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Dead Right

Today a friend of mine shared a link to a story about a boater who ran his fairly large cabin cruiser up onto the beach. He was asleep and the boat was on autopilot. He made excuses about everyone else being asleep, too, and the autopilot "malfunctioning." The real truth is this - you do not need a license to operate a pleasure boat in Washington. No training required. Nothing. If you can slap down the money and turn the ignition you are boating.

As anyone who has actually had any boat safety training at all knows, there are quite a lot of boaters out there who do not have the first notion about the Coast Guard "Rules of the Road." In my sailing classes we learned a term for sailers who know that they have the right of way, but are facing a boater who does not know that rule: Dead Right. In other words, you are right that you have the right of way, but dead because a big boat hit you because the captain of that boat didn't know that rule.

In driving class we learn about defensive driving. On the water this is taken to a new level because boats can come at you from 360 degrees and if you are hit you don't have air bags and seat belts and you don't just pull over to the side of the road. If you are in a collision in Puget Sound, you could find yourself overboard in 900 foot deep, 55 degree water, which might or might not be a problem, depending on if you are dead.

In the story that I linked to, above, the gentleman smashed into an island. How many other boats had to divert to avoid him crashing into them while he was sleeping? I was returning to Shilshole Marina in Ballard one evening and the weather had closed in on us. The wind and the rain were up, there was a lot of chop, and it was a generally miserable, blustery evening. I spotted a cabin cruiser, much like the one in the story, headed south for Seattle. It was up on a plane, traveling fast, and on a dead straight course. I had right of way since I was under sail and I kept waiting for the boat to turn. Eventually the boat got closer and closer and was showing no signs of turning, so I made to tack. As the cabin cruiser passed me I saw no one on the flying bridge and no one in the window at the controls below. Autopilot. It was a gross night so I guess that they pointed her at Seattle, set the autopilot, and went below.

If you put a boat (or airplane) on autopilot you still have to watch where it is going. It can't see other boats or logs or islands. It just points the boat. The gentleman who hit the island has no license to pull. He can be back out there next weekend supposing that someone drags his boat off of the beach for him. I have to have a license and pass a test to drive a Smart Car, but a 40,000 pound boat? Nope. Nothing required. I just don't get it.


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