Photo by Andy Brack

Boat smart

With the dawn of summer upon us, lots of people will head to the water and area beaches for fun, sun and relaxation. So it’s a good time to offer reminders to readers to help them stay safe in and on the water. In this issue, Senior Editor Chris Dixon leans on his 2021 book, The Ocean: The Ultimate Handbook of Nautical Knowledge, to offer a rundown of boating wisdom from top experts that might help water newbies and even a salty Binyah or two. In a coming June issue, we’ll focus on beach safety.

Manatees and dolphins

In the summertime, our local waters are full of dolphins, turtles, manatees (that have migrated north) and boats. Wear polarized glasses and post a spotter at the bow. Legally, boaters must remain at least 50 yards from dolphins, porpoises and sea turtles and 100 yards from large whales. Look for big swirls of water, and be vigilant. Remember too — these creatures can’t dive to avoid you in shallow tidal water. Report any strikes to the state Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) hotline: 1-800-922-5431.

A pre-castoff Lowcountry boating checklist 

Plenty of websites provide a boating checklist with vital items like personal flotation devices, spare drain plugs and, of course, a first aid kit. Here are some Lowcountry specific items: 

[ ] Converse high tops. Stuck on an oyster bank? Need to jump into mud that may be full of sharp shells? Converse’s are tough, light, have drain holes and won’t get sucked off your feet when you sink in the muck. 

[ ] Provisions. You might break down even on a short ride. Keep enough food, water and sunscreen onboard for each person for a full day.

[ ] An anchor with a long line. If your motor dies, you’ll need to be ready to deploy at any time. Tide and wind are constant. 

Illustrations courtesy Chronicle Books

[ ] A heavy-duty paddle. For obvious reasons.

[ ] Vinegar or StingNoMore. Jellyfish stings are very common even in inshore waterways during the Lowcountry summer. Vinegar deactivates stingers on your skin. StingNoMore deactivates venom on and already under your skin.

[ ] A big, long screwdriver. If your outboard motor gets stuck ‘up’ on Morris Island, there’s a screw at the transom that drops the hydraulic pressure, lowering the motor.

[ ] Fishing line. Keep a couple of feet of heavy monofilament line —100 pound or higher test — to clean mud from an engine cooling water intake.

[ ] Weather gear. Summer storms can be vicious. Keep foul weather gear onboard. 

Be a boat ramp champ

Lowcountry boat ramps can be dangerous, not only with anxious, know-it-all hordes, but with wind and tidal currents. Arrive early to avoid crowds and traffic. When it’s time to re-trailer, be patient. Tidal currents can make the Wappoo Cut ramps off Folly Road and in Riverland Terrace particularly difficult. Gain some experience before launching at either. In the summer, afternoon winds often come on strong from the south. This can make ramps with open southern fetches like Sol Legare Road and Folly Beach quite challenging. 

Be wary on the shallows

Oyster shoals and hidden flats can trap you and your boat for hours — or days. 

  • Use a chart and/or depth finder and stay in the center of channels.
  • Polarized sunglasses cut through surface glare, allowing a much better view into murky waters. 
  • No channel markers? Know the following:
    • Shorebirds only walk in very shallow water.
    • Very shallow water is often slightly calmer than surrounding deeper water. 
    • Along the edges of shoal water, tidal currents visibly swirl, and wind-driven waves or boat wakes will break.

How to get unstuck 

In a V-hull boat, carefully move as much weight as reasonable to list the boat to one side. Tilting on its side, the boat might float. Also try levering off with a heavy oar. Confirm the bottom is solid enough before you try to jump in and free the boat, and revving your motor in mud will destroy your water pump. Forgot to join a boat-towing service? Wait until high tide, enjoying all the refreshments you remembered to pack.

How to pull onto a beach 

Drop an anchor off the bow in deeper water, then slowly beach with the bow outward facing incoming waves. Wear shoes when you disembark and deploy a second stern anchor on the beach. Keep pushing your boat out on falling tide!

Summer thunder

Summer Lowcountry storms can roar in seemingly from nowhere. Monitor a weather radar app and pay close attention to which direction clouds are heading. If a storm is approaching:

  • Put on your dang PFD (personal flotation device).
  • If visibility will be disrupted, get clear of shipping lanes and lower anchor if you fear running aground.
  • Lightning can strike miles ahead of an approaching thundercloud. Don’t assume you’re safe just because the storm isn’t directly over you.
  • During a lightning storm, shelter under a bridge if you can. (Avoid storm drains!) 
  • Lower radio antenna and other exposed metal points. Lowering the motor will increase conductivity, so lightning passes to the water. Wet, salty lines conduct electricity too — drop them in the water.
  • Aim your bow into the wind; expect strong gusts. If under power, approach waves at a 45-degree angle.
  • Have everyone stay in the cabin or crouch as low in the boat as possible. Stay clear of any metal and wear rubber gloves when holding the wheel.
  • If you’re on the beach while the boat is anchored and might not outrun a storm, stay on the beach. You’re safer on land.
  • Secure your boat with an extra anchor line off the beach before the squall.
  • Lower umbrellas, tents and any loose objects.
  • Seek the lowest spot on the beach and use any sort of cover, like a tarp. Don’t shelter under metal objects or trees.
  • Avoid standing directly on the ground by crouching atop a surfboard, boat cushion, bodyboard and so on. Make sure only feet touch ground, not hands. Keep feet close together.
  • If someone is struck, initiate CPR. A person is not charged with electricity after being struck.

Swimming off the boat — voluntarily

Before swimming, ensure your anchor is well set with plenty of scope (it won’t set if you just drop it straight down) and the engine is off. Considering tidal currents, perhaps keep someone onboard to retrieve those swept away. Trail a long, floating or buoyed line (like a water ski rope) that swimmers can grab if the currents are bad. Other tips:

  • Swim only during the day.
  • Only enter the water feet first. 
  • Children and nonswimmers must wear PFDs. (For kids under 12, it’s the law.)
  • Don’t swim, ski or wakesurf in busy waterways. 

Swimming off the boat — involuntarily

Prevent accidents by keeping the deck free of hazards, maintaining hand and guard rails, carrying a pull-down ladder and keeping lines and PFDs ready for rescue. 

Tip: Urinating off the side is a constant source of  “man overboard”  fatalities. Use a cup or bucket, or the head below deck. 

If someone falls overboard and they’re conscious:

In a solo rescue, on a low-sided boat, face the victim outward and have them kick as the boat rocks upward
  • Lift horizontally. No ladder? Especially in colder water, it’s more important to lift someone from the water horizontally than to get them out quickly. Lifting vertically causes blood to rush to the lower body and away from the brain and heart, which can kill. Provide a way for the victim to climb or be lifted aboard. A longboard surfboard is great or string three lines at staggered heights from cleats on the side for a makeshift ladder. A simple loop tied into a line can also provide a vital foothold. 
  • The safest place to board. On a bigger boat, that’s often the side. Avoid the transom (or stern) in heavy seas, since the boat can crush a person. For a small boat low in the water, use the transom or even the bow to prevent capsizing. Rescuers should tie or strap themselves to the opposite side to avoid being pulled overboard during rescue.
  • Pulling a victim from the water. With only one rescuer: Have the victim face outward, away from the boat. Grab their arms with a mountain climber grip or under shoulders. If rescuing at the side, use the rocking motion to your advantage. As your side lowers, coordinate your actions so the victim kicks while the rescuer pulls up with all their might. With two rescuers: One rescuer grabs under the shoulders or by the arms while the other grabs under the knees, so the victim is lifted horizontally.

If they’re unconscious:

With a net or tarp, you can improvise a “Jason’s Cradle” to bring an unconscious swimmer aboard
  • Call the Coast Guard or 911. Don’t attempt a solo rescue if there’s any chance you may also end up in the water. Wait for help.
  • If one person can swim while another remains onboard, have the swimmer get a line underneath the victim’s arms. Once they’re alongside, loop another line under knees and heave them aboard horizontally.
  • If you have a sturdy net, improvise a “Jason’s Cradle.” Roll the victim into the boat horizontally.
  • Lay the victim down with their head toward the stern and legs slightly elevated in order to keep the blood flow toward the head while the boat is underway.

Support Charleston’s Blue Bicycle Books by ordering The Ocean: The Ultimate Handbook of Nautical Knowledge here:

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