Boat Safety Prep Saves Lives
When you have four brothers and spend a lot of time on the water, a chicken fight is around every corner. We stood 50 feet apart and threw jellyfish at each other to see who would flinch first, We had surfing duels. My brother straddled my snorkel with a speeding Hobie cat. Boat safety prep was not on our mental maps those days so we sometimes learned the hard way. What happened this time was a scary and uninvited reincarnation of those childhood days.
We were boating on Nemo, my 24’ antique Skiff Craft one ill-fated day. Our goal was to cruise down the Hudson River from Nyack, pass through New York Harbor and the Verrazano Narrows, then on to Sandy Hook. There, we would anchor somewhere and swim. We had all the right safety equipment, and I had towing insurance so I was up for the challenge. It was the start of the boating season and there were tons of boats on the water.
Half an hour into our journey, the engine started to overheat and we anchored by the shore of the river to have lunch and reconsider our plans. The beautiful Palisades cliffs jutted up quietly just yards away. The boat was 40 years old and had some quirks. On board were some close friends, mostly inexperienced boaters, but one had been a ferry captain in Maine when he was in college. After lunch, we decided to “see how things go” with the engine and proceeded to make our way down the river. Mysteriously, the overheating problem disappeared and all seemed clear for the journey. Onward we went.
Our first stop was to get gas before heading out the Narrows. Nemo had the original GM 350 Inboard/Outboard setup. She guzzled gas like a champ. After handing over several hundred bucks, we were on our way again, out into the Harbor. About a mile out I heard a small ping and the boat lost power. The engine was fine but the prop was dead. Something in the drive train broke. No forward, no reverse, nada. We were adrift. Being the captain of Nemo, my first task was to try to get the guests to stop laughing. They thought it was a great adventure. Aaron, the guy from Maine, was a different story. He was deep in thought for about 5 minutes, not noticing the chatter and fun the others were having. He scanned the harbor and was assessing the problem.
“Current is strong,” he said. “We’ll get sucked out over there…if we make it that far.” He pointed to the Staten Island ferry coming our way. I was of the same opinion. Fleeting vessels were everywhere and we were right on course to intercept the ferry. A small distraction on the ferry operators’ part, I thought, and they might not see us. We needed a tow, stat. Without many options, I quickly called the insurance company and told them what was happening. After a minute of silence on the phone, they told me the closest operator was in Sandy Hook and they would probably not reach us for over an hour. “Hang tight.”
In an hour, we would either be fish food or a disappearing dot on the horizon. Aaron and I bounced ideas off each other.
“If we swing close to shore, we can drop anchor,” I said.
“Yep, or if our current path holds and we miss the ferry, we might up against that anchored container ship. We could throw them a line…well, if anyone spots us,” said Aaron. My gut sank. That seemed like a remote possibility.
We worked channel 16 on the VHF radio, the international distress frequency monitored by the Coast Guard and other boats.
“Coast Guard, Coast Guard, Coast Guard,” said Aaron calmly, and when they answered, he gave the standard information identifying the vessel, location and the nature of our distress. We were in luck. (You should know the Coast Guard calling protocols well before boating in waters they patrol. See link further below.)
The ferry passed us with plenty of room, well aware we were there, and the Coast Guard’s response was quick. One of their medium response boats (RB-M) found us within 15 minutes.
“Couldn’t ask for a better ride,” Aaron said with an admiring grin. “Twin 600 horse diesels on that boy.” It’s an impressive response boat capable of towing 100 tons. So much for my towing insurance. We all made it home safe and sound, but we were lucky. Small boat problems can lead to tragic results when you’re out on the water.
Again, the lessons learned: Be prepared before your trip. Unexpected things happen. I had towing insurance but their operators were not available when we needed them. Have your radio and all of your safety equipment in order and know how to use them. If possible, have a backup radio and alternate ways to reach people, like a sat phone and a cell phone. And feel free to read up on Coast Guard communication protocols.
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