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Nov. 29, 2015
9:33 pm


Steve Johnson's Boating Safety

Traveling the Straits of Florida to the 'hidden' country

The beautiful island of Cuba is on the distant horizon, invisible from view, but is a mere 90 miles from the closest land in the USA, the “Southern Most Point” of Key West. As you visually scan over the sea from that location it appears it would not be much effort to cross over. Looks can be deceiving in this case as the route you must take will pass through one of the most unique and challenging bodies of water you will ever encounter.  

A “River in the Sea” as it is sometimes referred to, the Gulf Stream, is a powerful current that rapidly flows Northeast through the Straits of Florida. At times it can be a beautifully calm and serene place. Other times it is just this side of a full blown, “peril at sea” disaster. Especially when tropical storms and hurricanes, are transiting or forming near its warm core.  

There are even occasions when a clear blue sky appears extremely odd and contrast against a raging short swell, high, steep waves generated by winds coming from the northeast opposing the flow of the current. Depending on your departure point this can make a huge difference while underway and a more comfortable, safer ride as you plow through the waves when the seas are rough.

Suddenly 90 miles becomes a much longer excursion than originally conceived and planned. Not that the weather can be the only factor, add the sometimes heavy traffic of all types of vessels as they transit through the Straits bound for their destination. You will almost certainly be faced with the need to interact with other vessels moving in all directions, speeds, and sizes. This is when knowledge of the navigation rules really pays off! This new port of call destination is going to be an interesting time for the Florida Straits when boaters from the USA begin the journey south from nearby places on the Gulf and Southeast Coast.  

Make sure you are ready. Have the proper communication, charting capability, life jackets, and most of all, the complete ability to react in times of emergency and danger. The island is close in distance, yet the path there is full of adventure and challenge as you cross the Straits of Florida.

Those of you that have USCG licenses and are considering going to Cuba with a small vessel should consider upgrading to Master, the next level from Operator Uninspected Passenger Vessel (OUPV) and also include the STCW License called Basic Safety if you plan to carry passengers for hire. There will soon be a rush of license applications for those mariners that want to professionally serve as Master or just improve their total safety knowledge in this realm for their private craft.

Please contact me if you want to discover the many different ways you can prepare for the Straits of Florida.  What waits on the other side is well worth the effort ... an island hidden in full view for the past 50 years.

The basis for this month’s entry of Lessons Learned is achieving the ability to voyage plan and practice for the challenges that are ahead when underway through a wide variety of educational and certification sources. No matter where you journey, this knowledge will vastly improve your experience and security.

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

October 2015 column

So what's the difference between 'Beware vs. Be Aware?'

The headline’s phrase contains similar sounding words if you say them fast enough with one extra letter and the space in between.   They are somewhat related in definition but that is far from reality when it comes to boating safety.  Each and every operator of a watercraft, crew member, and even passengers need to recognize the difference these two mind-sets present and how to successfully engage them before problems arise.

Beware – To be careful, take heed, and watch out are all part of the total equation of safety but “Be Aware” takes the lead in every sense of the word and meaning.  That’s what boating safety is all about: to discern problems and take corrective steps to prevent “bad things” from happening in the first place.

As discussed many times before, proper education develops a keen understanding of what the outcome will be if certain actions are taken, both positive and negative. It all stems from risk assessment and in order to do that properly you should be aware of all the possible scenarios. Another reason why Error Trapping and Lessons Learned is so important to your great, incident free day on the water.
To say history repeats itself is a vast understatement when it comes to safely navigating a watercraft.  Many times boat operators get caught up in the moment and do not realize or keep the full picture of what is happening around the vessel. Situational Awareness is a valuable skill set that comes only with experience and cannot be taught in any classroom. Everything comes down to one moment in time when the decision to take a specific action makes the final difference.

There is even a Decision Making training syllabus you can now take called Officer in Charge of a Navigation Watch (OICNW) which provides many scenarios for the mariner to make complex navigation decisions on information they are presented, both electronically and visually. Students are immersed in a simulation environment with difficult situations in vivid HD, each measured for their response and outcome. Better to perform that type of assessment in a controlled environment without damage to crew, vessel, and environment but more importantly it provides an emotional example for someone to forever learn and prosper from that very surreal event. That’s awareness and wisdom in its purest form ... passing on the actual experience is of great significance to everyone that comprehends.

If you knew in advance the results of your actions when operating a vessel, would you not make them more carefully and with greater precision? That’s also what awareness is and it is best advanced by training in any format that makes sense and increases your total understanding. Part of that recipe for success on the water is continual learning and then forward that knowledge through your interaction with others.

You are the key to boating safety success, not the classes, instructors, the marketing brochures and websites. The off season for the lake is rapidly approaching. Might be a great time to learn more and hone your boating skills. Next season is right around the corner.

Would you rather “Beware or Be Aware?” I can help. Contact me to find out more.

September 2015 column

Can you answer the question: How far away?

Judging distance. It’s something all of us do when we are in motion regardless of the mode – walking, driving, boating. It sounds like an easy thing to perform accurately but the reality is much different, especially in the boating world. Determining the “safe” distance from a nearby vessel depends on a number of factors such as electronic navigation devices and your ability to discern distance via depth perception. There are plenty of resources for learning this information: operation guides, online media, instructional classes, and hands on experience to name a few.

The best course of action is to understand and correctly interpret navigation’s Rules of the Road. You can avoid accidents by applying the basic principles found in these well written set of instructions. Of all the courses in the boating education curriculum this is one of the most important for safety.

Answering the question can take a different turn if visibility is reduced and during periods of darkness. Things look different. It can be in grayscale with bright flashing lights, some of them steady, in various colors marking objects on the water and structures ashore. It’s called “night vision,” and it’s when you begin to see more clearly. It is best observed in remote areas such as out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, when without a cloud in the sky, the Milky Way illuminating the night with millions of stars. Planets and a possible new moon doesn’t clutter the heavens with background light. The visibility on the surface of the water is so acute you can spot things floating at far distances without the aid of binoculars. As an example: one of the reasons coming into Miami can be difficult at night is all the background lights, the incredibly bright and vivid color pallet of neon. To a ship pilot entering port it is confusion and can greatly detract from the visibility of the lighted aids to navigation and other markers.

Without challenge, operating in fog can be the most hazardous and difficult to deal with. Some maritime academies are now teaching sound navigation – distance off utilizing mathematics, measuring sound as it travels in time. The navigation rules have very descriptive chapters and directives on sound signals, illustrating examples of the echo growing stronger or decreasing, otherwise known as Doppler. Couple advanced electronic technologies of GPS charting, radar, sonar, infrared, and other sensors, you can accurately assess if you are standing into danger or piloting safely during times like these.

We have covered a few different types of situations you could come across that would cause to ask the question: How far away? There are many, many more in various combinations. Give consideration to these scenarios, practice using your navigation and piloting resources, take a class, and learn to answer the question no matter what the condition. It will serve everyone’s boating safety needs in such a positive way!

August 2015 column

What not to do at buoy #19

Chesapeake Bay is a very remarkable place in the maritime realm. It contains a vast combination of military ships, all shapes and sizes, commercial vessels carrying endless tons of cargo, private boaters by the hundreds, including the ever popular small paddle craft vessels and boards. Calling the bay a busy place would be a huge understatement.

A lot of preparation goes into leaving Norfolk, VA – a concise voyage plan, adequate supplies, fuel, officers and crew, all accounted for and ready for mission. Summer months off the mid Atlantic Coast are beautiful, except when storms travel up from the tropics creating some of the largest waves found in any ocean. Cape Hatteras, where the Gulf Stream turns right and races out to the deeper, colder sea, is the place and our destination.

This harbor is considered by many professional mariners a very complicated port environment to safely navigate, and is frequently utilized as the departure point on Full Navigation Bridge Simulators for mariner and pilot assessments. The following is a brief portion of a training scenario that is actually presented and how this experience can have a positive impact to your boating life.

Berth, port side of the ship, a USCG 378’ High Endurance Cutter, simulation time is 0300 in the morning, proceeding to sea on a routine patrol then proceed northward to New York. Safely off the dock, engines back full to clear the end of the pier, then pivot fair in the channel outbound. Bright morning stars illuminating the clear sky, the moon in half phase adds to visibility. Our position now mid channel, proceeding to sea, a very large silhouette marked by a set of bright white colored range lights, including a red side light was visible on the starboard side off in the distance. It marks an extremely large container ship, almost five times the size of my vessel, inbound to the turn at the infamous Thimble Shoals; well marked on the piloting charts and by visual aids to navigation, especially lights. My speed increasing, the radar calculation of the path of the inbound ship placed us both arriving the same time at the dangerous turn next to the shoal marked by Buoy #19.

Navigation Rules of the Road direct each vessel to proceed on the right side of the channel.  Exactly how far to the right is the real question that now needs an immediate answer. Passing someone in a turn at high speed is never a good idea especially in a narrow channel. For example: as large vessels close proximity, water pressure from the bow pushes away while the inverse is quickly happening as the propellers suck the water violently passed the stern, and pulling each other into a collision. It’s referred to as Bow Wave and Stern Suction and can have a direct influence how you control your vessel regardless of size. It does not behave like a normal wake and can cause immediate hazard if not recognized and handled properly.

Normally students make the turn safely but some do not, especially those that did not factor the water hydraulic effects when two vessels pass too closely at Buoy #19. The collision playback and evaluation for Error Trapping provide lessons learned through simulation replay. The best advice: don’t place yourself in a situation where you come close enough to another vessel, influencing the handling and maneuvering capabilities of your vessel at any time. Safe boating is a wide combination of skills and understanding of all the hazards. Water has a unique characteristic to each boat. Mastering the skill of boat handling is all about awareness of how all these forces act on your vessel. Develop them to your advantage.

July 2015 column

An explanation of 'Sail Effect' on power boats

Here’s the stage: Final approach to the dock at bare steerageway, lines ready, forward spring first, quickly followed by other leads securing the large Coast Guard Cutter to the mooring. This can be a challenge depending on the powerful forces of wind and current. The same mindset applies to the task of safely stopping your vessel with an anchor, paying out the necessary scope of anchor line or chain to secure the boat in place. The most important part of ship handling is to control the movement through the water using all available resources, both natural and engineered.

Maneuvering at slow speeds presents all sorts of conditions that can redirect the watercraft.
Different dynamics depending on the size and design contributes to the strength of the forces acting on the control of the vessel, one of which is known as “Sail Effect.”  You can learn more about wind influence on power boats at

Most military ships, both Navy and Coast Guard, stationed in the Atlantic and Caribbean Region, visit Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for intense training called REFTRA which means: Refresher Training. It is absolutely the most effective and practical education there is available anywhere in the maritime world. Through extremely tough, expertly designed and delivered exercises, the training hones the skill sets that make ship and crew ready for any contingency.  

Each night, returning from sea off the Southern Coast of Cuba, means the end of a long day filled with countless drills and preparation for things like navigation, Search and Rescue, and other duties. US Navy Port Control assigns a different berth depending on mission and schedule. It is a very busy place when it comes to ship traffic so dock space can be limited.

In command of the ship’s navigation as the deck watch officer, my duty was to safely pilot the ship into port and dock. Port Control decided outside berth between two large US Navy Arleigh Burke class destroyers would be the spot. In addition to the difficult position, the prevailing wind was frequently strong especially in the evening hours blowing off the dock. A mere 200 yards from  that very same side of the pier was shoal, complete with jagged rocks jutting sharply out of the water. No room for error, everything was riding on this task performed correctly.

The initial course to the starboard side berth placed me above the entrance at the beginning of the pier which would provide for the wind striking on the port side of the ship blowing me down, safely through the gap. It’s a maneuver not for the faint of heart. Once in the shadow of the first large navy destroyer the wind ceased to have an effect on maneuvering and I could control more effectively with engines. Preparing for the upcoming wind blowing me off the dock as I breached the open and narrow space in between the navy ships, my objective was to decrease the surface volume of the superstructure of my vessel, lessening the adverse effects of the wind. Retracting the helicopter hanger gave me the needed reduction of exposed structure. Final approach ... safely docked alongside, all lines made fast.

Understanding the pros and cons of side forces can make you a better boat handler. Each vessel has a unique character when operating in the wind. Knowing and understanding how “Sail Effect” can be harnessed and controlled is key to your boat handling success.

June 2015 column

An explanation of error trapping

I’ve been wrapping up an education project regarding required training for Officer In Charge of a Navigation Watch (OICNW) for a USCG license school using a Full Navigation Bridge Simulator ( The objective is to simulate navigation scenarios and emergency events in order to evaluate and assess the students. The simulation is extremely vivid, some mariners even getting a tinge of motion sickness while in rough seas. In addition to advanced electronics (radar, communications, and GPS charting) there is a more conventional approach that can be used on this system such as celestial azimuth of the sun, visual piloting, paper charts and other references.

Navigation is a science of multiple methods and utilities that should all conclude to the same answer. It is accomplished by what is defined in the assessment curriculum as: Knowledge, Understanding, and Proficiency.  To reach this stage of learning there needs to be an actual experience factor. That’s where these assessments come from and they can be conducted in a few different ways actually onboard the vessel during operations or by simulation.  The latter choice and process enables something extremely valuable to occur.

Error Trapping is a system making possible the review of an incident or event that will produce “lessons learned” thus helping to prevent it from happening again.   Simulation delivers the ingredients to achieve this level of Knowledge, Understanding, and Proficiency in a profound way. You can replay the incident or event until it is understood completely. In addition to the increased proficiency it has great affect on the confidence level and decision making of the individual.  How many times have you learned from a mistake, never to repeat it because you know its consequences?

In the next issue we will begin a series about certain shipboard events that were experienced in my career on a wide variety of vessels that can also be regarded as lessons learned and applied to everyday boating life. Not all of them were severe or caused harm to anyone, but they happened, making them “teachable moments.” That’s why obtaining safety training should be an integral part of your boating experience and I encourage and recommend everyone, whether in charge of the vessel or not, attend one of these informative seminars.

Error Trapping is a very big element of maritime life through a syllabus and training method in Bridge Resource Management (BRM). It is also a requirement found in international maritime standards. Its insight is useful to all boaters, not just commercial and military. You don’t have to attend a marine ship simulator to discover how to benefit. To learn the new skill, practice and visualize the steps, including errors, of how to accomplish tasks over and over and you will see the difference.  

The best part about boating education is not what you learn sitting in class, it is what you remember and apply to your boating experience through Lessons Learned.

May 2015 column

To obtain a USCG license on Lanier or not?


There’s a contentious subject regarding fishing guides and other boating operator businesses required to have a US Coast Guard License. Specifically OUPV, which stands for Operator Uninspected Passenger Vessel up to 6 Passengers, also known as a “6 pack” license.

Some believe that since the lake is not a navigable waterway by commercial ships then the federal license is not necessary. Others contend that if you take passengers for hire then you need the license.  One might ask: “Doesn’t having a basic boating class and even a state license suffice?” That complicated answer can only come from you. This month’s column is dedicated to the need for USCG License. And I respectfully invite comment to my email address. It is important when you voice your opinion!

The goal is to make things better on the water and by that I mean safer. Here is the simple question that is subject to all this debate among professional boaters: Is the USCG License required to take passengers for hire on Lake Lanier?

Before you contemplate that question fully there is always the description of a required body of water where the license is mandated and that is called a Navigable Waterway. The expansive explanation provided by the federal government is sometime hard to decipher. In order to access the explanation you’ll need to click here >>>.

Secondly, is the lake substantial enough to warrant any need to have a license under the USCG standards found at under the section, Charter Boat Captains?

My answer, and personal opinion, would be yes, it’s considerable enough, so much so it needs to be navigated with caution. Big enough to generate rough waves and rip conditions with strong currents by both vessel wake and adverse weather. Cold enough during certain times of the year that extra caution should be given to hypothermia water temps. Depth changes as the water is released or lack of rainfall. These are but a sample of the hazards and difficult situations you can experience when on the water. Undertaking a concentrated training syllabus such as the US Coast Guard license will create more awareness of these conditions and even more importantly, how to avoid them.

As an instructor, the question most often asked by students: What will a license do for me? The answer is straightforward: It’s learning a group of skill sets that will ultimately benefit your boating experience and the safety of others.

The license course is divided into four parts; Chart Navigation, Rules of the Road, Deck General, and Navigation General. This is basic foundation information that will give you a more thorough understanding of boating.

The first part of preparation is always information, that’s where the license training comes into the equation. Then comes the practical aspect of learning, the hands on component that completes the process as you develop the ability and confidence.  

Yes, I believe anyone taking someone on the water for hire should have a USCG license, regardless of navigable water or number of passengers. So what difference does that really make? Customers expect to have a good and safe experience during the trip and for the person in charge of operating a watercraft, the training cycle should never stop.

Please contact me if you want to know more about professional USCG licensing and its long term benefits.

April 2015 column

An explanation of the three 'P's: Proper Preparation Prevents

Boat training is a constant, never-ending process. A few courses, a test or two, even a license does not entirely meet the objective of accident prevention and making boating safer. It is the application of maritime education that produces the greatest results and is proven to work best. And that takes place with practical experience, the most influential source to increase knowledge, proficiency, and especially confidence.  

Preparation – at its core – is intelligent planning for any situation that may arise and practicing the steps until they become familiar. For example: knowing your position or location with reasonable accuracy at any given time can be a huge challenge, especially on Lake Lanier where the shoreline is a constant backdrop of a very long tree-line. A sudden drop in visibility or nightfall adding to the uncertainty, other vessels in proximity and you have the making of a  bad time on the water. It is important to educate yourself with your navigation systems and even learn visual piloting.

Picture yourself in such a predicament, not knowing what will happen next. Developing a plan for such an event can dramatically improve your odds, help you get safely through the incident, and sometimes prevent it altogether.

Most mariners now rely on GPS to guide them and they should understand the charts are not updated to the latest information unless you have download capability. For coastal and navigable waterways around the country, the publication Weekly Notice to Mariners provides all the chart correction data. The new advanced navigation ECDIS systems that commercial and military ships are required by law to use, is effortless as the systems communicate with satellites for updates. Not everything on navigation charts change drastically or frequently, but you do not want to be in the unfortunate position of finding out the hard way!  

A few publications, in print, or online can help you become a safer boater in regards to improving your navigation. U.S. Chart No. 1 is a volume of cartography symbols that are used on American charts.  Some of these graphics are also represented on the GPS charts you have on your boat, now in a wide variety of multi-function displays from different manufacturers.  There is even cloud based technology, voyage planning, and information systems for private boaters that provide details about many support resources, dining, fuel, GPS and Sonar charts to name a few.

A booklet that promotes safety, sportsmanship, and education, titled “Lake Sidney Lanier Navigation Charts,” mapping obtained by the US Army Corps of Engineers and published by UYC Maritime Foundation, Inc. is a must have reference. It is an effective component of planning for a possibility of your GPS system becoming inoperative, loss of radio communications, including a list of important phone numbers and description of the navigation markers on the lake. You can also visit  where you can see the link to the chart and information.  

The best course of action is always to plan for a variety of contingencies, no matter how remote they may seem. You can obtain that  information from a variety of professional outlets and websites. Contact me if you would like to learn more. Boating safety is based on adequate preparation and knowledge of what to do in a correct and timely manner.  

I call it the three ‘P’s: Proper Preparation Prevents.

March 2015 column

Security awareness is vital for mariners

Everything in the maritime world, including numerous other elements of our society, revolve around adequate security. The process is taken for granted and sometimes easier said than done if recent news of events is any example.  

Effective and clearly delivered training in the skill of recognizing a threat equals improved awareness and most of all, increased safety. It is the foundation for the course of instruction mandated by the new National and International 2016 Standards of Training and Watch-Keeping (STCW) laws that govern all certified mariners and licensed officers.

Its roots are derived from US Navy and US Coast Guard security requirements for ships and cutters, professionally designed for a more thorough understanding concerning situations that demand quick, concise action if needed. Program organization is the principle focus and the delivery of that information needs to be a basic – simple to apply – set of instructions and procedures to follow.

This is not a concern for lake boaters but if you decide to travel offshore, near coastal, even inland waters, there would be a tremendous benefit from an increase in security awareness. This general type of training can also be helpful in terms of your own personal safety when taking a cruise to a foreign port of call. The more you know the actual process of how to assess risk then the safer you will be. It all begins with an increase of awareness and knowing what to look for compared to an unprepared and often ineffective reaction to an incident.  

Prior to mid-patrol break and foreign port visits on USCG and Navy ships we would be briefed on local conditions, real time information, something that would be of great value in all regards, especially personal safety both ashore and onboard the ship while moored. Everything should be considered including sights to see, places to dine, emergency services, and of course, areas where not to venture into. We even deployed a maritime form of law enforcement called Shore Patrol to provide extra protection to crewmembers and to work with local authorities if needed. All these procedures would greatly benefit everyone, increasing all aspects of vessel security awareness. Each port presented different characteristics for consideration in security, all of which was effectively handled utilizing a straightforward, easy to operate system. Our world is rapidly changing and the security measures to counter threats is ever expanding. The two most important objectives: risk management and enhanced situational awareness are the fundamental parts.  

One half day, STCW approved course of instruction on Vessel Security Awareness, delivered by retired U.S. Coast Guard professionals with years of experience in this arena, is now available here in the Atlanta area beginning this spring. For those of you that have a professional license or certification and you travel to foreign ports, additional details about the training can be found at the National Maritime Center website;

Contact me if you would like to know more about the benefits of Vessel Security Awareness and how it can protect and serve your needs or visit my blog,

February 2015 column

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.

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 pr

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