Coping: The “Freeboard Follies”

We don’t often talk about prepping as related to “water safety” but a phone call this week not only caused my hair to stand on end, but also spontaneously combust!

Some people we know were planning a boat-ride.  It’s summer and while fun, there is a tremendous amount of prepping that goes into even an afternoon of wildlife watching.  Especially if the body of water involved is the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Washington state.

Here’s the set up (with no names, so no embarrassment to anyone):  People:  6 adults.  Boat:  modest freeboard 19-foot I/O run occasionally.  Objective:  Let’s make something up – how about Orca whale-watching?

Time:  Thursday of this week.  Weather: Light and variable winds becoming westerly 10-15 knots after noon.

Prepping, I reminded my friends, is not a “do once.” deal.  It is a continuous mindset.

Now, in case you have forgotten, I lived aboard my 40-foot offshore capable sailboat (1987 Hunter 40) and you can still find a video or it under sail on Turkey-Day back in 2001 on YouTube.

To summarize:  I’ve sailed from the northernmost Canadian waters down to Mexico during the 10+ years of living aboard.

In that time, we never called the Coast Guard once except to query VTS on approaching traffic speed of advance – housekeeping.  But, we did help a lot of people who got in “over their heads” while boating…which is easy to do.  Let’s go through what I told my friends:

  1.  On the Strait of Juan de Fuca the winds come up in the afternoon.  And, if there’s an outgoing tide (flowing east to west) and the afternoon Westerlies fill in coming down the Strait from ocean, you will get some “stacking.”  Based on the weather, I would anticipate a short sloppy 3-4 foot chop by around 1 PM.
  2. Six people in a 19-foot I/O boat on a lake is a manageable proposition most days.  However, the boat has low freeboard (I’m guessing 14-inches loaded is closer to it).  Over at The Hull Truth website (here) we find some sound advice: “you need to have MORE THAN 1/8th the beam in clear freeboard (here’s the catch) with your entire rated passenger load all standing at the same time up against one gunnel.”  I doubt their boat would meet this test.
  3. The boat design should be appropriate to the waters you’re operating on.  For example, some ski boats in the 19-foot class are “open bow” types.  You would never catch me on anything lager than a good-sized lake in a boat like that.
  4. Then there is Equipment and Fuel loading.  Here’s a checklist:
    1. Full fuel tank. Spare gas can.
    2. Spare prop and shear pins.
    3. Does the bilge pump work?
    4. Got a couple of bailing buckets?
    5. Hole kit?
    6. A “get home” kicker on a kick-up mount.
    7. A sea anchor.
    8. Spares including all hoses and clamps if any are more than 3-years old.
    9. Spare fuel filters (2), spare oil (2 qts), assorted clamps.  Two spare sparkplugs.  Generator/water pump belts.  Tools to change ’em all.  Two rags, nitryl gloves.
    10. Means to clear the cooling water intake.
    11. Multiple radios:  VHF waterproof handheld.  Ham radio on local repeaters, cell phones, and a separate GPS with spare batteries.
    12. Fire extinguisher (2 1/2 pound, with service tag dated  in the  past year).
    13. Approved flotation devices (with legible tags – I got hassled on this once, believe it or not!).
    14. Two paddles (one for each side of the boat) so you could paddle if necessary.  Ever paddle a 19-foot boat?  Yee gads. Awful experience for people who are of “instant results” breeding.
    15. Throwing line (paracord with a weight covered in rubber) and a towing line 5/8ths of larger, center cleat on bow for towing.
    16. Two hand-held sighting compasses. On lanyards, around necks of capt. and the XO.   For taking relative bearings.  If you get into trouble, two sightings will help the Coast Guard immensely:  “We are in mid-Strait.  Bearing to Victoria 283 degrees, bearing to Smith Island  0115-degrees, bearing to Port Angeles…” and so forth.  With three or four bearings plus the GPS lat lon you might as well have a billboard.
    17. You did remember fresh (and spare) batteries for all the electronica, right?
    18. Depth sounder for all boats over 25-feet , or so, and all if operating at night.
    19. Boats 35-feet and up: radar.

This may sound wildly excessive, but I’m a belt, suspenders, and elastic waistband kind of prepper when comes to anything I take on.

Now let’s talk about the “people and supplies” part.

  1. If you are taking someone with you, have you make the trip before without other people board?  For example, when Elaine and I were  sailing every weekend (summer and winter – yeah snow sailing), we’d taken our boat (multiple times) through the Hiram Chittenden Locks in Seattle.  As a result, when we took Elaine’s late father with us, it was a relaxing and enjoyable.  There were zero surprises.  Complex was routine.
  2. Every person needs to have at least one gallon of water per day.  More is better.  Even if you don’t think you’ll need it.
  3. Everyone needs to have sandwiches and energy bars.  It’s cold on the water – you will never be hungrier than when you’re burning calories on a boat..
  4. Got a toilet?  If I were going on a boat ride where shore could be a ways off, I have at least a 3-pound coffee can with lid.  For the modest ladies, a poncho, lol.  One roll of TP wouldn’t be a bad thing, either.
  5. You need to pick up some candied ginger – most Asian food stores carry it – in Seattle Sun Luck was what  we bought.  Calms the stomach for people not used to the rock and roll of a small boat.

Ready?  Nope.  Still not done.  Paperwork next.

  1. Copy of boat registration matching the tag numbers usually on the bow.
  2. Map book from West Marine of the area you’ll be in.
  3. Drivers licenses and, if crossing the Strait, Washington Enhanced driver’s licenses or passports.  Use caution not to cross into Canadian waters.
  4. Fishing regulations for the area.  Right now, for example, I would expect a lot of native fishing (gill-netters) in that whole area.
  5. Map of the Vessel Traffic System with radio channels.  For example, mid Puget Sound is Channel 14 on the VHF but as you get up north it switches over to 5-Alpha.  You do know the difference be6tween Marine channel 5 and 5-Alpha, right?  Print off this table – 5-Alpha is the new channel 1005..
  6. Detailed maps (as needed) of the local Vessel Traffic System lanes – and of critical importance is the separation zones for traffic.  We often would sail across Puget Sound between ocean-bound container sips northbound, heave-to in the separation zone for inbound from ocean traffic, and then continue across….
  7. Tide table for nearest stations.  Hypothermia guide and water temps by month.  These are sobering.

Done yet?  (Bet you don’t thinking things through at this level, lol…)

No.  You also need to “test fly” the boat.  If you are planning an adventure in “big water” I would run the boat hard for two hours under controlled conditions on a lake or inland area.  Remember, water and air operate under the “square law” so an engine that will push two people around for a couple of hours will run much, much hotter when the load is twice as much with the weight of additional people. Four more people is almost 700 pounds – picture tossing in 12 – 50# bags of sand on top of the two people in the boat…

A Special Word to Captains

There is only one saying that all captains need to keep “top of mind” when heading out:

The essence of good seamanship is an uneventful voyage.

I can not count the times I’d been into Charlies at Shilshole Marina in Seattle after a good windy crossing from Poulsbo or other western Puget Sound weekend hangout and been treated to stories of people hair-raising adventures.

I just smiled and learned from every one of them.  Amateurs and a fair number of outright idiots.

It’s a sad truth that when boating that anything that can go wrong, WILL go wrong.  In which case, you have to pause, adapt, and improvise.

On one of my sailing adventures my younger sister (an accomplished water/whitewater captain herself) and I were coming back upstream when my boat was on the Duwamish River,

While waiting for the old low-level Spokane Street bridge to open, the shift cable stopped working.

Grabbing a crescent wrench, I disconnected things from the transmission and we worked out a quick code:  One stomp of my foot meant “neutral” while the other meant “reverse.”  It was not going into forward.

After about 10-minutes of marking time in the channel (in reverse) the bridge opened and we backed up the river a quarter mile and threaded our way into the marina in reverse, current running.  Not a scratch…

There’s a lesson here about mindset I suppose:  Adapt, improvise, and overcome.  But it was all possible because we had two strong captains on hand.

Next time you go boating, ask yourself the hard questions – not the easy ones:

  • How will I steer this boat if the steering cable fails?
  • How will I shift if that cable freezes?:
  • Do I have a “hole kit” if we hit something in the water?
  • Have I ever changed a prop on the water?
  • Ever do an engine repair or filter replacement in a pitching seaway?

Over thousands of miles of sailing 10+ years (and 75,000 miles as a pilot) I’ve experienced lots of component failures.  What gets you home (or down on the ground) safely is having done the “headwork” and knowing all the options at hand.

Whether it’s losing a transmission cable, or having the generator go out on the airplane 100-miles from a destination, these things are just going to happen.

Prepping for the worst ensures that nothing will go wrong because if it does, you can turn it into a non-event in stride.  And that’s what captains (and pilots) are supposed to do.

Most aircraft accidents involving small planes – like those involving small boats – are eminently preventable.  But not unless you school yourself in advance.  When you have command – whether on a boat or in the air – you are responsible for the lives of others.  It’s not something to take lightly.  You stack the odds of every situation in your favor…and when you read about the next drownings or crashes you think “There but for the grace of God and first-rate prepping, go I.”

Flying isn’t so bad 3-feet up, nor boating when you can wade ashore.  The potential problems multiply when you add zeros to the depth sounder or altimeter…never forget that!

Oh, and be aware of the 1/4 mile offshore no-go zone for Orca watching  around San Juan Island’s west side.

Write when you get rich,

author avatar
George Ure
Amazon Author Page: UrbanSurvival Bio:

15 thoughts on “Coping: The “Freeboard Follies””

  1. Good report!! But people tend to forget that while this area is very beautiful, it is so dangerous . . . this corner of the USA was ‘the graveyard of the Pacific’ in the old days. What about proper clothing and footwear . . . and personal flotation devices for all?

    • Exactly so. A (*not quite poor) buddy of mine used to commute from his home on one of Bainbridge Island’s bays over to Elliott Bay Marina – good weather and bad. Year round for years.
      He used a 22-foot high powered (red) RHIB with twin outboards, radar, gobs of electronics and wore a survival suit on all but dead calm days an even then it was in a locker on the boat. Meticulous maintenance and such…never had any issues. But again: Large brain, adequate budget, way overprepped…which is why he’s still around counting his money.

  2. I was born and raised next to the water and like you I pretty much saw it all from good to very bad but I will always remember what one of the old timers who had been on the water all of his life told me, Water is a very fickle mistress that can take you ANY time she wants too!

  3. Brings back memories (good & bad) of My Lady and I living on our 36 foot Solaris Catamaran. Did get to rescue a couple of power boaters to their embarrassment. Yes, Be Prepared (the boy scouts motto) is what it is all about, cause if you aren’t and the SHTF you are up the creek without a paddle in more ways than one. This applies to all facets of life and sadly most people do not understand or attempt to be prepared for what ever life flings at ya. Keep writing about is and maybe it will sink into some heads. The rest are Darwin Award runner ups.

    • Going out without equipment specified – not even a marine VHF or GPS – no spares, no water no freeboard…

  4. So, did they take your advice and prep? Or heed your advice and cancel? Or ignore you and go out on a wing and a prayer?

  5. PFDs, otherwise known as Personal Floatation Devices. In a crossing such as this, a type 1 is needed. All other types will NOT keep your head above water and will most likely roll you face down. Whenever I join a vessel, I take out the PFDs and not only look the over for the tags, but also pull and tug on them. You would be surprised of the amount of PFDs that are rotten!

    And I’d rather have a handheld VHF, the helos and FPCs still have RDFs onboard. A cellphone is useless if one does not know where they are.

    An old saying I heard a long time ago: A Ship can be used as a Minesweeper ~ Once

  6. Great post George.

    This thinking seems to be way too uncommon these days.

    Can’t tell you the amount of time I’ve spent trying to impress this wisdom displayed here to people on a local ( NorCal ) fishing board. They like to go , no joke , 35 miles out off of Monterey with no gear , no knowledge and the inability to appreciate the life saving advice people share with them. More times than not , the typical response would be ” well , if I get into trouble , I’ll call the Coast Guard to help. It’s their job. Or I’ll wait for another boater to save me. ” Cheap bastards wouldn’t even pop for vessel assist. This thinking is the basis for boating statistics.

    Even worse is they have this mentality while doing a float trip down a river. They’ll just get to the bank.

    I truly hate to see people learning the hard way with their lives and the lives of others.

  7. OMG George you prep like I do..except for land..
    I sure hope they take your advice..its full of sound wisdom..
    On another note..did anyone notice the commercial for the new show the MAYANS.. About a bike group..
    Lol the F@$K Y%u subliminal was so cool I might even watch the show to see what’s inside or if that was just a teaser a show without any substance.

  8. Impressive video of your sailing vessel on Thanksgiving Day – to a true landlubber. Well done! And thanks.

  9. Very, good piece. Prepping is important and can save our lives. It’s a sick feeling to be helpless at sea even in a big ship. Watched many destroyers, get open ocean,sea tugged, thousands of miles to who knows which port. Those poor souls were miserable.

  10. Love most of Your stuff. This story is spot on.
    Lived a small portion of My young life in Victoria B.C. and would get on those waters frequently on friends boats, 30 foot or more, in the summertime.
    You don’t mess around out there, the waters change so much from hour to hour and can become quite scary quite quickly.
    A 19 foot boat is pretty much a dingy out on the salt chuck.
    Definitely a lake boat only and with 6 people, yikes.

    Yeh the old Boy Scout Motto comes to mind “be prepared”

Comments are closed.

Toggle Dark Mode