By Mark Robinson, Data analysis by Sandi Harvey
Having looked over claims histories for the past five years, we can say with some confidence that a considerable number of Club Marine members carry reminders of how easy it is to suffer injury on a boat. Especially when boats and objects, such as wharves, jetties and other vessels, are in close proximity. Banging into things hurts. Hulls get damaged, fittings are broken and gelcoat is scratched. But more importantly, people can be injured. Collisions and contact with jetties, launch ramp pontoons, wharves, channel markers, buoys and other vessels occur far too frequently – and easily. And, as Club Marine’s data shows, they are an extremely common cause of personal injury and damage to boats.
The injuries can be pretty serious, too, including missing fingers and toes, back injuries, lacerations, crush injuries, broken bones, severe head injuries and worse. Damage to boats can be pretty severe – and expensive – as well. But whether it’s a broken finger or a holed hull, most collisions can be avoided if some forethought is applied, skills are honed and appropriate care taken.
A thorough analysis of our insurance data tells us that approaching jetties, wharves and other boats accounts for a substantial proportion of our overall claims. Most commonly, they are due to inattention, inappropriate speeds, poor communication and lack of awareness of what’s going on around the boat.
It is informative to look at collision avoidance from a number of perspectives, as follows:
Craft handling – is the skipper fully conversant with the handling characteristics of his/her boat and do they have a high degree of skill at close-quarters manoeuvring.
Craft characteristics – the particular handling characteristics of the vessel’s hull and engine configuration and its susceptibility to factors such as wind and tidal influence.
Environmental factors – wind, current, tidal state and the physical characteristics of the area, combined with the number of other boats and people nearby.
The people factor – are your boat’s occupants experienced boaties and are they sufficiently well briefed in berthing drills and your manoeuvring intentions.
Boating is the one remaining area where, with very little (if any) training and by simply passing a short multiple choice answer test, a person can legally take charge of a powerful vehicle capable of considerable speed and manoeuvrability. A boat licence, in the wrong hands, can be a dangerous thing. Just because someone has passed their licence test, it does not necessarily mean that they are qualified to skipper a boat. It just means that they are legally entitled to. It’s an important distinction and one that can have a definite impact on what happens out on the water.
It is way beyond the scope of this article to present a comprehensive discussion on boat handling, but we do need to look closely at why and where common errors are made.
Interestingly, many collisions are the result of the similarities between cars – which we all drive without much thought once we are experienced – and boats. Most motor boats, like cars, have a steering wheel, a throttle, an instrument panel and a method of engaging forward or reverse gear. But boats – unlike cars – do not have brakes to help them stop quickly. This is why it is very easy for even a rookie skipper to quickly feel at home behind the wheel of his big, shiny new boat and thus develop overconfidence in his ability to maintain control – until the moment of truth arrives and he finds his skills lacking.
Without the convenience of brakes to help avoid collisions, the only good way to stop in a hurry is to reverse the thrust direction of your propeller. This is done by firstly throttling your engine down to idle speed and then shifting into reverse. If you try to shift at any engine speed other than idle, you will soon cause serious damage to your gearbox.
But here’s the key; because it takes longer to stop your boat than your car, you must approach jetties and other immovable objects slowly – very slowly – and with just enough throttle to provide forward momentum in the direction in which you wish to go. By maintaining power to the prop, you at least have some control over the direction of the boat.
Equally, if you’re in any doubt or feel that you are not comfortable with your approach to a ramp, berth or jetty, stop. You can always get underway again, but if you come in too fast, you are going to be in trouble one way or another. And you will likely cause unnecessary risk and aggravation to those around you.
While many will regard this stuff as simply common sense, when coming alongside or approaching other boats or structures, you need to keep your wits about you. In particular, you need to keep an eye on those around you, especially if you’re relying on them to fend off or tie up. As our claims statistics show, it takes just a moment’s lack of attention to cause injury or damage. Remember, a hand or foot is way too tender to be a fender…
Most skippers give their guests some instruction varying from where to stand or sit, how and where to hold on and maybe how to perform certain tasks. But few give their guests specific instructions in what not to do and herein lies a big potential problem. You see, it is vitally important that those aboard are instructed by the skipper that, however tempting it may seem, they should never try to physically fend off an imminent collision with a jetty or other immovable object with their hands, arms or legs. Children are particular susceptible here as they are naturally curious and tend to be eager to please and help out. But they need to be made aware that the forces behind a moving craft are significant and can be well above the crush tolerance of human tissue and bone. Berthing is a particularly common cause of personal injury claims. Many times, inexperienced guests think they are doing the right thing offering to put themselves between the boat and another object. And many times their names end up on our claims forms.
Boat occupants should also be aware of the old nautical adage, ‘one hand for you and one for the boat’, which is to say that everyone onboard should be holding on to an appropriate part of the vessel when underway or at rest, especially one which is designed for that purpose, such as a grab rail. You, as skipper, should also give advice as to the type of footwear that is suitable for a day on a boat – and thongs and sandals, popular though they are, do not cut it and have been the cause of many a trip and fall. Proper boating shoes should be de rigueur for regular crew, with sneakers being a reasonable option, especially those with non-marking soles.
Now becoming slick in your approach to the dock takes practice and the absolute best way to practise is by attempting to ‘keep station’; a nautical term meaning to hold a position in the water where your vessel – despite wind and/or tidal influence – is not moving relative to the land. A simple way to practise is to find a quiet corner of your local waters and drop a buoy overboard. This can be as simple as a balloon, with some fishing line and a large sinker for an anchor.
The point of the exercise is to attempt to maintain your position in relation to the buoy. Many reading this will have already practised holding station – and will know how useful this skill can be as far as boat manoeuvring goes. But for those who haven’t, you might be surprised at how much work can be involved – especially if you’re working with strong wind or tide conditions.
Keeping station requires very active and positive control of your vessel. It also requires that you maintain a good watch around you. Someone once described it as being a little like balancing a pencil on its tip, or hovering a helicopter. Regardless, there is no better exercise for familiarising yourself with your boat’s slow-speed handling characteristics and you should have your back-up skipper practise this drill also. Err… you do have a back-up person on board who can competently handle your boat in case you’re incapacitated or otherwise occupied, don’t you?
You should practise holding station initially by holding your craft directly into the wind and then, as your skill improves, at various angles to the wind so as to get the feel of how your craft reacts to the differing wind directions against the hull. You will not be able to hold station completely with a beam wind of any strength, but the point is to gain better control of the craft and to learn just how it behaves in varying conditions. It might surprise you just how much more adept you become after just a couple of hours practice. Some might regard time spent on practice as time wasted not fishing, cruising or skiing etc. But if it results in a higher skill level – and just as importantly – more confidence in your ability to handle your boat, you will get more enjoyment out of your time on the water – as will your guests.
TURNING THE TIDE
The second common area of misunderstanding which results in collisions with stationary objects lies in the difference between how a car turns compared with a boat. When you turn the steering wheel on a car, the front wheels turn, while the rear follows suit. On a boat, though, it’s the other way around.
When you turn the wheel on your boat, whether it’s an outboard, sterndrive or inboard, the stern initiates the turn as it reacts to the thrust of the propeller(s). Thus, when you turn your boat, you must have enough room for your boat’s stern to swing. If you try to turn too sharply when leaving the dock, for instance, the stern can swing into the dock with some force. And if there’s a hand or foot in between, your day on the bay has just come to a premature – and painful – end. This movement can be magnified by the effects of wind and tide, so you should always factor both into your calculations when turning near objects or other boats.
The handling characteristics of craft are determined by many factors, but a major one is the ratio between the underwater section of the craft and the above-water section. A craft with a shallow underwater profile, but with large topsides, will be more affected by the wind than one with the opposite characteristics.
And never forget the influence of clears and canopies in respect of catching the wind and acting like a sail; a situation which can catch the unwary skipper totally off guard. The lesson here is simple; on a day where wind conditions are making berthing particularly difficult, you can reduce the effect of the wind on your vessel’s behaviour by dropping your canopies and clears. The less surface area you present to the wind, the more control you will have.
ONE SCREW OR TWO?
Your craft’s method of propulsion also influences its handling characteristics and a vessel with, say, twin sterndrives or outboards, is generally much easier and precise to control than one with a single drive unit. A single-screw inboard craft with high topsides is undoubtedly the most difficult set-up, but all inboards suffer to varying degrees in comparison to sterndrives or outboards. The reason for this is simple and lies in the fact that the propeller of an outboard or sterndrive provides directional thrust and therefore rudder effectiveness is not dependant upon the speed of water flow past the leg, but is controlled by propeller revolutions and angle of thrust. But with inboard configurations that are dependant on the speed of flow of the water over the rudder’s surface for directional control, manoeuvrability is compromised as speed reduces.
However, it’s worth noting that while sterndrives and outboards can be more nimble, their manoeuvrability is reduced considerably in reverse. You need to keep this in mind when attempting to move your craft in tight confines, such as when berthing or when you have other vessels around you.
When coming in to dock, make sure you have good visibility and know where everyone is. You also need to make sure your guests/crew are prepared and that objects such as fishing rods, tackle, outriggers, aerials, chains and ropes are properly stowed and out of the way. Equally, the skipper needs to ensure that fenders and ropes are readily to hand so that people aren’t tempted to use their own bodies to soften the impact.
People need to also understand that tying a boat to another vessel or structure is best left to the experienced. Again, children are particularly vulnerable here and there is potential for serious injury if a rope tightens at the wrong time while a limb or finger is in the way.
But no matter how skilled and experienced you are, the unknown can always occur. A boat can speed by causing wash to destabilise your boat and throw occupants off their feet. A gust of wind can blow you into the jetty, an errant rope can cause someone to trip or fall or another boat can come at you when you least expect it. But ultimately it’s all about being aware and keeping an eye out around you. And you need to keep room and movement in reserve. Always give yourself some leeway just in case. No one is infallible, but by being a little more careful when we approach a jetty or another boat, we can ensure that we make the most of our – and our guests’– time on the water.
With the appropriate forethought, good understanding between skipper and crew and familiarity with your craft’s handling strengths and weaknesses in different conditions, you will have a better chance of keeping both the pleasure and the leisure in your boating. And you will have less reason to dial our claims line on 1300 00 CLUB.
Next issue we’ll take a look at launching and retrieval. There’s a lot more to putting your boat in the water than just backing in and taking off.