Saturday, February 8, 2014

How to handle rough water in a boat, Part 1

Trout Bay as seen looking toward the southwest in evening. Photo by Kim Gross
This is the first of a three-part series.

Red Lake doesn't continually look as placid as the scene above. The wind can generate big waves under some circumstances and in some places. How you react to these conditions can mean the difference between a comfortable boat ride and a scary one.
Before going on I should add that we have never had a boat capsize from rough water, even when its driver and occupants did virtually everything wrong in the worst conditions. That said, there is a right way to operate a boat in rough water that everyone should know. That's what this series is about.

There are three components to boating safety: 1. preparedness, 2. situational awareness and 3. proficiency at operating the boat.


Wear your personal floatation device or PFD, aka life vest!
This one simple act which should be as ingrained as putting on your pants in the morning means absolutely everything! We could stop the discussion right here!
No matter what Nature can throw at you, if you are wearing a PFD that fits you properly, you should be totally OK. The worst thing that can happen to you is that you can get wet.
We have PFDs available at camp for everyone and it is the law that you must have one in the boat for each person. Ridiculously, however, the law doesn't require you to wear it! A PFD in the bow of the boat if you capsize would be about as useful as a screen door in a submarine. First of all, it is almost impossible to put on in the water and secondly, the wind will immediately send it flying across the lake.
It is an excellent idea to bring your own PFD because then you'll know before you even leave home that you've got one that you like. I hear people say that they find wearing a PFD uncomfortable. If so, they simply haven't found the right one. They come in all different sizes and shapes. I guarantee you that there is one made for everybody. While you are getting ready for this year's fishing trip at home, go visit your sporting good stores and try them all on. Remember to get one that fits over the clothing that you will be wearing at camp.
Most of us are just fine with standard vest-type PFDs that have a zipper and/or strap method of fastening. My personal one has four pockets on the front where I keep my fishing licence and line clippers and other things I use frequently. Mine is drab-coloured because I also wear it duck hunting in the fall. Bright colours are better for safety reasons -- they make you easier to spot if you need to be rescued. But if bright orange or yellow discourages you from wearing it, then forget it. Get a camo pattern or whatever it takes to make you at ease wearing it 100% of the time when you are boating.
You may find the PFDs made for kayakers and canoeists a better fit for you, especially if you are female. Women aren't as long between the shoulders and waist as men are and can find that traditional vest PFDs bunch up around their ears when they are sitting.
Finally, many people today are opting for the self-inflating PFDs. These look like suspenders and inflate when submersed. They are pricier than standard vests but if you find you like that type best, get it! It's your life we're talking about here. I think you are worth at least $150.
Preparedness is 95% about wearing your PFD all the time but there are a couple other points to consider such as telling someone where you are going, at least someone else in your group. If you only have one boat in your group, tell Brenda or me or our staff members. You don't have to give away your secret fishing spot, just a general idea such as "we're going to fish east today, around Golden Arm, Hall Bay and Wolf Bay," for instance. Then, if you don't come in for supper on time (incidentally, we'll save it for you if you're late), and we have a big east wind taking place, we know that you are most likely wind-bound -- you are waiting for the wind to drop and the waves to settle down before coming across big water back toward camp. When the wind does drop and you still aren't back, we have at least a vague idea where to go looking to see what happened to you.
Another point: stow your gear in your boat. It's a good idea to always have your tackle box closed and anything that can move around from the wind battened down at all times but especially when you are about to encounter rough water. You don't want anybody to lurch after things that are about to blow out of the boat just as you are handling a big wave.
Here's a story of probably the closest time we have ever had someone drown at camp. It occurred back in the '80s, when my dad and step-mother were running camp.
George, one of the camp staffers, took the camp boat and went fishing one evening without telling anyone he was going or where. He didn't wear a PFD or even take one in the boat. He headed right across Pipestone Bay and as he skimmed quickly across the surface in about the center of this big bay that is several miles in diameter, the bailing scoop in the bow of the boat began blowing wildly around. It should have been stowed behind the stern seat. George feared it might fly up, come back and strike him in the face, which was indeed a possibility. So, without slowing down, he let go of the outboard tiller handle and walked to the front of the boat to retrieve the scoop. With no one to hold onto the tiller, the torque of the propeller made the outboard suddenly swing to one side, sending the boat into a tight arc. The momentum of the turn threw George over the side.
So now George was in the water, about two miles from shore, and wasn't wearing a PFD, but that wasn't his only problem -- the circling boat kept coming back to run him over, again and again. He said later that he actually tried to catch the boat as it went by the first few times. Luckily, he didn't succeed because he could have been killed by the propeller if he had gotten swept behind the boat.
So, there wasn't anything else to do but start swimming. He eventually made it to a tiny island.
Meanwhile, back in camp, no one even knew he was missing. However, Jim Doyle, the camp's outside worker and fish cleaner was returning to his cabin for the night when he noticed the staff boat wasn't at the dock. He checked George's cabin and found it empty. When it got totally dark and George still hadn't come back, Jim took a boat and went looking, but where? He went first into Sadler Bay and since it was so quiet and still, he guessed that if George was stranded there for some reason, he would have heard Jim's motor and would call out for help; so, Jim went right to the middle of the bay and turned off his motor to listen. Far, far away to the north, he could hear something, perhaps just a bird, but it made Jim curious.
Jim started his boat up and went back into Pipestone Narrows and then into the entrance of Pipestone Bay where he again cut his engine and listened. This time he could hear it better -- someone calling for help to the north. He followed the sound and retrieved George sitting on his tiny island.
The boat had run around in circles in the middle of the bay for hours before it ran out of gas. Jim found it the next day.
It was just luck that this story ended so positively. What did George do wrong? Number 1, he didn't wear a PFD. Two, he didn't tell anyone where he was going and three, he didn't stow everything before operating the boat. There was also a fourth mistake -- letting go of the tiller handle but that's part of boating proficiency which we'll address in the third part of this series. 

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