the law. Rule 5 (also known as the “
lookout rule”) of the COLREGS says “[e]very
vessel shall at all times maintain a proper
lookout by sight and hearing as well as by
all available means. …” (See “Keeping a
proper lookout” on page 95 for more on
the legal requirements of Rule 5. )
The limitations, inaccuracies,
and failures of electronics
Your GPS is probably capable of locating
your position to within about 10 feet.
That accuracy has surprised some skippers when they set a waypoint to a marker or buoy and then smack into it. And
while it’s good to know your equipment
knows exactly where you are, it can fail.
In one BoatU.S. Marine Insurance
claim, a sailboat was motoring next to
a bridge on autopilot when something
– maybe the metallic structure of the
bridge or the nearby powerlines – caused
the brains of the autopilot to make a sud-
den hard turn that made the boat strike a
small fishing boat near the bridge before
the skipper could gain control. The skip-
per’s comment that it was the boat’s fault
fell on deaf ears to the responding officer,
and the man was cited.
Another problem with the accuracy
of GPS is that the chart used with it may
be many years old. One skipper who was
piloting a shallow channel was surprised
to see his GPS show his boat to be about
200 feet inland. Had the autopilot been
interfaced with the GPS, he would have
found out quickly how far off he was.
The lesson here is that if your eyes don’t
agree with your electronics, stop until you
can figure out why.
Letting the boat assume command
A few years ago, a 37-foot powerboat
ran over a 19-foot fishing boat on Lake
Michigan, killing one man – in daylight,
with calm seas and unlimited visibility.
How? The skipper set a waypoint and
left an experienced friend at the helm
while he went below to look at the chart
to find the nearest fuel dock. The boat
was on autopilot when it ran over the
stern of the fishing boat. The blame
can’t be laid on the autopilot, which was
doing exactly what it was designed for,
keeping a steady course. The man at the
helm couldn’t explain why he didn’t see it.
According to one of the men in the small
boat, he’d been heading toward them for
a couple of miles. The owner of the larger
boat, who’d set the autopilot and was
navigating, was convicted in the death of
the lost fisherman.
Most accidents aren’t nearly so seri-
ous. Other claims started with a quick
trip below to fetch a camera, binoculars,
or to find a chart, and ended with a
grounding or collision. “I was only down
for a minute or two,” was the explanation
in most cases. But keep in mind a boat
traveling at 30 knots will travel a mile in
just two minutes. At the risk of stating
the obvious, a boat needs to be under
human supervision at all times. Not only
is it common sense; it’s the law.
Navigational hazards, or
a hazard to navigation?
An experienced marine-accident investigator who has seen it all explains how it’s easier
to probe a case involving a hazard to navigation than one where the skipper is the primary
navigational hazard ARTICLE & PHOTOS BY DANIEL RUTHERFORD
A navigational hazard is pret- ty clearly defined as some- thing you might hit on the water. A “hazard to naviga- tion,” however, could very well be the person at the
helm. BoatU.S. Marine Insurance claims
files show that one of the most expensive
claims – as well as one that frequently
causes significant injuries – is when a
boat hits something while underway.
Investigations show that these incidents
are almost always avoidable simply by
using some common sense and exercising some basic skills.
The ‘sunglasses effect’
It was a first for me the day one of my
clients ran into a buoy. It was a sunny,
calm day with unlimited visibility. How
did that happen? The answer, according
to the owner and skipper, was “my new
polarized sunglasses.” He was looking at
his navigational display, and the polarized lenses of his sunglasses made the
screen difficult to read. With his focus
distracted, he hit the buoy.
Forget the fact that the buoy was
bright red and dead ahead for a mile or so
as he approached. Strange things happen
on the water, right? Sure, but this incident
got me thinking that not all navigational
hazards are outside the boat. The more I
see helms filled with an array of gadgets,
the more I harken back to the good old
days when we had a compass, perhaps
a depth sounder, and a knotmeter. The
simple helm – most of today’s wonder-
ful technology had yet to be invented
– forced us to focus. It made us keep a
proper lookout. It made us plan ahead.
Today we may plan our day out on
the water the day before, on the computer at home, plug in waypoints, arrive
at the boat, push some buttons, and off
we go. This, I think, is where the story of