Panic, according to Google word search is a “sudden sensation of fear, which is so strong as to dominate or prevent reason and logical thinking, replacing it with overwhelming feelings of anxiety and frantic agitation consistent with an animalistic fight-or-flight reaction.”
When you are aboard a boat in a grave situation, panic is not an option for the captain.
If you have boated long enough you will know that “issues” on board come up. These issues can range from the inconvenience of the engines stalling on the water to the horror of taking on water or getting caught in a storm. How you deal with these problems is critical.
In the event of the engine mishap, perhaps regular maintenance and engine inspections could have prevented a problem. If you are stalled on the water you simply radio Sea Tow and call it the end of what may have been a good day. However, things can get worse.
Trying to control or avoiding panic is what can save lives. People act differently under extreme duress. Under these situations, adults may do anything from cry in a fetal position, have a total denial of a situation, or bark random useless orders to feel better. I have also seen (and experienced) take-charge adrenaline that controlled the situation and avoided panic. Everyone deals with extreme stress differently and no one knows what will happen until they are in a situation.
To help control panic on a boat I recommend the captain and family understand what can go wrong in advance and how to try to solve the problem. I call this understanding and reacting. If you can envision what can go wrong on your boat, then you should envision what is needed to work out the problem.
An example of pre-disaster planning, which can minimize panic, is to know where the life jackets, fire extinguishers and flares are located. Early in the season call a fire or a man overboard drill (using a life jacket for practice). For the fire drill, everyone should know how to use the extinguishers. For the man overboard, teach your family to always point to the victim.
Doing these at least once allows people to know what they are supposed to do, which means less chance of panic and more chance of reaction.
Stay Calm on the Call
The radio and cell phone are vital in your rescue. According to Glen Cove Harbor Patrol Sgt. Dave Caso, his advice is to get on the radio immediately and keep calm. Yelling in a panic does no good. Give your position slowly over the radio and cell phone. Include location, landmarks and GPS coordinates. This is critical to responding boats. Also, boats move with the wind and tide so call in more than once and make sure you are acknowledged after your report in.
Be Prepared For Taking on Water
One of the biggest fears for any boater is taking on water. If you take on water and do not know what to do, panic may set in fast. There are two main ways to take on water and a few to fix it. Water can come from a cracked hose or a hole in the hull. If you have the tools needed to do a temporary fix and understand how to use them, you will likely not panic.
I recommend having on board Stay Afloat Emergency Leak Seal, wooden plugs, Rescue Tape and something called STA-Plug Emergency Plugs. You-tube these names and watch the short videos so you know how to use them in advance. Reading the instructions while the boat is taking on 20 gallons a minute through a one-inch hole is not a good idea. After watching the video, work a scenario in your mind. If tragedy strikes you will at least know what to do lessening your chance of going into a panic.
My Longest Four Minutes at the Helm
Weather and seas are other areas of high stress. Things on the water can go real bad in minutes. Over a dozen years ago I found myself in the middle of a deadly microburst, and I was in a mooring field to make matters worse.
On that day the weather went from sunny skies and a light breeze to dark gray and greenish clouds before all hell came down. This happened while I was dropping off cousins at a dock in City Island.
After hearing NOAA radio alerts on channel 16 (always leave your radio on) saying there was a strong storm cell forming we turned on our new radar app to watch it. It was a strong small cell that was blowing from New Jersey to near LaGuardia Airport and then into Westchester. We saw the storm on the radar and thought we would be able to make the dock in City Island as we were south of its prediction. Getting close to the dock it became evident things shifted fast and we were not in a good place.
We were 500 feet from the dock when all of a sudden a half a mile to the north I saw what appeared to be sailboats reaching up to the sky and splashing hard into the water while trying to rip out their bridle lines. This was blowing in our direction fast.
From the upper helm, I yelled to my wife getting the dock lines ready to get inside and stay on the floor with life jackets. From that moment I remember saying to myself steer and think. A moment later, everything went into slow motion.
Immediately I was pushing hard to port with starboard engine goosed to get the nose in the wind while avoiding the boats around us.
My 46-foot boat was 75% pointed into the wind when a 70+ mph wind took us at an angle. I got to understand the term “hit by a freight train,” as 29,000 pounds of boat was now skidding sideways quickly in three-foot waves in a mooring field. I gave a loud “Oh Sh@t” and took a deep breath, from that moment my hands were throttling up or down on both engines and spinning the wheel without any second thought at what I was doing.
Realizing the boat could not boat point upwind, I decided to use the wind for a push, rather than fight it. This meant instantly reversing port hard and bringing starboard up fast. This deflected the wind on the port and spun me so the wind was on the stern and I was no longer going sideways. From there a fast experiment failed when I pushed the caterpillar engines in reverse hard to try to stay somewhat in place. That made them angry emitting warning sounds of overheating and high RPMs.
Around me were sailboats trying to rip off their moorings balls. (A few did)
As holding in place was not an option I remember my hands throttling hard forward with the wind in my back just missing a sailboat by a few feet. Then it was throttle to port and hard reverse on starboard, turn the wheel to push right and push both throttles. Then back both throttles, followed by port and starboard in different directions and pushing both forward between boats. This was repeated three more times missing boats by as little as two feet.
At the same time from the side of my eye, I saw one of our seat cushions rip from its Velcro and hurl straight up into the sky, never to be seen again.
Finally looking forward was a 50-foot wide channel between the last few boats spinning into it before open water. Here I nailed the throttles for about 150 feet through the channel to get out of the mooring field. I was ecstatic about not having to worry about playing bumper boats anymore. At the end of the field, the winds slowed to 25 mph and with a little work got the boat pointed into the wind only to be slapped in the face with grape size raindrops. A few minutes later the skies cleared as if nothing happened.
The aftermath was not pretty with several maydays, one missing sailing student, a few wrecked boats and some hysterical people on the radio asking what to do. We learned that a tent at a yacht club in Manhasset Bay was blown out injuring a few people.
After getting on the radio asking if anyone nearby needed assistance, we slowly cruised back to Manhasset Bay. After backing in, my wife and boat neighbors tied us up while I put my head on the wheel and closed my eyes. Mentally I was spent and a little bit of a wreck. I just realized I had the longest three to four minutes of my life at the wheel of the boat with no damage or injury but held it together when it counted. I needed to work out what just happened. I called down asking for “my good rum” and my wife brought up my 7 year aged Cuban bottle, cap removed. I took two big gulps and asked to be left alone for a few minutes. I wanted to understand what happened back in City Island. It was luck, reaction and staying calm that did the trick.
Three lessons were learned that day. One is I never take a thunderstorm “in the distance” for granted. The weather service confirmed that I had experienced a “microburst” with winds over 80 mph. There have been waterspouts, tornados, and microbursts confirmed in our area over the last ten years so be alert. I also learned to trust my instincts. Without time for second-guessing, my brain and hands were in sync with each other to keep us safe. I also know I had been lucky. The third lesson was it was OK to get back shaken up a little after the episode.
Situations on boats happen. Stay calm, think things through and don’t panic.