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Boating gear and knowledge can save lives

Everyone who lives along the Gulf knows that people sometimes die out there. It seems that every few months there is a news story about a death or narrow escape on the water. National Safe Boating Week, which started June 2, is an attempt by people who take boating seriously to make the public aware of things boaters can do to stay safe.

Two things are essential for safe boating: knowledge of basic boating skills and proper equipment.

If you have a fine boat, fully equipped, but don't know how to handle it properly, you are in trouble. And even an experienced boater can be in trouble if he or she is out in a poorly maintained boat without safety gear.

That's probably why most of us joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary: to learn to be better boaters. I did.

The greatest cause of fatalities on boats is falling overboard, sometimes because the boat capsizes. This is what happened to the father and daughter who died recently off Hudson Beach. A mechanical defect caused the boat's steering gear to part, throwing the boat into a violent turn. That threw all three people, father, mother and daughter, into the water. The boat continued to circle, possibly striking some of the people in the water. Only the mother survived.

The lesson here is to wear PFDs, the Coast Guard term for life vests, or Personal Flotation Devices. Auxiliary members are required to wear them at all times on patrols and search and rescue missions. The best ones will hold an unconscious person's head out of the water. Sure, they're not comfortable on a 90-degree day, but they save lives.

One other point here. There is a device that can kill the engine if the helmsman goes overboard. A cord is clipped to the helmsman's belt and runs to a fitting on the instrument console or near it. If that cord is pulled, the motor stops.

I have one on my boat, but I must admit I don't use it because the helm is in a cabin and I can't very well be thrown overboard _ except by my crew.

The Coast Guard says most capsizing occurs as a result of overloading, improper weight distribution, leaning overboard or maneuvering at high speed. I hate to see children riding on the bow with their legs dangling over the water. If a child should fall, it would be virtually impossible for the helmsman to steer away fast enough to avoid having the propeller chop up that child.

Alcohol is a major factor in boating accidents. I admit that years ago, on fishing trips off Marathon, I used to look forward to that first catch. Our rule was: No beer until the first fish is caught. And on a hot day that first beer really was welcome. Now I never allow alcohol on my boat. The boat, incidentally, is named the Lisa. Lisa was my niece who was killed by a drunken driver, on land.

The best safety gear to carry depends, to a degree, on where you go boating. On the Gulf, one of the first items should be a VHF radio, so you can call for help. Call the Coast Guard Station, Yankeetown. On weekends, the Coast Guard Auxiliary at Hernando Beach maintains a radio watch in the afternoons. To reach officials, call Coast Guard Auxiliary, Hernando Beach Radio.

But wherever you go boating, always carry a good fire extinguisher. And we like to see them permanently mounted on a bulkhead, where they are easily accessible. They don't do you any good tucked away in a locker if you need them in a hurry.

We mentioned life preservers (or PFDs) earlier. These are basic. You need one Coast Guard-approved PFD for every person on board and one throwable cushion. And be sure there's a size suitable for each person. An adult PFD won't fit a child. Also, you need a minimum of three (two wearable) at any time.

Next come flares, with unexpired dates printed on them. I like flares because they can be used day or night. One thing about using hand-held flares, hold them over the side of the boat so any hot ash dripping from the flare doesn't start a fire on board or burn you.

Other signalling devices include pistol-fired parachute flares and, for daylight use, a simple orange flag.

There should be some kind of sound-producing device, even just a whistle. Most boaters carry the pressure can horns.

Also, navigation lights. Even if you don't go out at night, you might have trouble getting back before dark. Red and green navigation lights, plus a white light on the stern can help you avoid a collision at night.

Also, a bucket for bailing. "Well," you say, "I have an automatic bilge pump." But what if the power goes out?

If your boat is small enough, say 16 feet or less, it is a good idea to have a paddle or oar to help you move to shallow water if the engine goes out.

One final item, but important. An anchor. It can save your life. Remember the news stories about the two young men who set out from Anclote Key in a small boat, looking for someone with matches? They wanted to start a bonfire on the key, where their dates were waiting. But the small outboard lost power and was carried out into the Gulf by the tide and winds. The men had no anchor to hold them in the channel near the key, where other boaters could see them. They carried no water or flares, because this was to be a quick trip. By the time they were found, one had died of exposure and thirst and the other was in bad shape.

Jack Woerpel is a Flotilla staff officer for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary in Hernando County.

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