By Jim Clemens
Master Coast Guard Chief retired, and a former Chair of the U.S. Coast Guard Boat Forces Advisory Council
Before you read any further I have two disclaimers I would like to make clear. I am a compulsive planner and I spent most of my adult life on the waters of the Pacific North West. In spite of my checklists and prepper ways I have spent many days wishing I would have planned for the worst. In the paragraphs that follow I will share some preparedness ideas, a couple of common-sense tricks and a couple of items that have saved some lives.
The term “Dress for Success” is way over used but it seems appropriate. As it relates to marine activity, I would change it to; “Dress for Survival”. Even on the most bluebird days, I always have rain gear and at least one extra layer of wool or poly garments. If you take nothing else from this article remember that cotton should be avoided in a cold and wet weather situation. A wicking garment is always better when avoiding hypothermia. On my boats I always keep a drybag or pelican case with a couple of watch caps and good gloves. That same case holds a handheld marine radio, a couple of flashlights, some protein bars and at least 6 large bottles of water. I know it seems ridiculous to lug these things around on an inland lake or river but what I am describing is a survival kit. Even on water where there is no carriage requirement for flares, I always have both handheld and aerial versions.
It may seem like overkill but every adult life jacket I own is equipped with a strobe light or single use light stick. I will spare you by telling only one sea story. Several years ago I was part of a large search for a missing marine salvage captain. He was operating a tow vessel owned by one of the more recognizable salvage companies. While trying to refloat a grounded yacht, his vessel capsized and he quickly drifted away. The captain was wearing a PFD but had no strobe or flashlight. One of the factors leading to this story’s good ending was the water temperature of 72 degrees. Three Coast Guard boats and two aircraft searched six hours during a very dark night. A Coast Guard aircraft found the hypothermic captain just after first light. During the debrief he indicated that the boats and aircraft passed by him three times and at one point he resorted to using a butane lighter as a signaling device.
Although this scenario had a happy ending, colder water could have killed this gentleman before he was found. A strobe light attached to a PFD would have undoubtedly resulted in his rescue several hours sooner. A personal EPIRB would have increased his chances for survival exponentially. I consider my personal EPIRB, a $275-dollar life insurance policy. I will spare you the details of several Search & Rescue cases that either ended in rescue or disaster based on the ability to signal distress. Suffice it to say that I spent many years teaching boat and water safety, and many more helping those who suffered mishaps either by accident, or as a result of their failure to plan. When you prepare your self and your vessel for any trip on the water, remember that it’s ok to “over prepare”. While it may seem that some items you pack will never be forced into use, if it comes to potentially saving the life of a loved one or yourself, you will be glad you did.