Learn From Your Boating Mistakes

Valuable information can be gleaned from the boating mistakes of others.

Boats Sinking
Learn From Your Boating MistakesTim Bower

I think it was Oscar Wilde, the brilliant but bitchy British writer, who used to say that it’s not so much that he should succeed as his friends should fail. The guy definitely had self-image issues, but I get what he’s saying and heartily agree. Unlike Oscar, though, I like seeing folks fail not to prop up my admittedly frail ego but so I can learn from their horrors and avoid the same.

Usually, I don’t have to go too far or too long to get an education. Thankfully, disasters are everywhere. Unfortunately, they are mostly minor ones. So when I want to find a really meaty tragedy, I look through the files of marine insurance companies — which store some of the worst screw-ups imaginable.

Here’s a classic: Before ducking into the cabin, a skipper tells his nonboating guest to take the helm and “head for that red light,” referring to a buoy in the distance. But there are other red lights and he picks one on the back of a train. The boat bounces off a jetty and lands on the tracks, and a few minutes later the skipper and guest watch as a second train slams into the boat.

While there’s not much to be gained from this story other than a good laugh, my insurance pals tell me that, of the many types of accidents they record, those involving collisions are the most common. Probably not too often with trains, but considering that there are 17 million boats on the water, the odds are pretty good that one will hit something.

The data, however, is surprising. It shows that houseboats have the greatest chances of a collision each year (eight in 1,000), while runabouts have the least (three in 1,000). However, when houseboats have an accident it usually costs only 2 percent of the boat’s value, compared with a runabout’s 14 percent.

Boats are also good at sinking, which brings us to another surprise: For every one that goes down underway, about four sink in their slips. One reason is that when a boat leaves the dock someone is on board to look after it. Another is that boats in slips spend most of their time tied up. So odds are, if your boat is going down, it will be with its dock lines in place. About half the time when this happens, it is caused by a failure of a fitting below the waterline.

But there are always the exceptions: An owner comes down to his boat and sees it’s on the bottom. It hadn’t rained; a recent survey showed that the through-hulls are in good shape; and the owner had closed all the seacocks when he left. So how did it sink? From a garden hose, that’s how. The freshwater tap at the dock was left on, and a connector parted from the galley faucet. Water poured in and a few hours later all was lost. Lesson to me: Never leave your boat without disconnecting the water at the dock.

While collisions and sinking have a certain dark comic value, there’s something about a fire on board that even I have a hard time making light of. But I’ll try.

While taking on gas, the owner sees a small fuel spill that is hard to reach. Not wanting to take any chances, the skipper comes up with a clever solution — a wet/dry vacuum cleaner. Within seconds of it being turned on, the gasoline is gone … and so is most of the boat. Apparently, this happens more than you’d think, and those who do it never stop first to consider that vacuum cleaners aren’t ignition-protected.

Ah, so little time, so many screw-ups. Which leads me to another Oscar Wilde gem: “Experience is merely the name we give to our mistakes.” Or in my case, your mistakes. So when I see you outside the inlet, I’ll be watching — waiting for you to mess up so I won’t do the same dumb thing in the future. Thanks.