Photo by Andy Brack

Shannon Scaff is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran and director of the Charleston Emergency Management District. “I enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1993 — specifically for the position of aviation survival man or helicopter rescue swimmer,” he said. “Three years into that, I was involved in a search-and-rescue case at the small boat station in Chestertown, Maryland. Two boats were in distress, foundering in nasty weather. The call came in at 2 a.m., as they normally do, and I was shimmying down a ladder. Just like that, my finger got caught in the ladder’s handrail and tore right off. So I learned — literally firsthand — how quickly things in the maritime environment go from bad to worse to life-threatening.” 

What follows is a first-person sampling of Scaff’s hard-won wisdom for mariners.

Inspect. The reality is that anytime you’re out on the water, it’s inherently dangerous. First, get a courtesy boat inspection from the Coast Guard auxiliary and some peace of mind. Get that sticker and feel good that you’re a responsible, prudent mariner. 

What’s the weather? Check the weather before you go and understand that if you take your family out on that boat and a storm comes up, that’s your responsibility. It’s your fault that you are not prepared, because they trusted you. Just like the public trusts us to go out there and save you when something goes bad. 

Plan, man. It sounds simple, but make a solid plan and stick to it. Say you’re just going out fishing. Have a plan and voice it so that somebody who cares about you knows your plan. That alone is of tremendous value, because if something bad happens, the first person who is going to call us is that person.

Communicate. Other simple stuff. The radio. We understand that we’re going to get calls from the newest of the new to the saltiest of the salty. We don’t get wrapped around the axle about technical stuff. We’re more interested in you passing along the information we need because time is of the essence. What should you pass along? Location and number of souls. Click. Done.

What have you done? One: You’ve narrowed our search range from 50 square miles — the transmitting range of your radio — to a single square mile. And two: You’ve told us how big a rescue we need to launch. Basically, you’ve taken the search out of search-and-rescue.

Communication devices. Have multiple kinds. If you don’t have flares, if you don’t have a radio, a cell phone, a strobe light, a life raft — what have you done? You’ve stacked the deck against yourself. Every maritime store sells personal locator beacons. Put one on. It’s a couple of hundred bucks, but it sure beats drifting in the ocean for three days holding onto a cooler.

If you have to use a flare, use common sense. Don’t blow them off all at once, and please do not shoot them directly at our helicopter. Our night-vision goggles are very sensitive. We’ll see a flare from a country mile. But any light source — a lighter, a flashlight — is going to help.

Drunk boating. Don’t drink and boat. Period. You can pull into Shem Creek at any time and see Joe Schmoe with his fancy little Sea Fox with hotties running around. He’s like, ‘I’m Johnny on the spot. I’m the man. I’m gonna jockey my boat right up here while everybody’s watching.’ That’s the same dude who’s gonna get loaded, then he slams into Chutes Folly Island and kills himself and three people. 

No brainers. Wear your life jackets. And what if you break down? Are you subscribed to a boat towing service? It sounds cliché, but this stuff matters.

HAVE FUN. Go out and have a good time. But know the rules of the water, and have respect for the environment you’re in.

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