Safe at sea: Wind, weather and cold water bring fresh excitement, as well as risk, to marine boating in Whatcom County

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 16, 2014 

  • STAY AFLOAT

    Here's a basic rule for all marine boaters in Whatcom County: Always wear a life jacket or personal flotation device.

    "It doesn't matter how strong a swimmer you are," says Penny Milczewski, who is active in the Bellingham Sail and Power Squadron and the Coast Guard Auxiliary. "You get into that cold water and you'll have about 10 minutes of muscle control."

    On their powerboat, she and her husband, John, prefer automatic inflatables, which are not very bulky, sit over clothing comfortably, and inflate once they are in the water.

    That's important, because things can happen quickly. They were reminded of that when they took a trip with other experienced boaters and a small miscalculation put someone in the water.

    "One of the people jumped onto the dock, tripped, and fell into the water on the other side. His inflatable worked," John Milczewski recalls. "If you have a life jacket, I can come get you. It's that simple."

    For help picking the right type of personal flotation device, visit uscg.mil and search for "Personal Flotation Device," or visit a sporting goods store and ask for details.

Experienced boaters know the Northwest's cold waters can be both enticing and, at times, risky. That's why there are many groups in Whatcom County that teach new boaters how to avoid the hazards that come along with boating.

We asked local experts to weigh in with safety concerns, and basic things boaters should know.

POWERBOATING

Penny and John Milczewski have both worked extensively with Flotilla 11 of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, where Penny is the immediate past flotilla commander and John teaches safety classes and does free vessel inspections.

"We're not law enforcement," he says of the auxiliary. "If they don't have what they need, we'll let them know."

In a powerboating safety class, novices learn the rules of nautical right of way, including the "rule of tonnage," which means bigger boats generally have the right of way over smaller ones.

Boaters also learn about navigation and charts, essential knowledge for safe boating in marine waters.

One time the Milczewskis were docked in the San Juan Islands when two people on another vessel asked them how to get to Deception Pass.

"We were going to point it out on their chart, but they just had a tourist map," John recalls.

Charts are important for navigation and for avoiding underwater features and shallow areas that can creep up seemingly out of nowhere.

"People who are used to boating in a lake maybe don't think about having a chart," Penny says.

Safety courses also teach boaters how to survive if a vessel capsizes.

Someone who took a safety course from John Milczewski took his new 21-foot sailboat out on Bellingham Bay on a choppy day. He put down the centerboard to keep the sailboat from being blown side-to-side, but the centerboard delaminated and its lead weight dropped away, so the sailboat flipped over.

"He had only just made it out of Squalicum Harbor," John says. "He thought, 'Should I swim?', but remembered the class and realized, 'No, I should stay with the boat.'"

The sailor was rescued, angry at the boat builder, but otherwise fine.

SAILING

Neil Bennett, fleet captain at Bellingham Yacht Club, and Bart Maupin, a racing fleet captain, echoed the Milczewskis' advice about safety.

"The biggest (safety concern) is staying on the boat because of the water temperature," Maupin says. "In the worst case, if somebody does go in the water they should be wearing a lifejacket, because if they do go in, it helps keep their head above water."

It can be harder to get back into a sailboat once in the water, because many sailboats sit higher than other vessels.

"Staying on the boat is the most important safety principle," Bennett says. "What's important is consistency; having some established standards, procedures and triggers that are consistently applied for safety."

A good rule of thumb is to always have one hand for the boat, Bennett says. That means keeping one hand connected to the boat while moving from stern to bow, and vice versa.

Bennett says every reputable sailing program requires students to become proficient in the "man overboard" drill, with specific steps to rescue someone from the water.

The skipper of a yacht is ultimately responsible for the crew's safety, but with no specific requirement that a skipper have a certain level of skill to participate in a race, it's good to set ground rules with the crew before the racing begins.

"It's a chaotic environment out there and it can catch you pretty quickly," Maupin says. "It's about flexibility, and knowing your crew and your abilities."

Many safety issues have to do with understanding how a sailboat works.

"A few things to understand are the wind, the size of the sail, and the keel of the boat," Bennett says. "Sailboats will keel over; they'll tip with the wind. Some think that's not safe, but it's actually how the boat is designed to work."

That tilting can make it difficult for the crew to maneuver around the boat, making sailing an activity that requires people to be in reasonably good shape.

"You can sail for the day and wake up feeling like you've been doing sit-ups all day," Maupin says. "There are ropes all over the place like a jungle gym; they'll come tight or slack all of a sudden."

Sailing can range from a pleasant afternoon on the water to storm conditions. It's important to know how to manage all conditions, but it can be hard to know how without practicing in them.

"You have to have a lot of experiences, and get a lot of cold, green water in the face," Bennett says.

SMALL BOATS

Fairhaven's Community Boating Center offers classes on the basics of human-powered watercraft, such as sea kayaks, paddleboards and rowboats.

People using small boats must be aware of the risk of finding themselves in the water, says Steve Walker, the center's executive director.

"If they're not capable of executing a rapid re-entry into their boat, then they should dress for immersion," he says.

Boaters also must pay attention to the weather forecast.

"It can be so easy to assume that the weather is going to stay the way it is, and it doesn't," Walker says. "People like to give the weatherman a hard time, but the forecasts are often absolutely spot-on."

Several years ago, a group of college students nearly lost their lives after they set out in their sea kayaks along the eastern shore of Orcas Island just before extreme weather hit, Walker says. When they left shore, the weather was fine, but they hadn't checked the forecast and high winds came up quickly and capsized their boats.

"It was winter, so there wasn't a lot of boat traffic out," Walker says. "There were gray and choppy seas and they could have easily not been seen."

Fortunately, crew members aboard a state ferry saw them in the water and rescued them.

Knowledge about tides and, especially, currents also is important for people using small watercraft.

"Especially for the hours ahead, know the current so you don't find yourself in a narrow passage and the speed has picked up and you're unprepared," Walker says.

Finally, boaters need to appreciate how cold the water is, regardless of the season.

"People who maybe have spent their summers at youth camp on lakes, where the temperatures can get quite warm in summer, need to understand the waters of the Salish Sea are cold all year round," Walker says. "The water is life-threateningly cold in summer, like it is in winter."

The boating organization the Milzcewskis worked extensively with was updated June 17, 2014.

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at Samantha.Wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.

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