Shopping with the Coasties

The Coast Guard’s accident files chronicle a history of what works and what doesn’t. They will teach you what to look for in your next boat.

February 1, 2001

When shopping for a new boat, you see those decals from the NMMA (National Marine Manufacturers Association) or ABYC (American Boat and Yachting Council) on the windshield and trust that the boat is seaworthy. And for the most part it is. But there are some construction standards that are not covered or are overlooked by these organizations. Plus, there are only a few federal standards a builder must adhere to – the majority are suggestions.

How do you know what to look for when buying your new boat? For the answers, we turned to the United States Coast Guard, poring over their accident reports and “Boating Safety Circulars” in an effort to single out the aspects of boat design and construction buyers most often miss. Read on and we guarantee you’ll never shop for a new boat in the same way again. ****

HELM WITHOUT A VIEW**** Case #MC00-175 __


“A 32′ cruiser proceeding seaward at approximately 28 knots turned to port to enter a channel. It was struck by an overtaking runabout on the port side. Operator of cruiser claims he looked before turning but never saw the other boat.”

According to the Coast Guard, the typical recreational boater is more likely to have a collision with another vessel or a fixed object than any other type of boating accident. In 1998 collisions accounted for more than 2,100 injuries and over $8.2 million in property damage. Worse yet, such collisions historically rank as the third most frequent cause of boating fatalities. A close look at the accident reports reveals that greater than 50 percent cite “improper lookout” as the major contributing factor. In other words, drivers either didn’t, or often couldn’t, see where they were going.

But this isn’t all that surprising. Passengers may sit in front of the driver; there’s typically no rear- or side-view mirrors; and there’s often plenty of structural items to impair visibility. Imagine getting in your car, removing the mirrors, placing a few passengers on the hood, bringing the top of the windshield down to eye level, and then attempting to get from Point A to Point B without hitting anything. That’s about what you’ll find at the helm of many boats. Plus, factor in rain or spray without the benefit of windshield wipers, or with the sun bouncing off the reflective glare of the dash, and you’re destined for trouble.


It’s up to you to look for these blinders when shopping. In bowriders and deckboats, ask people in the showroom to sit in the forward cockpit to determine whether you’ll be able to see ahead. Remember that most boats operate at about three degrees of bowrise, or inclination. Skiboats offer excellent wide-angle mirrors so drivers can keep an eye on those at the end of the tow rope. See if there’s room to fit one either on the windshield frame or on the dash. Sit in the driver’s seat and look straight out with your head up and good posture. The windshield frame or center opening vent shouldn’t cut off your view. Turn around in the seat as if looking aft and to the sides. You’ll be doing this quickly while underway, so anything – no matter how small or narrow – can block your view. Put on a pair of polarized sunglasses: Windshields may show a blotchy pattern that is hard to see through.

Look for a helm seat with a flip-up bolster. This allows you to stand securely, allowing for better all-around visibility. Opt for windshield wipers. Select models where the motor is mounted below your normal field of vision. Check that the blade fully retracts from your view when not in use. As for the glare off the windshield itself? A helm with a shiny, light-colored gel coat can make distracting reflections. Look instead for dark (black is best), dull, textured finishes. Or see if it’s possible to cover the reflective area with a snap-on section of dark canvas.



“An 18′ runabout, running parallel to the shoreline on a northeasterly heading, struck a PWC headed west out of the swimming area. The boat operator claims that he was powering his boat onto plane and saw no other boat traffic in the immediate vicinity.”

Not obvious in showrooms, but well documented in accident reports, is the loss of forward visibility when getting on plane. According to the Coast Guard, temporary “restricted vision” is a major contributing factor in accidents. Imagine driving a car and not being able to see where you’re going for four seconds while accelerating to highway speed.

There are no manufacturer’s guidelines or government regulations for excessive bowrise. ABYC guidelines state only that during times of high trim angles, “it is expected that a lookout will be maintained as required by the Rules of the Road.” Essentially, you’re on your own – which is another good reason to test drive a boat before buying. In general, bowrise over five degrees, or losing sight of the horizon while seated, is too high. Five degrees is also the lower limit of the beam from properly installed navigation lights. At higher angles the lights may not be visible.


A boat that’s struggling to get on plane with its bow in the air is often a sign of insufficient power, so consider upgrading to a larger engine. Another detriment might be too much propeller pitch. Most sportboats should be leveled out and on plane within four seconds; six seconds is considered slow. Cruisers to 32′ should take about eight seconds and never more than 10 seconds.

Red And Green, Hardly Seen Case #MC99-583 __

“On a bow-to-bow course with an oncoming vessel, Vessel A turned to starboard. Operator states he saw Vessel B’s red light and thought he was clear. Collision occurred about 15 seconds later.”

The Coast Guard publishes precise rules on the visibility of running lights, but it is left to builders to comply with these standards. Unfortunately, there are many cases where lights may appear to be mounted properly but are, in fact, compromised. According to the Coast Guard, in 1998 more than 21 percent of reported accidents occurred between 6:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., hours when boating activity is significantly reduced. Lack of lights or improper ones was a key contributing factor.

Red and green running lights are required to be installed parallel to the boat’s centerline and then arranged to show an unbroken beam from directly ahead to 22.5 degrees abaft the beam: Visualize a clockface with 5, 6, and 7 cut out. There also must be no more than three degrees of beam spillover to the other side when seen from bow-on, and there has to be a sharp cutoff aft.

Lights that are flush mounted into the hull at the bow are, by nature of a hull’s pointy shape, angled inward. This can cause the forward beams to overlap, with no distinct separation between red and green. It also brings the side beams forward, obscuring them to overtaking boats. Compounding the problem is that many of these lights are installed below the rubrail, a practice that may help a craft’s appearance and minimize potential damage when rubbing up against a piling, but one that doesn’t follow the rule that states sidelights should be installed “above the uppermost continuous deck.” Even deck-mounted lights can have problems, such as being obscured by a windlass, rail stanchions, the cabin, or stowed fenders.

A stern light can also be blocked. Larger boats may have davits or a dinghy mounted on the swim platform, blocking the stern light from the view of an overtaking vessel. Smaller boats often mount their all-around stern light on a pole that’s too short, resulting in a loss of visibility due to bowrise or the Bimini top.

Before buying any boat, turn the running lights on and walk completely around the boat looking for misalignment or blind spots in the beams.


“At approximately 0330 hours, a 51′ twin-screw yacht was discovered adrift seven miles from shore. Upon boarding the vessel, officers discovered four occupants passed out in the main cabin. Preliminary inspection indicates the cause as CO poisoning. Source of contamination was likely a leaking exhaust hose; a faulty hose clamp was discovered in the bilge.”

In this case, during an engine overhaul, the exhaust pipes, which run behind cabinetry, were twisted for easy removal from the manifold. Upon reconnecting the pipes, however, the mechanics failed to inspect the rubber hose connections in the cabinets where the hose clamps had loosened after being twisted. Coast Guard investigators later determined that normal engine vibration caused the failure, which allowed carbon monoxide to enter the cabin. The leak was bad, but the real problem here was that the escaping fumes should have never been able to enter a living area.

If you’re considering a double cabin cruiser or motoryacht, know that there’s a good chance that exhaust lines will pass through the aft stateroom on their way to the transom. Make sure that access ports are sealed by a gasket or O-ring and if not, ask your dealer or builder to provide them before you take delivery. Inspect all joints or connections at least twice every season. Wet exhaust lines make a crack or leak easy to detect; with the engine running, look for a telltale drip of water. Make certain that any rubber hose connections are held by a pair of hose clamps at each end, rather than a single one. And make absolutely certain the manufacturer has used a rubber exhaust hose (or better yet silicone), designed for marine use. It will be clearly imprinted as Marine Water/Exhaust, SAEJ2006, or UL1129.

Inspect the engine room bulkheads to ensure they are completely sealed against air leaks into the living areas. Ventilation must come from outside the hull or cabin. Pay close attention to any holes used for passing plumbing, wiring, or control cables. Larger holes should be sealed with fiberglass; small holes must be caulked with silicone or polysulfide. As the Coast Guard likes to warn us, don’t let anyone tell you that holes in the engine room bulkhead are necessary for ventilation of the framing.


“A 29′ sportfisher experienced an engine room fire shortly after refueling. Cause was determined to be a small leak in the craft’s aluminum fuel tank, which allowed fuel to puddle in the bilge. Gasoline vapors were likely ignited by a spark from the ignition.”

It went largely unnoticed, but in 1997 the Coast Guard issued a warning about the alarming failure of aluminum fuel tanks in recreational boats. Citing a long-term Underwriters Laboratories (UL) study begun in 1992, the Coast Guard pointed out that 92 percent of the failures were a result of corrosion, particularly when tanks were mounted low in the bilge.

As the UL survey points out, part of the problem is that most aluminum fuel tanks are considered “maintenance-free.” With limited space available, tanks are often pushed into the least accessible corners, making regular inspection almost impossible. Although corrosion from sloshing bilge water was the most common culprit, the study also found several instances of abrasion. One boat’s fuel tanks were mounted atop a rubber pad, but the staples that held the pad in place weren’t recessed – they eventually wore into the tanks. In another case, the survey found brass fittings screwed directly into aluminum tanks, promoting galvanic corrosion. Almost every aluminum tank examined had some form of corrosion, and in every case the common factor was that the tanks hadn’t been installed so they could be easily inspected or repaired.

Ask your builder or dealer where the inspection ports are, and determine whether you can see susceptible connections, joints, welds, supports, and restraints. Examine the bilge to see whether water will flow freely past the tank or will instead be trapped under or around it. Also consider the thickness of aluminum tanks. The UL study found that most failures occurred in tanks constructed from 0.090″ or thinner aluminum sheet. Or look for boats using polyethylene or fiberglass tanks that are marked to show that they meet Coast Guard and ABYC standards.


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