My many years as an instructor for the UK’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution has taught me that some of the most serious accidents at sea are also some of the easiest to prevent.
With so many recent boating fatality stories in the media recently, now is a prudent time to remind people about basic safety decisions.
You don’t need to be an expert mariner to know that big waves have a nasty habit of killing people.
The subtleties of what causes big waves and the factors determining whether we go afloat or not are what we should look at first.
The fundamental key to managing large menacing waves is not to be anywhere near them. But how do we know when they are skulking around the next headland?
All waves are created by wind and the more wind the bigger the waves. Simple stuff really.
Another factor is how long the wind blows on the surface of the water – the longer the wind blows, the loftier our wet nemesis becomes.
When the tidal current and the wind are coming from opposite directions, the sea state can become even more irritable.
Making the call
How do we draw all this together and decide whether we are in for a pleasant day’s excursion or a harrowing, mortality inducing, series of collisions with foaming, angry, liquid cliffs?
Use these seven pointers to help you make your go/no-go decision.
Size of boat
Area of operation
Equipment on board
To consider each in turn:
This is the fundamental measurement of the stupidity scale. The higher the number, the higher the level of idiocy required to put the boat in the water!
This scale can be elongated by experience but, unfortunately, many of us think we are more experienced then we actually are.
Just by being on a boat for more than 1,000 hours does not necessarily translate to competence. For a newbie, a maximum wind speed of between 12-15 knots is probably a realistic limit but this can also depend on many other variables such as the size of the boat.
Wind direction is important as it is possible to seek shelter from landmasses. If the wind is blowing from the north, the further you go from a landmass to your north, the uglier the sea-state can become.
This is also known as fetch or the physical distance the wind has been blowing on the water. The greater the fetch, the more consideration required.
Do your homework before going afloat and in addition to checking the weather forecast, also check the tides, not just for the depths but also for an understanding of what direction it will be going while you are out.
For example, on the Hauraki Gulf, you really don’t want to find yourself in a small boat in the Motuihe Channel, in the third and fourth hour of a spring ebb tide and a strong NE.
If any of these terms are unfamiliar to you, treat it as a subtle nudge that a bit of further education may be appropriate.
Just like we don’t put all our eggs in one basket, neither should we put every family member and all our friends in a boat at the same time.
The more people on a boat, the lower in the water it sits thereby increasing the likelihood of water swamping it and sending it on a one way journey to inspect the insides of Mr Jones’ locker.
Boats adhere to the rules of physics and when a small boat meets a bit of marine anger, the result is as predictable as the All Blacks v Finland!
Where you take your boat is also a major consideration, for example a rapidly swallowing seabed can lead to unexpected and rather cheeky hydrodynamic effects.
The act of launching or retrieving your boat in an unsuitable environment can also lead to splinters and tears.
If I was only allowed to take two pieces of equipment on a boat, they would be a means of communication such as EPIRB or VHF and a lifejacket.
Going to sea with neither of these is about as sensible as kissing a cobra on the head – you may have gotten away with it before, but the more times you do it…
Take this advice onboard and keep your boat sunny side up.
If not, there’s a good chance you’ll want to read my next article titled, Bugger, I wish I’d taken Andrew’s advice.
Be safe out there.