Aqua Map Blog

"Safety first"

by A.J. Hammer (Adventures of Oloh)

2021, March 24th

We love boating and feel so fortunate to enjoy life on the water the way we do. We’ve been at it for a while now but will never profess to knowing everything. One of the reasons we love the life is because we learn something new every day, both from our own experiences as well as those of the boaters we meet. We love to pay forward what we’ve learned when it can be helpful and resist giving unsolicited advice – unless safety is involved. Safety on board and a concern for our fellow mariners’ safety is paramount for us. Which is why we are feeling compelled to comment on something we recently read.

We were checking out a blog from an individual who lives and solo cruises full-time aboard a very nice vessel and appears to be a well-seasoned boater. But in one particular entry he writes about moving around the boat’s deck to set up fenders and lines while the boat was underway on autopilot. As he writes, when he looked up, he realized he was passing the marina he was headed for (which is along a typically narrow and populated stretch of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway) and he had to run up to the helm so he could turn the boat around, further commenting that sometimes he’s “running around performing the first mate’s job and the boat is just driving itself.” The implications of this statement are concerning on many levels.

We don’t ever want to come across as being preachy, but we had such a visceral reaction when reading this that comment couldn’t be avoided. We use our autopilot the majority of the time we are underway. There is no more accurate way to maintain a course and, for us, it is an exceptional tool in that regard. For us, it never, ever negates the need for a vigilant watch and it most certainly doesn’t grant permission for the helm to be abandoned in a narrow waterway when underway. Perhaps the most disturbing revelation was that the captain looked up to see he was passing the entrance to the marina where he was headed. To us that suggests a much longer lack of situational awareness than is even remotely safe.

We get that solo cruisers have to manage everything themselves and autopilot certainly allows for easier multi-tasking for all boaters in appropriate situations. But we can’t imagine not bringing the boat to a full stop to leave the helm for any appreciable amount of time, particularly when solo and along a waterway like the part of the ICW where this boater was. We have heard countless stories over the years of people running their boats on autopilot and heading to the head for a couple of minutes or sitting on their foredeck, steering by the autopilot’s remote, certainly not within quick reach of the engine controls at the helm station. We have also heard countless stories of mishaps or accidents resulting from this behavior.

We will not tell anybody how to run their boats but what we do know and what we will say is that things happen on boats very quickly, no matter how slowly you are going. When things go wrong or not as anticipated, there is often very little time to react. That kayak suddenly crossing the channel has the right of way, whether they know it or not, and is probably not presuming that there is no one at the helm of the big boat that’s coming at them. We could go on, but we think the point we’re trying to make is clear.

We are happy this boater has apparently remained safe and, as far as we know, has not hurt anyone else. Perhaps that makes for a good moment to reconsider this unnecessary, and in our minds, wildly unsafe practice.

Safety first. Then the good stuff can follow.

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