Today's lake level: 1,070.43
Your complete online news, information, and recreation guide to Lake Lanier
Mar. 1, 2015
2:17 pm
Humidity: 93
E at 6mph

Steve Johnson's Boating Safety

A new port of call on the horizon: Cuba

Normal relations with Cuba and the United States appear to be closer to reality and so the race begins with tourism and trade. This remarkable, significant event signals the start of something amazing in boating; a change in the destination of countless yachters and boaters that will cross the Florida Straits in search of the not-so-distant shore, the beautiful island of Cuba. From the Southernmost Point (at Key West, Fla.), it’s 90 miles ninety miles between the two countries. On a clear day as you draw near the northern face of Cuba from sea the tropical shoreline glimmers and shines, a sharp contrast to the view from the approach south of the island where majestic shades of green mountains strike high above the horizon. It’s a vast visual difference compared to the Bahamas with the diverse range of topography and skyline.

There are plenty of marinas and resorts to visit, enjoy the culture, meet new friends and I am sure there will be many more to come in the future. All the years as a professional mariner, Cuba has constantly been my No. 1 destination to visit, outside of the duties while in the U.S. Coast Guard. Crossing the Straits of Florida is not always an uneventful experience primarily because of the influence of one major, extremely large, rapidly moving, very warm current that flows through called the Gulf Stream. It is sometimes referred as a “river within the sea.” Depending on the prevailing winds, season of year and traffic moving through the Straits, the short voyage can become a tremendous challenge in a very short period of time.

As this energized water courses rapidly northeast from the Yucatan Peninsula, any wind that is counter, or opposes the direction of flow can almost instantly create short interval, very steep, violent waves.  Moving through this gauntlet takes skill and knowing how to handle your vessel. We all know the risk of tropical storms and hurricanes with technology providing advance warning and preparation. Most boaters would not venture out in this sea state. It’s the clear day, wind abruptly changes direction, and waves begin to pound occurrences I refer to. Some of the roughest seas compared to anywhere on the planet can be brought on by the Gulf Stream.

I’ve personally witnessed countless tough days on this famous body of water during patrol including search and rescue missions, with a clear sky and very heavy, pounding surface. This upcoming change of relationship between the countries is an opportunity of a lifetime to explore new boating destinations, a place of extreme tropical beauty that has been hidden in full view for many years. There are very effective ways to get ready for a voyage and port of call such as this if you decide you want to make the journey. Get trained by a professional mariner, hire a USCG Licensed Captain or Mate as pilot, to name a few.

Getting there safely involves crossing a busy maritime roadway filled with big, fast moving ships navigating courses generally northeast or southwest not counting the numerous other smaller vessels, traveling in all directions, fishing, cruising – even smuggling contraband – that cover this area.  Understanding and application regarding the Rules of the Road is vital to safe boating and shipping.  Additional knowledge of international communications, security awareness, and weather also helps ensure you arrive to your tropical destination safely.
The new port of call, Cuba, awaits. Contact me if you would like to know more and discover how to safely prepare and voyage plan for a yachting adventure at sea.

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

January 2015 column

How to deal with Bergy Bits and Growlers

Navigation is a science of avoidance. All aspects of safe navigation, the process, the tools to perform those tasks collectively contribute to that founding premise.

Not many seafarers have voyaged in an active iceberg field at sea. Being in the vicinity of these colossal structures affect the surrounding atmosphere. You can actually smell the difference, extremely fresh and clean. It’s something the senses have not normally gleaned before with this intensity. Icebergs give ample warning to the trained mariner, unlike its smaller cousins, Bergy Bits and Growlers.

Much smaller in size, these ice formations are usually about three feet in height above the surface, making them a much smaller object to quickly and accurately detect. Even with the diminished mass these chunks of ice can cause damage to the hull of a vessel.  Add the melting action, the heat provided by the warmer ocean and direct sun in the thaw season, it all creates escaping air, making a very odd growling sound, similar to an animal. Thus the name, “Growler.”  To witness something of that magnitude in nature is a memorable event, and hard to adequately describe.

How would you navigate a field of ice? Would you slow down and plow through or instead constantly turn to avoid the pieces that looked big enough to cause damage? The answers to those questions have a lot a variables, but only one of them is correct.

The transit from the Gulf of Alaska to Valdez is sometimes similar during certain seasons of the year. The pristine mountain tops glittering with bright white snow, some partially obscured by the lowering thick clouds. Inbound, Prince William Sound, on the port side you see the glacier rising abruptly above the surface stretching upward to the cloud base. The air is so cold your breath becomes a frozen white puff. The pilot boat is an impressive, all stainless steel vessel, designed to take on the elements and adverse conditions. The boat filters its way through the scattered ice to our vessel to disembark the pilot, our guide to the loading dock and the massive storage tanks perched high above on a snow covered ridge. Dark rich crude oil, hot from the friction of the large diameter pipeline is waiting to be loaded onboard at rates just under 100,000 barrels an hour.  So fast it expands and contorts the ship as it splashes into the cave- like tanks.

A short 12 hours pass and we begin our transit outbound, loaded with over a quarter million tons. Ship handling becomes a real challenge, moving through the water, unable to turn or stop quickly if needed. Avoiding the ice would be just as dangerous as trying to turn this beast under these conditions.   

The answer to the earlier questions: Slowing. That’s the best action to take. It additionally provides in this specific case, a massive, powerful bow wave to clear a safe path to follow through the Bergy Bits and Growlers. A lake like Lake Lanier will never experience ice conditions like these. But the real story is safely transiting through such a gauntlet is made possible simply by reducing speed. This action should always be your first consideration in any situation requiring safe navigation.

The one crucial link to accident avoidance and safer boating is reducing speed. Try it and see the benefits for yourself and the positive difference it will make for everyone out on the water.

December 2014 column

Sea sick for Christmas, but for good reason

Enjoying the holidays with family and loved ones is something very special that we all look forward to. Sometimes that fellowship is not possible when you are on a ship or deployed in the military and it certainly can become a difficult separation to endure. This story is about one such Christmas in the mid 1990s while assigned aboard the US Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk on patrol in the Caribbean Sea.  

The plan was to take a patrol break in Puerto Rico for the holiday and the crew was very excited about the opportunity to make phone calls back home, receive mail, and celebrate the best they possibly could, given the circumstance. Underway at sea can be a lonely and foreboding place, no geographical reference to anything except the continuous never ending line of the distant horizon, with the exception of a few passing ships and maybe a far-off sight of land if visibility is good.

Winter is ordinarily brutal with severe weather systems pounding the Atlantic Ocean, making the voyages even more unbearable with the constant powerful rocking and heaving. On this occasion two adverse weather fronts would soon merge to an even larger storm and wreak havoc on not only the northeast United States but the Island of Bermuda as well. Trying to outpace the approaching heavy seas and high winds, we proceeded at a moderate speed, on a southeast heading, bound for our long anticipated destination, San Juan.

Even the best of plans can change in a fraction of time, our tropical port of call for the holidays, altered radically. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, those famous words blaring over the radio desperately calling for immediate assistance and rescue. A demasted sailing vessel floundering without power or sails, taking on bitter cold sea water from the ever growing waves and swells. Racing to the navigation chart to plot the reported position, I soon discovered the direct course to the stricken vessel was heading direct into the path of the swift moving Atlantic gale force tempest. The situation dire for the sailboat, three souls on board, all having physical conditions, some severe, and possibly hypothermia. Estimated time of arrival to the distress position on the chart indicated plus seven hours. The situation was full of gut wrenching, extreme, intense motion. What happened next, after we came about and turned to the Northwest is to be expected … sea sickness and lots of it. White water from the tremendous waves was boarding over side of the flight deck, our bow sometimes disappearing through the dark blue water. It was difficult to hang on and move about the cutter making it dangerous at best. Keeping focus on the task at hand required extreme fortitude and training.  Lives depended on it and search and rescue operations demanded all protocols be followed, regardless of sea conditions and visibility.  

Arrival on-scene – not a moment too soon – provided shelter and much needed medical attention to the injured passengers, a family with one young boy. Their goal was to celebrate the holiday in Bermuda. The wild, unpredictable ocean wouldn’t allow that to happen. Unable to tow the disabled sailing vessel the hawser line was disconnected and she sank below the surface rapidly. Even through all this adversity it was a remarkable time to remember and celebrate life. Not only for the family that was rescued from the unforgiving sea that Christmas Day, but for the officers and crew of the Mohawk as well – sea sick and all.

Please remember the sacrifices of our military, law enforcement, and rescue professionals that work this special day and other holidays, without the companionship of family and loved ones.

Novmeber 2014 column

True sonar navigaion is now available

It is very uncommon in the maritime domain to ever connect those two words together in a sentence.  Sonar, in its current form and use, is primarily for fish finding, giving incredibly detailed, panoramic views of the bottom directly below your vessel with a wide variety of options and multi-function displays. It is considered of vital importance to a successful sport fishing trip with ability to gather and apply this information.  Bottom line is: what is beneath your vessel in the unseen depths has always been a mystery when underway. Sonar is giving the boater the ability to see what lies directly below and to the sides … only when the vessel is stopped or proceeding very slow through the water. That translates to underwater information after your vessel has moved over the position it is recording. 
There is one single element –  and remarkable difference and capability – that separates the normal retail version of sonar technology from a considerable advancement in underwater sensors now available to all mariners called Forward Scan. This forward-thinking technology provides the ability to quickly gather, process, and graphically display information below the surface of the water ahead of the vessel. Something once only reserved for naval and other military use, this one specific distinction will forever change the way sonar is perceived and utilized in pleasure, and even commercial, boating. This capability expands the sensor from real time to something considerably more valuable and useful – navigation.

By definition covers most of the aspects of this science but one: the profound feature of looking ahead, sub-surface while moving through the water, is something extraordinary that could deliver the final advantage to the science of safe navigation.

Complimenting both sail and motor vessels, operators will possess the capability to see obstructions, shallows and other dangers that are ahead of them by as much as eight times the depth of the water they are operating in. That particular, unique change makes this sensor vitally useful and significant. Grounding and floundering are common in unfamiliar waters, sometimes even when the GPS chart is showing a different picture from the satellite.  Technology application for agencies to use in search and recovery and other operations makes this attribute of sonar a real game changer when it comes to information gathering and processing.  Safe navigation is based on the premise that there is adequate water beneath the keel to allow the vessel to move about. Now, there is a way to get that very same knowledge before you reach that position, providing an effective window ahead of you to accurately pilot and assess hidden dangers, making it now a viable component of navigation – Sonar Navigation.

Knowledge is essential to safe boating. To vividly see what lies before you, underneath the surface, out of normal sight, can make a huge positive impact on your navigation success, the primary ingredient to your great pleasure boating experience each and every time.

October 2014 column

The boater's best friend - Title 33

So what is Title 33? It is the section of the code of federal regulation that governs vessels on the navigable waters, also known as: Navigation Rules of the Road, Sometimes similar to driving rules of the road for vehicles and possibly for that very same reason it is sometimes misinterpreted, causing boating incidents and close calls with other vessels underway. The premise for these famous guidelines made into law by Congress in the mid 1970s are to prevent maritime collisions.  

Everything else in the book is satellite and tethered to that core.  At first glance it is almost overwhelming with all the chapters, addendums, format, and the style of which it is written. Actually by design, that is the genius behind this book and if the rules are instructed properly and learned effectively, can make a huge positive impact to your safety on the water.

Do you think a brief introduction to the navigation rules will afford the knowledge to grasp and apply the sometimes complicated regulations correctly? It is a tremendous benefit to have that introductory training but it is also sometimes not sufficient or complete enough. Can you imagine driving your vehicle without understanding the roadway rules? The one profound question you would be constantly asking: Does the other driver know them as well or even at all? Another name and description for that mindset is defensive driving. Boating is no different and you sometimes may wonder how many vessel operators really know how to safely interact with one another. Correctly comprehending and applying the navigation rules is actually more difficult because of the limited amount of time spent on the water as compared to driving a vehicle.
Memory graphics are but one of many methods and systems of learning the navigation rules. As I have witnessed first-hand, countless times, memorizing the two page system has tremendous value to taking the actual USCG license rules exam and in addition serves to really give a more thorough understanding and application, both elements necessary to avoid marine dangers, especially collision. To obtain this level of insight it requires a proficient instructor and mentor to convey the knowledge in proper format and form.

No matter which learning system or course syllabus you prefer, the time component of attending classes can take a lot of coordination. Increments of two days is just long enough to obtain the best foundation. The training is not too brief and at the same time professionally developed and delivered to the standard required for the license. This investment in boating education is probably the most valuable in terms of long term benefit and reducing risk. Think of it this way – advanced technology has overtaken most everything we do on a boat except for one very important area – how to interact with other boats and avoid collision. Radar, FLIR, GPS and other advances make the operation of your boat easier and more efficient but it does not replace the need to make correct decisions.

Increase in overall confidence, ability, and awareness of risks all share in the reward and benefit of really knowing the Rules of the Road. I invite you to consider the advantages and contact me if you want to know more on how you can improve your boating safety and master the knowledge contained in Title 33.

September 2014 column

Settling aside time for marine training

One primary consideration when it comes to marine training is finding the time to attend courses. If you desire a USCG license most mariners would whole heartily agree it is a challenge at best to devote not only numerous hours of class time, but factor in the study period and testing. The brief one-day boating safety or state license training is informative and also a huge benefit because of the introductory knowledge – but is it complete? The question is not whether you want, or need the training, it is a matter of when you can fit the event into your busy schedule.  There are a few significant ways to make these investments in time pay better dividends. The following ideas are presented for your consideration:

Hands on training with a competent boat handler. This would initially appear to add time and cost to your objective. The connection and application of knowledge when acquiring a new skill makes this method absolutely outstanding when it comes to final results.  Couple the classroom introduction to actual demonstration ultimately establishes long term benefits. A remarkable change in confidence also occurs that can have widespread and positive effect to boating safety, the student now becomes the teacher. Showing people “How To” is rewarding from both sides of the equation and serves to greatly increase ability.  

Where time is actually saved in this method is to intentionally make each trip on the water a training refresher for something. There are plenty of topics to choose from: voyage planning, safety brief, life-jackets, person-overboard, cold water dangers, proper navigation, and understanding the Rules of the Road to name a few. Best of all it can be factored into your boating day in a very brief and efficient manner. Plans later this season are to bring to the lake recently retired USCG experts to demonstrate and instruct how to handle and operate your vessel like the pros.  Additional information and dates can be found in the classifieds section of this publication, both on-line and paper editions.

Want to obtain a USCG Captain’s license? Many ask me, “Why, what are the benefits?” Increase of ability and confidence are the prime ones. Getting a license to carry passengers for hire is not for everyone and can be time consuming. Development of basic navigation methods and understanding of collision avoidance rules provide immediate value and reduction in insurance, depending on your carrier. There are three ways to undertake this type of mariner training:

  • In-class – Requires a minimum of 40 hours of presentation with additional study and testing
  • Blended – USCG approved course delivery system that incorporates both online method with an in-class portion for the difficult subjects such as Charting and Rules of the Road
  • Online – All four sections of the Captain’s course and upgrade to Master 100 Ton if desired.  Optional tutorial, webinar or in-person seminars available to help prepare for the examination.

Safe boating is contingent on proper education. There are a wide variety of courses and instruction available in many different forms, delivered by some of the best organizations and people in the business, each having particular usefulness to meet your goals, ultimately improving the overall experience on the water. The secret to knowledge and increased proficiency in boating is to invest time in training, small amounts at frequent intervals that produces lasting success. It all serves one basic core principle … increased boating safety for everyone.

August 2014 column

Does boating safety training really work?

Seeing a video, taking a class and the written test that follows, are great for boaters to improve their knowledge base, general experience on the water, and make it a much safer place. There is one very important component not determined in that form of instruction: how you translate and apply that information. Proficiency of these new-found boating skills can only be honed by practice, and lots of it. Now that Georgia requires some form of education is a great enhancement, especially awareness to marine hazards, the guidelines and laws in place to protect boaters and everyone else out on the water.

The question – related to this required training – does it work? Like any other task we perform, to properly apply the “new” knowledge, there must be some form of repetitious training. To understand a skill, especially operating a watercraft, there are a lot of things to consider and master. Sitting in a class, taking a test mainly functions as an introduction to the subject. Some of the elements of this type of syllabus are common sense and is extremely useful. Other sections of the training concentrate on a much abbreviated overview to collision avoidance, maneuvering, and safety. Basic boating education does serve a purpose because it creates awareness.
Improving boating safety is a challenging and significant objective. Education, license or certification will serve your overall needs.

I recommend it also be your goal to learn and benefit from the experience of others, some of whom are maritime professionals that are highly skillful in subjects such as docking and undocking, how to effectively use your electronics, learn how to recover man overboard, and other underway abilities. Classroom training and testing is still very integral to this required knowledge but hands-on training is the final touch to refine the necessary skill sets.   Performing the task with mentoring from an expert boat operator delivers the best results and has lasting impression and understanding. If you want to discover more about this innovative and proven type of training technique please contact me.

There are numerous schools, agencies, and specialists that deliver boater training at various levels, offer advice, and explain what needs to be done to operate your vessel. All of these institutions and methods open the door to initial understanding only. Effective, long term learning and improved performance can only be accomplished by practical training. There are countless sources you can search online for approved training courses and other methods that can produce a positive result.  Awareness of what is required to safely operate your vessel compared to actually performing the task is only one step away from realization. The real secret to successful learning is to experience the actual environment either by high tech simulation or by the scenario itself. I recommend you take the classes, get the certification, and consider completing the total training process by practice and effort with someone with an expert instructor. It will increase your boating enjoyment by advancing the ultimate goal of improved boating safety, substantially reducing incidents, and saving lives.  

A transfer of experience by hands-on training is the key to success in boating education.
It works!

July 2014 column

An overview of the global positioning system

When was the last time you heard someone say the words: Global Positioning System? GPS, as it is universally known and understood, is such a widespread technology in just about anything we do and yet in relative terms of time, it is a recent introduction to the private boat market. A few years past, getting a satellite fix was considered marginal and had to be checked and verified for safe navigation purposes. I often had to rely on other forms of navigation to transit the oceans and coastal waters: visual piloting, Loran, even celestial. In April of this year, NOAA ceased printing paper charts. This action drew hundreds, if not thousands of comments from all sorts of media and people touting the end of an era. The older form of paper charts can still be purchased but the product is substantially different in texture and not as sturdy as the others.

What are the benefits of our current system of GPS charts and navigation? Superior speed and accuracy are the primary gains to boating safety and operation. The new charts are available in many different forms and styles: 3D, Google Earth, underwater cartography, satellite weather information and other advances too numerous to list in this article. There is one important part of this new technology that should be understood and applied when using these forms of charts for navigation as they are not updated … unless the system possesses the capability to automatically revise, connect to the cloud or satellite, a requirement by international law for all commercial and military vessels known as ECDIS, Electronic Charting Display Information System. The argument to that profound difference in GPS chart navigation capability by private boaters is that most navigation markers and hazards do not change in a year or two. That can also be proven subjective to individual interpretation. A specific example: the recent shore devastation from Sandy.

GPS and electronic charts are rapidly changing all forms of transportation, especially boating, into nearly 100 percent reliance on satellite connection. Here’s a recommendation for all of you using GPS chart systems: learn all the advantages of the technology such as waypoint management, POI (points of interest), underwater cartography, 3D, and other presentation view capabilities. With these innovations, and the understanding on how to utilize them to their maximum potential, the system will deliver a much safer and boating navigation experience. Each manufacturer has numerous websites and written media that offer important details to any function and operation of your specific system. Gathering, processing, and evaluating information is as easy as pressing a few buttons, vivid and detailed presentation in HD, recordable for future reference, and even shared in the cloud with others if you desire through technologies such as Insight Genesis.  

The paper chart has been replaced with superior advanced technology and yet the knowledge to perform navigation by manual plotting methods is still a main requirement for USCG licenses of all levels and scope. Learning paper charting and visual piloting would add value to your skill as a boat handler and navigator, while at the same time increasing your perception of GPS charting and how those advantages can give you the edge in any situation.

Regardless which method of navigation you prefer, conventional or advanced electronic, GPS will diligently watch over all of us as we travel on the water. Accuracy, speed, and presentation capability has changed the very nature of this task.

June 2014 column

The clear picture - voyage planning

Everyone makes plans. A common theme in just about anything you do. Safe boating is especially reliant on accurate preparation. There are three questions that need the correct answer and consideration in order to prepare for a trip on the water … Where are you going? What will you see along the way? What time are you going to arrive? The core basic foundation to any successful and safe voyage is to always plan ahead. Even going out for just a few days or less, benefits from this essential action. Before departing on a patrol or voyage my duty as navigator was to prepare, with meticulous detail, the answers to these questions. Normal process utilized books such as Coast Pilot which provides valuable and detailed information as to fuel docks, pilotage, anchoring locations and many other very important facts and details to aid in the journey. Other nautical resources such as Light List and Tide/Current Tables would accurately describe all lights and other aids to navigation, and the specific conditions of the water at any given time or date.  Navigation charts to be used where inspected, corrected and waypoints added to forecast the route. The fact is, voyage planning is one of the extremely important components of your trip for a very wide variety of reasons, none as important as passenger, crew, and vessel safety.

There are countless methods to accomplish this important task and one of the latest developments in advanced marine navigation systems is called Insight Planner. The technology effectively and quickly enables gathering, processing, and evaluating this crucial information from your personal computer for such things as route planning, Points of Interest (POI), navigation hazards, local regulations, buoyage and other details that once took numerous hours to accurately collate. Chart inputs from a wide variety of sources, including NOAA, are available to use and can give extreme detail to further provide safe passages for travel on the water. After all the research and organization of this data you can download it to an SD card and input into your navigation multi-function display on your boat. The important information is at your fingertips for immediate use when you need it. Possessing the capability to gather and transfer this vast amount of knowledge through the cloud and other media is a great leap in marine electronics technology. It will forever change the way we prepare, and as an added benefit can also serve to provide others your intended route, just in case there is an emergency.   

Going out for a day on the lake?  Voyage planning is not just designed and intended for long distance travel. Used properly it can make your experience on the water much safer and enjoyable when you include details such as weather forecast, lake levels, fuel, water temps, and any other data. Local knowledge is also helpful and recommended when you venture into an area for the first time. Study the chart and take note of the visual landmarks, hazards, and navigational aids, if any. This information can be entered into your voyage planner with this technology and used for future trips.

Interested in discovering more about voyage planning? Please email for more details on all different types of preparation methods, both conventional and advanced.  Surprises on the water are no fun … plan ahead.

May 2014 column

The clear picture - spotlight

Sonar is defined as a system for detecting underwater objects through the use of sound waves transmitted through the water. Wikipedia also offers the basic definition and explanation of the sensor as applied to commercial and military vessels. Do you ever wonder what is below you while you travel on the water? It is one of the most important parts of your journey – to avoid the shallows – and sonar not only informs you of the depth, it can open your eyes to what it actually looks like down there on the bottom in detail.

Spotlight is a ship search device normally located on the wings of a navigation bridge or top of a cabin on a commercial, public service, and military vessel. It also has another meaning – the name of one of the best improvements in sonar that is now available to private boaters and fishing enthusiasts.  The valuable advantage of this specific type of sonar is ingenuously produced and can be measured in a very straightforward way: by the distance from the transom to the bow of your boat. Sometimes even closer if the transducer is mounted on the mid hull position.

Here’s the significant difference: on most sonar systems the part of the sensor that sends the signal, the transducer, is normally located at the transom, under or thru the hull.  The real time information on your multi-function display is showing what is directly beneath and behind you.

Spotlight transducer is mounted ahead of the boat on a trolling motor. This type of sonar can look ahead in small sectors or even a 360 degree pattern that can be adjusted to suit your needs. Add the down scan capability and extremely vivid, complete, views of the underwater world are possible with this advanced technology.  Graphics so intense it’s like standing next to the object or on the bottom yourself. All this important information, no matter what the application such as fishing or search and recovery, is recordable and can now even be stored in the cloud and retrieved on demand thanks to another resourceful advancement made possible by Insight Genesis which will be discussed in much greater detail in future articles of this series on advanced marine electronics.

The ability to see what is before you, as compared to what is directly beneath you, is remarkable in so many ways. This is a vast improvement, a real game changer and advancement when it comes to using sonar in the marine environment. The position of the sonar transducer is what makes it so unique and effective. By innovation and creative design, the technology answers two questions we sometimes ask when on the water: what is ahead of me beneath the surface and what does it look like?

Advanced electronics are changing the way we move about and operate while underway.  Discovering the capability and learning how to use these modernizations will make your boating day better and safer. For more details about this technology and other advanced electronics sensors and systems please contact me.  

One of the best quotes that has relevance to the unique capability of Spotlight sonar and other particular aspects of boating: “Don’t look back, you’re not going that way … ”

April 2014 column

The clear picture - provided by radar

Advanced electronic navigation systems provide quick access of information and graphics to support actions and decisions for safe navigation  As far as sensors such as radar, radio, and sonar, they are mostly created from the same science, each manufacturer developing their own interpretation of gathering and presenting data for the operator’s use. Technology has propelled us into many options: infrared, radar, sonar, radio, satellite communications, and even google earth type 3D mapping, replacing the conventional cartography found on paper charts or booklets.

In this issue I’m introducing a new series of articles about advanced electronics systems and how they can greatly enhance and benefit your under way experience. I hope to deliver knowledge and a general introduction about these innovations in marine electronics, maximizing their effectiveness to serve the boater. Beginning with radar, followed by other technologies such as sonar, GPS charting, cloud based mapping, radio, satellite weather, infrared optics, and other systems expertly crafted by professional engineers to deliver immediate, reliable, and valuable information.   

Radar first appeared in the 1940s as a detection system for Britain and America during WWII. The name “Radar” was coined during that period of time by the U.S. Navy and is an acronym for Radio Detection and Ranging. It is undoubtedly considered one of the most important of sensors for commercial and military vessels and is titled specifically in the navigation Rules of the Road as a device to assess Risk of Collision. The technology has transformed through very dynamic improvements over the years, not only for military and commercial applications, it provides safety for pleasure boaters, especially in collision avoidance.

The newest form of radar on the market is a system called Broadband Radar. It currently comes in two versions: 3G and 4G.  Without a magnetron to generate the pulse in the radar, it greatly reduces radiation hazard making it much safer for persons being in close proximity to the antennae, comparable to the power output of a cell phone. With maximum visibility of over 30 miles, its critical advantage is the ability to see clearly at very close ranges (up to a few meters).

Some commercial functions include counter-piracy and docking of large ships, giving the pilot a very clear image and accurate proximity for initial landing of the vessel alongside a pier.  Collision avoidance becomes less of a challenging task with the broadband radar’s clear view though sea clutter and rain, both very much a negative factor and interference to conventional magnetron pulse radars. Other important applications such as man overboard and search and rescue benefit from this sensitive and accurate instrument. The bottom line when it comes to radar … is the ability to clearly see close proximity to your vessel in any adverse weather and visibility condition, exactly the area where collision danger and risk reside.

My recommendation is to embrace and learn the operation of this technology, benefit from its great advantages, thereby improving the overall boating experience.  Navigating in low visibility is always a demanding skill and radar provides the needed information for these aspects of safe underway operations. Learning and practicing to use radar in clear visibility and daytime hours will prepare you for when the situation changes, and you need it most.

March 2014 column

Where are you?

A part of the definition for responsible navigation is: the person in charge of a underway vessel  should be able to quickly and with reasonable accuracy give their approximate location at all times without regard to navigation systems and other piloting methods.  In order to know your geographic location and becoming proficient in the science of navigation you need to first estimate your position … a process called dead reckoning. We all do it each and every time we drive our vehicles. Familiar landmarks, intersections, and driving experience serve as our guide. The same holds true for boating. Some of you develop and master electronic navigation skills to deliver the desired information. Keeping the unexpected in mind, what do you do when the power goes out or the system fails? If the answer is “I don’t know” then you are just one moment away from an unwanted marine situation. These problems can come in a wide assortment of conditions: grounding, collision, and many others all stemming from one element – incorrect navigation or lack thereof.

As published last year by the federal government, NOAA will cease printing paper charts in April 2014. Most don’t use this form of mapping but it is still mandated for license and one of the required back-ups for the newer Electronic Charting Display Information Systems ECDIS found on larger vessels. The charts you have on your GPS devices are lacking one important aspect, they are NOT updated. There is an advanced technology on the market that offers up to date, almost real time underwater charts through the use of the “cloud” and that is called Insight Genesis.

Through a network of boaters that record and download the data you can pull the specific area you need and overlay it with your current charts depending on the system you are using.  Extremely valuable for sport fishing, it also has application to other safe navigation utilities, especially underwater cartography. The technology also provides a broad range of voyage planning services and local knowledge of charting routes and destinations.

Back in focus of proper navigation: you should never rely one just one source of information. I highly recommend the practice of using paper or booklet charts and get visually familiar with your surroundings, becoming more of a pilot than an operator. The very core of being an effective navigator is to know where you are going, what you will see along the way, and what time you will get there.  

With practice and experience comes more precise estimation.  The ability to do that task delivers many benefits to you, especially the aptitude to look ahead and predict what will happen as the result of your actions. This can only be achieved with utilizing multiple information sources and measuring the results. This comparison provides the confidence needed to make the correct decisions and become more aware of potential hazards well before they develop.

Think of this question often when on the water, “Where are you?” It will make a positive difference in your boating experience and to others that enjoy the lake.

February 2014 column

Advantages fo electronic navigation

The art of navigation has drastically transformed over the past decades. Gone are the common use of sextants to calculate position from a celestial body, old fashioned radars that required the operator to plot geometry on paper or directly on the screen to obtain the needed information, and the USCG operated Loran navigation system. Paper charts are even showing the sign of the times with NOAA set to discontinue printing this year. In regards to the disappearing paper charts, given my current duties as a USCG license instructor and testing proctor, I am confident the knowledge of how to do that specific task will still be required to obtain credentials and license for the foreseeable future.

The use of advanced electronics is common, an integral part of all types of boating. The bottom line benefit of these technologies, whether for pleasure, sport, commercial, and government is to provide accurate data you can use to make evaluations and take appropriate action. It expedites the flow of information, presents it in an easy to understand graphic format, and delivers a window of time to make correct decisions.

GPS is common in many things we now enjoy in our everyday lives, none more than navigation.  Add the new types of electronic charts, vessel ID systems called AIS, even broadband radar, and you see a revolution in sensors is here for boaters to use.

Sonar, a critical component to understanding total surroundings, is now used for much more than fish finding or depth reading. Through innovative systems that utilize the cloud such as Insight Genesis or even forward looking sector scan sonars called Spotlight, what is beneath your vessel is now extremely viewable and recordable.  

Electronic Navigation is a common theme and process, one that is definitely here to stay. My recommendation is to know how to properly use it while at the same time keeping your proficiency with more conventional methods such as reading a magnetic compass, surveying a paper chart or booklet, and of course the one that is the most important: visual piloting.  Nothing replaces the burden for you in the navigation rules to make correct decisions when you are underway using all available means. By understanding the basics you make the most of the numerous advantages in electronic navigation. Everything becomes more in sync and enhances boating safety by increasing awareness and confidence in navigation.

Throughout 2014 there will be short training seminars offered through Safe Boating Lake Lanier and production the “3 Hour Tour” at various locations around the lake. The mission is to deliver easy to understand skill sets to enable a connection between technology and conventional methods. Serving in both realms – Navico Pro Staff for marine electronics coupled with current USCG instructor duties – the forum helps deliver part of the core goal of everything in marine education, safer boating. Schedule dates and locations to be published on and other media outlets.

Sincerely look forward to another great year on the lake and the opportunity to help progress boating safety for everyone.

January 2014 column

The speed (and safety) of light

Out for a day of fun filled adventure on the water, the lake packed with all types of boats and watercraft traveling in many different directions and speeds. By mid-day the not so calm surface is covered with wake, and sometimes wind driven waves, the whole scene looking more, and even feeling, like a near coastal sea with a moderate fetch, rocking and pounding. This in turn sometimes makes it difficult to discern the actual movement or path of close by, approaching vessels.

It is reasonable to say some of those boaters in your near vicinity are new to the lake, some out there for the first time, enjoying the thrill of a fast moving and highly maneuverable PWC or speed boat.  Which ones do you need to be watchful of? That is a profound question that is extremely difficult to answer. Not all mariners you encounter on the water are just as aware of collision dangers and overall boating safety as you are.  

If there was a very effective and inexpensive way to improve your collision avoidance protection and safety would you consider using it? The premise is simple: a bright light illuminates when your vessel slows down, the very same warning message produced by brake lights for vehicles on the roads.

There’s nothing faster than the speed of light to effectively communicate and give warning or caution. For example, look at emergency and law enforcement vehicles. They can be seen for great distances by approaching vehicles, day or night time. Now let’s consider the required navigation lights for all boats, each of which communicate volumes of critical information to the observing vessel. Contrast and intensity is the key to the effectiveness of this form of communication which conveys one very direct and important message … You are slowing down!

When approaching a vessel from astern, the ability to accurately calculate bearing drift and distance, both very important elements of collision avoidance, are difficult to accomplish. The resulting increase of risk of collision is a hazard to always avoid. The real objective is to identify the danger even before it develops into a threat. With this warning light, the approaching vessel is notified of your speed reduction. It’s almost like looking ahead quickly for a brief fraction of time and precisely assessing the developing situation.  No one intends to have a collision. They occur because of errors in communication, observation, and judgment.  

Marine Alert System is an additional LED display that can easily be affixed to the transom or rear position on your engine. The intense bright and visually loud amber colored light is small, yet extremely noticeable when properly mounted. Imagine communicating this one significant piece of information to everyone around you. No radio or cell phone call, no waving of arms or yelling; it is an extra security zone around your vessel making others aware of your position and actions. This device is powered by very innovative and effective technology, using G-force as its trigger and not the engine rpm or vessel speed. The amber light can make a tremendous difference in avoiding a collision and give you more peace of mind out on the water.  

Please contact me if you have questions and would like to know more about this system and how it can help reduce risk of collision improving safety for everyone – at the speed of light.

December 2013 column

It's almost the 'real thing'

Outbound from Norfolk, VA near Thimble Shoal on a 378’ Hamilton Class Coast Guard Cutter. The sun was nearing twilight, setting to the west with a clear night approaching, winds out of the NE producing moderate swells indicating an even larger sea outside the channel in the Atlantic.  On this voyage I was assigned the duties as pilot and navigator, along with my navigation crew to safely transit to open sea. Off in the distance near green buoy #19 marking the turn at Thimble Shoals I could clearly see a very large and loaded container ship, the M.V. Vermass, slightly to the right, inbound. Our situation would be meeting, passing port to port, both vessels keeping to the appropriate side of the channel, a standard maneuver required by the Rules of the Road. 

Observing my Electronic Charting Display Information System (ECDIS), the new requirement of the international maritime law for commercial vessels, there was a possibility of passing this monster right in the middle of a turn which is not good seamanship and extremely dangerous. Backing off the throttle, I slowed my ship to five knots, making her above bare steerageway and able to quickly apply power to maneuver when needed. As the distance between our ships swiftly diminished, the anticipated bearing drift to the left indicating a safe passage, did not appear, and the Vermass was now showing Not Under Command lights. Instead, a steady bearing and now rapidly decreasing range was developing extremis and eventually collision without immediate action! My first order to the helm was come hard about to starboard and ahead full on the port engine and all back full on the starboard.  That would produce a twisting to the right motion and reduce the broad angle of impact. Seconds felt like an eternity as the enormous uncontrolled ship neared our vessel, collision imminent, bracing for impact. The view from the large windows of my navigation bridge were totally filled with a black and rusty mass of the Vermass hull and I suddenly heard a scraping noise, not the anticipated hard jolt and sound of crunching steel. The cutter had twisted around, the very pointed end of the bow barely touching the still fast moving container ship. Quick inspection of all the controls and engines of my ship were performed and we then came about to provide rescue and aid to the stricken container vessel, now grounded outside the channel. Exhausted and emotionally drained, and the whole evolution only lasted 25 minutes, a brief period of time that will never be forgotten.   

No news channels will cover this story, nor will the USCG investigate as this was all made possible with virtual reality produced in an advanced high tech simulator. Sea School Mobile ( has just completed installation of the latest technology for navigation simulation VSTEP Nautis ( and will be offering training assessments to mariners.

Every detailed aspect of the vessels, the weather, time of day, type of ship or boat, body of water, navigation electronics, charting, and other important systems can be controlled and recorded for training and assessment. This is the educational connection critically needed to master the skill by adding emotions and creating the need for quick response. Total immersion enabled the feeling of actually being there and added the component of evaluation to correct any problems.  

What would you do if faced with an emergency situation while underway that required an immediate decision and action? There are only two ways to find out and I am confident everyone that enjoys boating would much prefer the simulation to the incident. Contact me for more information on how virtual reality simulation can greatly improve boating safety. It’s almost the real thing.

November 2013 column

Rule No. 8 - Action to Avoid Collision explained

This is the next to the last column in a series focusing on navigation rules. Lakeside incorrectly published the final installment in the October issue. If you missed the final column it can be found below.

Taking action to avoid a collision or to reduce the risk of one is basically the process of three tasks performed in this sequence:
• Gather from various sources visual, hearing, conventional and electronic navigation
• Process the information
• Evaluate whether a danger or risk of collision before deciding on what action to take.

In Rule 8 it is very clearly stated that if you still need more time to make an assessment on what to do then you are to slacken your speed, stop, or reverse to allow for that to happen.
The pages that contain this rule are filled with directives, for example:
• A substantial turn is preferred –  This will give a visual cue and become “readily apparent” to the other vessel that you are taking action
• Your action to avoid does not produce risk of collision with another vessel in close proximity
• Action shall be made “positive and in ample time” to avoid a close quarters situation.

All of this sounds very simple to learn. The real challenge is to interpret the situation accurately and stay slightly ahead of the unfolding scenario by visualizing the possible outcomes. Excessive speed, especially in unknown waters and congested areas, is the main culprit for collisions.

In the navigation rules the obligation to comply includes not only the give-way vessel but the stand-on one as well and is explained in fine detail in other parts of the regulation. If you as operator of your boat, feel that the action by the give-way vessel is not adequate enough to avoid collision then you are required to take immediate action to avoid. This requirement of action on your part directs the focus to one specific question you should always ask when underway and involved in a Rules of the Road situation: Will the other vessel take proper action to avoid collision?

That is difficult to answer correctly and as a skilled and knowledgeable boater you should be prepared to take action just in case the other vessel does not. Action of the person in charge of a moving watercraft, as explained in this navigation rule, is basic common sense.

October 2013 column

You'll know when it's time to make the right decision

Wanted to close out this series on the navigation rules with some practical ideas on how to remember this sometimes complicated subject. We have traveled a long distance covering the foundation and basic points of the fine art of collision avoidance. With countless methods on the market to teach the laws you can choose which one is best for your needs. Mariners desiring to get a USCG license should consider in-class instruction. It takes about 40 hours of study and concentration to prepare for the paper exam, with normally three times that amount of time on the water to begin to feel comfortable in any type of situation. After all the bottom line is to be able to make the correct decision, at the right time, with confidence! To discover if a license is what you need please log on to the USCG National Maritime Center

The method of remembering I urge you to consider revolves around duplicating a series of pictures and short phrases to master the key points of the rules of the road. From only two blank pieces of copy paper you can construct this valuable diagram consisting of 11 boxes drawn in a sequential order, repetitiously until you master them without error. This helps by:

• Visual recall of the rules; improves passing scores and total understanding
• Blank “scratch paper” is allowed in the testing room
• Graphics and word phrases serve as memory anchors for all the rules
• Long term and positive results
• Takes an average of 10 hours to learn, with practice
• Compliments all types of course syllabus; classroom, online, and short seminars
• Not only pass the exam but remember how to successfully use that knowledge and avoid danger.

Speaking from experience in marine training both as a student and instructor, true mastery of a task is best accomplished with a visual method of learning. There is no substitute for hands-on proficiency, adding emotion and visualization brings you ahead of the curve and able to sense danger even before it presents itself. This brief period of time for assessment makes the difference between reaction and prevention, with the latter the much preferred result.

To receive a copy of the two page memory graphic please contact me by email and I will send it online in a PDF attachment. For more information and details on how to use the memory guide please register at for an informative online live seminar. Scheduled dates will be posted on the site by December.

It’s not how much information can be successfully learned, what company or organization that is instructing, the cost or duration of the syllabus, it’s what you do with the knowledge … “when the time comes.”

September 2013 column

Explaining Rule 7 - The risk of collision

At this point in the series on navigation rules I want to change up the delivery a bit and present a simpler way to understand and become confident with applying the law in any situation. The best approach to master the rules and apply them with confidence is to visualize various scenarios that could happen when meeting another vessel. Coming from a different facet of the maritime world, the major thing that caught my attention on the lake was the difference in water conditions, the volume of traffic during peak times, and miles upon miles of similar looking shoreline. As a professional navigator I sincerely appreciate what it takes to become familiar with this beautiful lake. It can demand all your attention to ensure you have a good boating day on the water without incident. Conventional wisdom suggests boaters attend classes, some with a minimum of 16 hours of classroom training in order to get the basic understanding of the navigation rules. All would agree, reading and passing an examination is only the beginning of the process to understanding the rules. The biggest threat out on the water is not the depth, amount of traffic, time of day, condition of the weather and water … it is the operator, the person in charge.  

Rule 7, both International and Inland is about a half page of directions on how to assess the risk. Those of you that have taken a Rules of the Road course or exam can attest it is extremely difficult to recall all the exact components of the 38 rules that comprise over 200 pages of the book.

The bottom line in Rule 7: Risk of Collision always exists whether from another vessel, grounding, or near the dock and it’s your job to correctly decipher and interpret what you see as driver of the vessel.  

Here’s the answer to this task: If the object you are looking at does not move laterally, also known as bearing drift, or does have “Steady Bearing Decreasing Range” then Risk of Collision is present.    The simple initial action to reduce the chance of that situation developing is to SLOW DOWN.  That will be further discussed in the next article in the series; Rule 8 - Action to Avoid Collision.

There is a very innovative and proven method in learning the Rules of the Road. The key to recall is to visualize the information in a graphic format. Not referring to a photographic memory but remembering pictures that have profound meaning in a set order. Based on the premise, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” you can master the navigation rules using this system with outstanding results! This method does not utilize flash cards or diagrams in a book but a very direct, formatted approach employing graphic images. This process has resulted in greatly improving the passing rate of the rules exam and even more importantly, total understanding.

Boating education comes in many different packages delivered by some of the best instructors in the business. Consider the benefits of attending a training seminar. If you would like to explore more about boating education please email me.

August 2013 column

Collision avoidance rule 2 - responsibility

A contributing factor in some marine collisions or near misses is the misguide

Copyright © 2011 Lakeside News. Internet Marketing Company: Full Media