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Aug. 25, 2019
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Steve Johnson's Boating Safety

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?

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

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.

March 2019 column

Cold water boating safety

Located on advanced marine multi-function displays there is a button labeled MOB which stands for Man Overboard. The alert position is specifically designed to mark the exact position of someone that has fallen into the water on a GPS chart enabling the boat operator to make a speedy recovery, especially in cold water conditions. Hyperthermia is very dangerous and can lead to tragedy. Required by maritime rules, commercial licensed and military mariners practice this scenario often to constantly hone the necessary skills to perform this maneuver in any weather or sea condition. 
There are three different maneuvers or “turns” to accomplish that primary objective of a quick return:
Williamson Turn
For those of you that have taken boating and license courses the “Williamson Turn” is introduced as a maneuver to go back to the exact location where the person went overboard and retrace the path of the vessel on a reciprocal course. Its chief advantage is to return to that position accurately in any condition of visibility or sea state.
Anderson Turn
In calmer waters, especially the lake, making a round turn or “Anderson Turn” would enable you to return to the position quickly. The main value of this recovery method is a reduction in time to on-scene and is easier to perform with smaller vessels. As a boat operator you should always employ situational awareness and if this event did occur you would immediately know safe turning areas to use. Approaching from this method would also allow you to maneuver up-wind to the person in the water, which is the best and safest way to pick-up. 
Scharnow Turn
A sometimes even quicker maneuver to return to the MOB position, depending on the size and design of the vessel, is to execute a “Scharnow Turn.” As you will see from the website graphic it is a quick rotation of 240 degrees and also absolutely requires having the person that is overboard in sight at all times. Beware, during the change of heading there is sometimes the tendency to lose geographical orientation. The datum mark on the GPS chart will help guide if you are so equipped but visual contact is even more important and crucial to a quick, successful rescue.
These three turns are just a few examples of the process to assist in MOB. More importantly is that you have a plan and practice enough for it to become as second nature. Think about taking a boating safety class this year from the USCG Auxiliary or the Power Squadron. Other local venues of boating education and professional license can also effectively assist you to develop your skills as a mariner. Please contact me if you would like to learn more. 
For more info on these turns: or simply search for the terms on the web. 
Lake waters are a hyperthermia hazard and will remain so for a few more weeks. Cold water boating brings a different set of considerations and awareness to your experience. With proper preparation and training it can make for a great time on the water!

February 2019 column

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.
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