Marine News from the Great Lakes

Ask the Expert: Distracted Boating

Published: Tuesday, July 30, 2019
By: John Bishara, Director, Newport, Rhode Island office, Pantaenius America Ltd.


I recently read that distracted boating can be as dangerous as distracted driving. Is this true, and what’s your best advice for avoiding distractions while at the helm?


What you read is true. In fact, increased use of personal electronic devices by vessel operators is such a growing problem that “Eliminating Distractions” landed at the top of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board’s 2019 -2020 “Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.”

What’s more, following the much-publicized fatal collision between the 78.9-foot tugboat, Caribbean Sea, and the anchored 33-foot amphibious passenger vehicle, DUKW 34, in the Delaware River, the U.S. Coast Guard has prohibited the use of wireless devices by operators of Coast Guard boats and restricted their use by other crew members. The tugboat lookout was on a cell phone call when the crash occurred, killing two tourists and injuring 28 other passengers.

To avoid dangerous distractions while at the helm:

Don’t use the phone. This includes texting, talking, posting on social media, and sending emails. Even hands-free conversations can take your attention off the water and lead to serious accidents. Lack of concentration is even more dangerous on the water than in a car because conditions on the water can change within a matter of minutes. And, unlike cars on the highways, boaters are typically zigzagging all over the water – plus boats come in many vastly different sizes and move at very different rates of speed. If you need to contact someone, wait until you’re docked or anchored, or have a passenger or crew member do it for you.

Eat before you go or only while docked or anchored. Scarfing down lunch with one hand on the wheel means you won’t have as much control over your boat as you should.

Hold off on the alcohol until you’re safely ashore or docked for the night. When added to the effects of sun, wind, and waves, alcohol lowers situational awareness. Pack and consume lots of water and other nonalcoholic beverages.

Become familiar with your surroundings. Before you head out on the water, spend time on land memorizing the location of your boat controls. Learn how to use your GPS at the dock, so you won’t be steering head down, trying to figure out how to toggle between screens while underway. Be able to move your hand between the throttle and wheel without looking down, and know the location of the trim switch, running lights and bilge switch by feel.

Delegate when necessary. If you need to check instruments or equipment on board, have someone else do this for you. Ditto for adjusting the music, communicating with water skiers or wakeboarders, and taking pictures. Any non-driving activity you engage in is a potential distraction and can increase your risk of an accident.

The U.S. Coast Guard and National Safe Boating Council (NSBC), working with EMOTIV, a brainwave measuring company, recently created a testing and training program for boaters called SCAN. This method consists of a formalized repeated scanning pattern and continual risk assessment while the boat is underway.

"By practicing SCAN, boaters of all experience levels can reduce risk and avoid accidents," says Virgil Chambers, former executive director of the National Safe Boating Council, who managed the testing and training. Here’s how it works:

  • Search the area all around your craft. This is a 360-degree examination of everything on the water around your boat. Distances away will close or open depending on your speed or the speed of the observed boat or object. The faster you're operating, the farther out you'll need to search.
  • Concentrate on what you're seeing. Is it a boat? What type? What is it doing? What is its relative speed? Is it a stationary object? Drifting or anchored? Things can happen fast out there, so these are questions you must consider while you look at the various observed boats or objects.
  • Analyze what you're watching. Is it closing in on your position or going away from you? Remember, if the object you're observing is at a constant bearing with decreasing range (meaning you're getting closer to it, and its relative position to you is not changing), it is on a collision course. If it's another boater, do you believe he or she sees you? Never assume you're seen by other boat operators, who may or may not be distracted. Determine this by the way and direction they're operating. Analyze how far away the boat or object is and how fast it is closing the distance between you and it.
  • Negotiate. What are you going to do? Slow down, turn away from the boat or object, and head in a different direction? Remember the Navigation Rules. Learn the proper action to take while meeting head on, crossing, or overtaking another boat.


This article first appeared in the Summer Issue (Jul/Aug) 2019 of Great Lakes Scuttlebutt magazine.

tags: Boating 101, Safety

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