Protecting Yourself at Night
It’s common knowledge that people
who are clearly intoxicated — slurring
words and stumbling — are much more
likely to hurt themselves as well as anyone
else unlucky enough to cross their path.
The question for a responsible skipper is
how do you protect yourself on the water at
night from boats whose owners have been
drinking heavily and may be driving recklessly? A study by the BoatU.S. Foundation
for Boating Safety found that boaters face a
280-percent greater risk of involvement in
an accident at night, and a staggering 433-
percent greater risk of being killed (based
on the assumption that boating activity at
night represents five percent of total boating activity). Here’s the most important
advice: As soon as you see another boat, be
prepared to take evasive action, regardless
of who has the right of way.
Don’t drink alcohol and drive a
boat. The NTSB report notes that even
small amounts of alcohol inhibit a person’s
ability to operate a boat safely, especially at
night. According to studies quoted in the
report, BACs ranging from as low as .04%
(roughly the equivalent of two beers) can
degrade a person’s ability to discern faint
lights or other objects; notice objects just
outside the direct line of sight (peripheral
vision); respond to a constantly changing
stimulus; and select a response based on
the nature of the stimulus. It takes longer
for a person who’s had one or two beers to
process information, such as recognizing
whether a potentially dangerous situation
is developing, and then deciding how to
avoid an accident.
A BoatU.S. Marine Insurance claim
several years ago shows clearly how a person’s night vision can be affected by small
amounts of alcohol. The skipper of the boat
had been diligently following a series of
markers back to his marina when the boat
was struck by another boat just forward
of amidships. One passenger was killed.
Asked later why the collision occurred, the
skipper recounted how the boat appeared
suddenly: “I can’t figure out how it got as
close to us as it did without me seeing it. I
don’t understand to this day … how the
devil this thing can come from nowhere. It
is more than I will ever understand.”
Why didn’t he see the other boat?
Seas were calm that night and there was a
full moon. One of the studies mentioned
by NTSB found that glare, such as a full
moon, can significantly affect nocturnal
vision, even with low BAC levels. Greater
amounts of alcohol will result in even more
impairment. Studies have also found that a
person who’s consumed small amounts of
alcohol has less ability to notice stimuli outside of his or her immediate field of view.
The studies found that alcohol doesn’t
narrow a person’s field of vision, it only
narrows their focus of attention (the skipper had been diligently following a series of
buoys). One study found that alcohol may
enhance a person’s ability to concentrate
on a task (in this case, steering toward
a buoy) in the presence of a “peripheral
stressor.” So while a skipper who’s had
moderate amounts of alcohol may do a
better job of watching a specific buoy, he or
she would be much less likely to notice an
approaching boat on the periphery of the
immediate field of view.
Finally, blood alcohol concentrations
as low as .04 percent can significantly affect
a person’s ability to select and execute
one or more alternative responses, such as
deciding whether to turn to port or starboard, pull back on the throttle, and so on.
The more complex the task, the greater the
effect alcohol will have on reaction time.
In this case, the skipper first reported that
he’d turned to starboard. He was surprised
to learn later that his boat had been struck
on the starboard side; he’d turned to port.
While someone who’s been drinking is more likely to take foolish risks that
cause an accident, someone who’s been
drinking only moderately will also find that
he or she is less competent to prevent an
accident. Reduce speed. This is also called
for by the COLREGS, Rule Six: “Every vessel shall at all times proceed at a safe speed
so that she can take proper and effective
action to avoid collision and be stopped
within a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions. At
night, when other boats (as well as markers, cans, buoys, and so on) can come up
quickly, this means to slow
By Kevin Ritz
In This Issue...
Bob Adriance has written
more than 500 articles for
Seaworthy, the quarterly
BoatU.S. Marine Insurance
damage-avoidance e-newsletter, educat-
ing boaters to avoid
is sent free to
$10 a year.
Your Night Vision The best way to avoid a speeding drunk driver is to see him at a distance — the soon- er the better — and take eva- sive action. Even with a dedi- cated lookout, seeing another boat at night can sometimes be difficult. The COLREGS and Inland Rules make it illegal for any light to create glare that affects the safe operation of a boat. If your boat’s all-round light is creating glare it can either be shielded or replaced with a light that is opaque on the bottom. Other sources of spilled light that may need to be eliminated include lights from the instrument panel and the reflection of the mast- head light off chrome bow pulpits and stanchions. According to optometrists who study the effects of glare, bright sunlight bouncing off the water at low angles during the day can “bleach” photore- ceptors, which fatigues the yes and temporarily impairs vision. Anyone who’s walked from bright sunlight into a dark building has experienced bleached eyes, but what most people don’t realize is how long (up to eight hours) the lingering effects of bleach- ing can affect the eyes. In the meantime, night vision may be reduced by as much as 50 percent. As a practical mat- ter, you can’t totally eliminate glare on the water, but experts ay you can increase your abil- ity to tolerate glare, avoid eye fatigue, and keep your night vision sharper by always wear- ing a hat and an effective pair of sunglasses during the day. — B.A.