Whether you’re a seasoned mariner or a newbie boater, there’s an on-the-water experience you want to avoid at any cost — being stranded miles offshore or stuck on a nearby sandbar — and yet most cruising enthusiasts have chalked it up at least once. When that “oh-no moment” strikes, you ask, “How could this possibly happen to me?” Well, most of us have at one time made an assumption that came back to bite us.
In an effort to keep everyone on a smooth cruising course, we checked in with a couple of tow boat captains — Shawn Landin, an 11-year veteran with BoatUS and manager of the company’s Towing Department, and Capt. David Carlton, Sea Tow, Newport Beach/LA — who weighed in with a list of assumptions that could leave you stranded and what you can do to make sure it doesn’t happen to you. “I’ve worked with hundreds of boaters who made an assumption that ended with them calling for our services,” Landin said. “We all know what assuming can do to you, but it’s even worse when you end up stranded or in danger while out on the water. Simple planning, preparation and double-checking everything is essential to enjoy a successful day on the water.”
Stressing the preparation factor, Landin recommended adding an essential item to your pre-launch list: Perform a radio check before heading out to the open waters. “Cellphones are often spotty when we get a call from a member offshore. When we dispatch our tower to assist a stranded boater, our tower wants to know they have a backup (communication tool) to reach the boater, and they depend on VHF radio for that backup. It’s best to do a VHF check on the local channel designated for radio checks as you leave the
harbor, to confirm your radio is working.”
WHERE’D THE LAND GO?
Landin recalled a real-life story that reads as a perfect example of what can go wrong in this situation. A boater aboard a Grady-White called in for a tow some 20 miles off San Diego. His VHF radio didn’t work and he didn’t know how to use the boat’s GPS system. To further complicate the rescue effort, the boaters stated they didn’t think they were going that far offshore, which led to another reckless assumption.
“They figured if they needed help, they could use some point on land that would guide us in the right direction,” Landin said. “This doesn’t work when you can’t make out any points on land. Luckily, someone else on the boat was able to download the BoatUS app and call in the GPS positioning given in the app. We were able to quickly identify the location of the stranded boater and provide a tow back to San Diego Harbor.”
HITTING THE BAR
Stranded happens more than you think when boaters opt not to follow the markers, as a group on a Sea Ray found out when they ran aground in Cape Coral. They assumed they could get around a marker to make a shortcut, but they wound up high and dry about an hour into a dropping tide, so by the time the tow boat arrived on the scene, the captain couldn’t un-ground the vessel. He had to leave and come back at high tide when there was more water to work with un-grounding the boat. Unfortunately, a lack of knowledge meant spending more time out on the boat. “The next high tide was six hours away and the family decided to stay on board. Talk about a rough day on the water — correction, the sandbar,” Landin said.
Carlton recalled two very recent incidents involving the importance of knowing your navigation systems and having a backup. One case involved a 33-foot sailing vessel in mid-channel on a return trip from Catalina. “Earlier that day, they had called with some type of engine problem. As it turned out, it was an electrical issue. Now, mid-channel, they called and were unable to make any headway. They needed a tow, but their GPS was down due to the electrical issue.” However, as Carlton pointed out, there are a number of ways Sea Tow crews can determine a vessel’s position. It can use a RDF (radio direction finder), since each of its tow boats has one, or it can have the Coast Guard use the Rescue 21 System, which is basically RDF on a bigger scale. Some smartphone apps have a GPS function; Apple has one built into its phones. “In this case,” Carlton said, “we used the Sea Tow app and soon had a position that was used to dispatch our vessel.”
TIDE UP (OR DOWN)
Checking the weather conditions is vital before leaving the dock, but boaters should also review the tide table as it relates to the course they’re charting.
“One of the things boaters need to realize is bridges don’t shrink, but water does rise,” Landin said. “We had a case where a 40-foot powerboat was coming back into Newport Harbor. They went under a bridge earlier on their way to exit a channel, going slow and making sure they weren’t going to hit. The boat’s crew let out a sigh of relief as the big cruiser just barely made it under the bridge.”
Their return trip, however, wasn’t quite as successful, as they assumed that since their boat made it under the bridge going out, it would make it under the bridge coming back in. They went out at a low tide and returned at high tide, and they didn’t take that into account. The boat, as you might guess, ended up wedged under the bridge.
“Our tower out of Newport had to wait for the tide to drop before he could tow the damaged vessel back and into a repair facility,” Landin said.
KNOW YOUR SYSTEMS
“In a recent case, we were called via phone from a vessel with engine problems,” Carlton said. “They reported their position as one point three miles from what was determined later to be their horseshoe kelp waypoint. As a matter of course, Sea Tow dispatch will routinely double-check the GPS positions by asking for the geographic dead reckoning, as well as for a repeat of the coordinates. If we find a discrepancy, or the last digits of the latitude/longitude haven’t changed, we know we need to narrow it down before we dispatch our recovery vessel. In this instance, we found out they were some distance from the waypoint but couldn’t bring up the actual position. Dispatch asked what type of GPS system they had, then looked up the model on the Internet. With a few questions answered, dispatch was able to have them create a new waypoint, which was then used to send the tow boat. This is a very common occurrence. Technology is a great tool, but it must be understood to be of any use.”