almost 9,000 members of aviation crashes and wrecks at sea that were saved because they wore a lifejacket, aka Mae West. Their central theme and core: “Money, position or power cannot gain a man or woman entry to the exclusive circles of the Goldfish Club. To become a member one has to float about upon the sea for a considerable period with nothing but a Carley Rubber Float between one and a watery death.”
 
The Burra Record 1945
International and USCG regulations specifically direct the use of Type 1 classification for a PFD that can actually right your face out of the water if you are knocked unconscious, helping prevent drowning. Professional mariners working on a vessel in open ocean or near coastal waters have to comply with the requirement. Qualification for certification also mandates attending a training facility to learn the proper use and for assessment by an approved USCG instructor in a pool environment. This one capability of turning you over through innovative design in this hazardous condition is probably the most profound when it comes to life saving scenarios. Other models: Type 2 through 5 are approved depending on their intended use, geographical location, and protection they afford the person wearing them. 
 
That brings this article full circle back to the opening paragraph concerning wearing a life jacket. There are boaters that forget, others that feel uncomfortable wearing it, and some that just refuse. Can you really forecast with complete certainty what lies ahead of you, regardless of experience level? Collision with another vessel, person in the water, even grounding await those who embrace this type of risk without consideration of the threats. 
 
When things are not going right, or as planned, visibility is diminishing, the water is rougher, weather getting worse, nearby traffic increasing, then put it on please! Something as simple as wearing a lifejacket is a real big deal when it comes to boating safety. Look back in history and see for yourself in the … Goldfish Club.
 
September 2018 column

What's behind the door? Security

The security of a ship or boat at sea is vital to safety of the crew, passengers, cargo, and environment. Required initial training for commercial mariners is attending a class for Vessel Security Awareness. 
 
The syllabus is offered in two versions, with or without duties. Not meant to be a cover-all for this level of risk, it does however serve as a great introduction, making crewmembers aware of the need to perform the basics in this mainly collateral task. Although this subject may not have a direct influence or factor in to your experience on the lake, this type of preparation for security is applicable for everyone who ventures offshore. 
 
One situation you can encounter even in this modern age of boating is piracy. This threat is ongoing, not just overseas off the coast of Africa or Asia, but can happen anywhere, and in reality it does. The training text and actual photo evidence in the course describes what to look for as in suspicious behaviors or actions and then reporting those observations to the authorities. There are also dedicated officers that perform this function on the vessel, the company, at the port, and with other agencies. 
 
Different types of weapons used by pirates and terrorists are discussed in class, including WMDs as it pertains to the Maritime World. A large ship carrying millions of gallons of highly explosive fuel, chemicals, or natural gas is just an example of something that has to be protected. The fundamental premise of the training is: “See Something, Say Something.” Essential information is professionally conveyed to the student but there are a few items that warrant further consideration and know-how that are not covered in the short one-day class. Once the crewmember reports onboard the ship, more related training, specific to the vessel layout, cargo, and voyage route is provided through more extensive personnel drills and exercises. Safety precautions and techniques are taught in an actual environment, a process which proves to be extremely helpful in honing the skills required. 
 
Some of the counter-terrorism practices utilized by companies when a crew is under attack by pirates is to shelter in a safe place onboard the vessel. A compartment or room that is tightly secured through a single main door. There is one very significant detail to highlight about this type of action and that is; the door is locked … from the OUTSIDE!
 
Given the environment of going to sea, watertight doors on ships should be lock controlled from the outside to enable quick access for damage control, and something very important called, space accountability. 
 
That actually means that someone else has to unlock the door to allow for a safe exit. Some might consider this setting a good feature of being safeguarded from harm in this bunker like room made of strong steel plates welded together. It does however present a major problem which is: you will NOT be able to get out without assistance. Obviously, there are many reasons this could be hazardous such as, fire, flooding, and ship abandonment. 
 
Acknowledging there is always risk involved on the water, there is a truly remarkable method using a small device that can keep you safely inside, yet exit on demand from behind a locked door. Invented by a professional Chief Engineering Officer, still serving in the maritime industry, it is a simple, cost effective design, easy to install and operate, called Safe Escape Lock. (www.SafeEscapeLock.com).

Already in production the device is approved by many agencies including American Bureau of Shipping, International Maritime Organization, and the USCG. The safety lock is a real game changer when it comes to security and compliance with maritime counter piracy regulations. In the majority of scenarios, the most effective approach to a problem is the simpler solution. Innovation helps counter this type of menace at sea and performs an important mission keeping seafarers safe … Behind the Door.
 


August 2018 column

It's all about 'actions' while boating

“Actions determine outcomes ... and outcomes inform actions,” completes the quote, taken from the Number 1 Best Seller, “The One Thing,” by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan. This premise is described with precise detail in Rule 8, Actions to Avoid Collision, in the Navigation Rules of the Road: 
 
(a) Any action taken to avoid collision shall be taken in accordance with the Rules of this Part and shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, be positive, made in ample time and with due regard to the observance of good seamanship.
 
(b) Any alteration of course and/or speed to avoid collision shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, be large enough to be readily apparent to another vessel observing visually or by radar; a succession of small alterations of course and/or speed should be avoided.
 
(c) If there is sufficient sea-room, alteration of course alone may be the most effective action to avoid a close-quarters situation provided that it is made in good time, is substantial and does not result in another close-quarters situation.
 
(d) Action taken to avoid a collision with another vessel shall be such as to result in passing at a safe distance. The effectiveness of the action shall be carefully checked until the other vessel is finally past and clear.
 
(e) 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.
 
(f) (i) A vessel which, by any of these Rules, is required not to impede the passage or safe passage of another vessel shall, when required by the circumstances of the case, take early action to allow sufficient sea-room for the safe passage of the other vessel.
(ii) A vessel required not to impede the passage or safe passage of another vessel is not relieved of this obligation if approaching the other vessel so as to involve risk of collision and shall, when taking action, have full regard to the action which may be required by the Rules of this Part.
(iii) A vessel, the passage of which is not to be impeded remains fully obliged to comply with the Rules of this part when the two vessels are approaching one another so as to involve risk of collision.
 
There are ways you can maneuver to avoid a collision with another boat;
  • Turning Right – Except when necessary to pass someone in an Overtaking Situation by going Left and passing up their Port side. This substantial turn also provides the visual reference to the other vessel that you are taking the appropriate action in accordance to the Rules of the Road.
  • Slowing Down – Does give the intended result of missing the other vessel but drastically reduces the relative speed and extends the time to process avoidance. A primary point of professional boating is to slow down to bare steerageway or stop if necessary to further assess the situation. In other words … When in doubt, slow down.
  • Combination of Speed Reduction and Turn – Considered by professional Navy and Coast Guard Deck Officers as “Backing Out” and frequently utilized in tight formations with multiple ships in close proximity. Not a preferred method to apply unless you are in congested traffic and a large turn would cause an issue with another vessel in close proximity.
     
An important component of Boating Safety is taking Action to get the desired Outcome; Rule 8 is the remedy to that goal. Be Informed and have a great time on the water!

July 2018 column

Can you hear me now?

The title of this article sounds kind of familiar doesn't it? Now imagine a massive wall of decreasing visibility approaching your vessel and its soon to immerse totally, producing a high risk navigation environment. If you venture out on the water long enough, for whatever reason, you will someday encounter this scenario.
 
It can bring back some very anxious memories of the event and provide some lessons-learned. It comes in a wide variety of form: fog, rain, snow, smoke – day or night it can appear. With proper preparation and training this hazardous encounter doesn’t have to be the end of your voyage, but it does require you to engage other senses to in order to navigate safely through the situation. The proficient use of advanced electronics such as radar, GPS, and infrared optics like FLIR, can be of great value if operated effectively and the information received is interpreted correctly. There is very little room for error. Everything is at stake, with decisions to be made by you, the person in charge of safely piloting the watercraft.
 
Something else happens almost immediately as the ability to see begins to diminish. The sensory input of hearing now takes an even more profound importance to your journey. By listening carefully, you can sometimes discern whether the object is close by, approaching, crossing, and even moving away from your position. This ability does take practice. A method to practice engaging your hearing sense is to safely stop or anchor, wear a blindfold or something to reduce your vision, and absorb the sounds surrounding you. Development of recognizing Doppler is the primary benefit of this exercise.
 
If you experience this unwanted situation of reduced visibility, slow down, affix your navigational position on the GPS chart with waypoint, reduce your vessel noise level, and intently pay attention. You’ll be amazed at how keen your sense of hearing becomes in times like these. 
 
This component of collision avoidance deserves to be at the top of the list for Risk of Collision, Rule 7, in the U.S. Coast Guard Rules of the Road and is specifically addressed in the regulations. 
 
In essence, seeing is now effectively augmented by hearing. Knowing what resides on the other side of low visibility is “Boating Safety” at its finest and greatly benefits everyone.

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