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Safe at Sea: Fatal decisions

By Staff | Dec 17, 2019

PHOTO PROVIDED A maximum capacity plate.

(Editor’s note: Information for the column was taken from the America’s Boating Course text.)

For years, America’s Boating Club of Sanibel-Captiva (also known as the Power Squadron) has taught a nine-week Smart Boating Course for all sixth-graders at The Sanibel School. One recent lesson examined a case study of a true, terribly tragic boating accident which resulted in multiple fatalities. The cause? Human error that began before the left the dock.

Not surprisingly, the captain had failed to leave a float plan behind. That decision cost the Coast Guard hours of time in their search and rescue for the three men who went out fishing. Important to know: one error may well have cost two of the men their lives. The second mistake – again, before they left dock – was they did not update the weather forecast they’d completed the night before. The third error they made was they failed to adhere to the load capacity of their boat, a mistake that should have been corrected before venturing 30 miles off shore to fish.

Overloading a boat reduces freeboard and makes it “easy” to swamp or capsize in heavy waves. For the young men, this meant death.

A U.S. Coast Guard safety standard requires a maximum capacity plate. Note the information the capacity plate provides:

– Maximum number of persons for which the boat is rated.

– Total weight of those persons.

– Combined weight of persons, motor and gear for which the boat is rated.

– Maximum horsepower of any motor used on the boat.

The rating for the maximum number and weight of the persons is only a guide, as children obviously weigh less than adults and such. As a result, the most important information is the maximum combined weight of persons, motor and gear. Use it as the controlling figure and plan accordingly. Although not required by federal law, many boat manufacturers have their own voluntary standards for boats up to 26-feet in length.

In the case study, the three fishermen made several fatal decisions, but when the weather turned significantly worse (and not unexpectedly had any one of them rechecked the forecast the morning they took off fishing) their safety was imperiled by an overloaded boat that simply could not remain upright. The result was that over 30 hours later when the capsized boat was spotted, only one man was alive, clinging to its hull.

Pat Schmidt is a member of America’s Boating Club of Sanibel-Captiva. For more about the chapter and the courses it offers, visit www.sancapboating.club or contact education@sanibelcaptivasps.org or 612-987-2125.