Best Practices for a Safe Day on the Bay: Lessons from a Coast Guard Patrol Boat Captain

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of the Chesapeake Bay Magazine.

By Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Janaro, USCG

As a U.S. Coast Guard officer and recreational boater, I have experienced the highs and lows of extensive time at sea. As any self-respecting mariner will attest, the good times at sea far outweigh the bad. When I refer to a bad day at sea, I’m usually speaking of an unnecessarily stressful or dangerous situation underway. At best, these situations make everyone on board the vessel uncomfortable. At worst, they endanger the vessel and the lives of those on board. Without exception, each time I have experienced a bad situation at sea it was the result of poor planning and communication. Though these experiences are admittedly few and far between on board a professional Coast Guard vessel, I have responded to enough maritime accidents during my career to reinforce the notion that it only takes one bad evolution to end a day at sea in tragedy.

When not engaged in an operation, a day at sea aboard a military vessel is usually filled with meetings and training exercises. For every upcoming operation or exercise, there are myriad briefings to attend. While sometimes tedious, these briefings serve an important purpose: they cover emergency procedures and contingency plans while reinforcing a clear chain of command on the vessel. The time to discuss emergency plans and procedures on board your vessel is not as you are experiencing engine failure or as you are making your mooring approach to the pier during inclement weather. Rather, these briefings should be held in a controlled environment when crew and passengers are not distracted or uncomfortable.

For recreational boat captains, it is imperative that safety briefings include the location of life jackets and any throwable life rings that can be used during an emergency. Further, familiarizing your guests with what commands they will be given if they are assisting with line-handling and any task-specific instructions they will need are best reviewed in this controlled environment when they have the time and inclination to ask questions without feeling under pressure. If your guests receive clear instruction before they are asked to participate, they will likely do a better job and have a better underway experience. This may seem like common sense, but complacency and a false sense of comfort are two things that even the most experienced sea-goers succumb to.

I’ll illustrate my point with a quick sea story. When I served as Captain of the Coast Guard Cutter Albacore out of Norfolk, we had a new seaman report for duty. I always tried to foster a sense of teamwork and camaraderie, and was particularly sensitive to new members reporting for duty who would likely feel overwhelmed by unfamiliar systems, jargon and the fast pace of the crew work. Certain common evolutions, such as getting underway from the pier, were second nature to the crew, and it could be easy to forget that the new guy didn’t know where to go or what to do. Our regular practice of holding a navigation briefing before getting underway, where we would discuss the weather conditions, emergency procedures, the status of our equipment, etc., was a way in which we would hold ourselves accountable and ensure that we were keeping everyone, particularly new crewmembers, up to speed.

One summer day we were getting underway just like any other. After holding our navigation briefing, we uneventfully got off the dock. As we rounded the Virginia Capes in choppy seas, our newly reported seaman came up to the bridge and somewhat sheepishly told me he smelled a strong diesel smell when he was on the fantail and asked if it was normal. I admit, I thought that the new seaman was probably just not acquainted with the normal smell of a ship at sea. I resisted the urge to dismiss his comment, not only because I took safety matters seriously, but because it was important to me not to discourage him from speaking up about something in the future when an actual threat to safety was more likely. I sent the seaman down to the engine room with an experienced crewmember to investigate the smell, where they discovered a significant fuel oil leak on the starboard diesel engine. In all likelihood, the leak would have turned into a major engine room fire had it not been discovered so quickly.

The young seaman is the hero of the story and deserves the lion’s share of the credit. As the Captain, I was the beneficiary of his willingness to speak up and ask what may have been a “stupid” question during his first day on the job.

Applying the principles and best practices of the Coast Guard as described in the story above has made me a better recreational boater. I encourage you to follow some of the practices outlined below. . . .

1 Hold a safety briefing before getting underway and again before any major evolution on board.

Gathering your guests and reviewing emergency procedures may not be on the top of your list of things to do before a fun day on the water. However, nothing is less enjoyable for your cruising partners and guests than being caught in the middle of a stressful or embarrassing situation at sea. Your guests will be much more relaxed and able to enjoy themselves if you have talked through each situation beforehand, assigned crew to specific positions, briefed contingency plans, and reinforced the chain of command on board by establishing who will be giving orders to whom during the evolution. When you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.

2 Practice discipline in maintaining the chain of command.

Not only do you need to brief out the plan with your passengers ahead of time, it is equally, if not more important, that the captain doesn’t disregard the plan and start barking orders from the bridge when things don’t immediately go as planned. Now let me be clear: there is a time and place for decisive, hands-on leadership. However, there is also a time and place where it is appropriate for the leader to trust his or her crew to do the job as outlined in the briefing. If I were to start yelling line commands from the helm after I had delegated that authority to my wife who was supervising the line-handlers on deck and on the pier, I would likely just confuse everybody while undermining her authority on deck, and placing people in danger.

3 Make sure your passengers know to speak up if they see something amiss.

Your guests may be landlubbers feeling out of their element on the water. At your pre-underway safety briefing encourage everyone to speak up if they see something that concerns them regardless of their lack of boating experience. Make them feel part of the crew, as every set of eyes can be valuable assets to the captain. I hope some of these best practices I’ve learned over twelve years in the Coast Guard will help you when you go to sea, just as they have helped me when I’m out on the water. See you out there.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government. Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Janaro, USCG, has commanded two Coast Guard Cutters. He has taught seamanship and navigation aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Eagle and at the United States Naval Academy. He is currently in the Coast Guard Judge Advocate Program, attending George Washington University Law School.