By John K. Fulweiler, Jr., Esq.

I’m an admitted consumer of “boat porn.” It’s not the salacious viewing you’re conjuring. Boat listings (both print and online), boat ‘fail’ videos (including the grainy, but always amusing trailer launch mishaps) and YouTube’s offerings of those living aboard their sailboats are the images I steal away to view. If you watch enough of this stuff, you’re left with the impression that a lot of folks do stupid things and get away unscathed, that luck favors the novice, and that nobody seems much to care about the elements of good seamanship. I’m hoping not to see you, the prudent mariner, in any of this boat porn and here’s a few thoughts for avoiding such a fate.

The paper chart. Your iPad, the tablet, the smartphone and the talking watch may all show you digitized plot lines, but their information is dependent on the flickering flow of electrons. Worse, the information these electronics provide is contingent upon the Gods. That is, almost all of these gadgets rely on satellite communications so that an interruption in the information highway means you’re navigating a watery roadway without any guidance. Whether it’s a maintenance issue or a government gone rogue, you have no control over a satellite to make sure it keeps spouting signals.  It’s crazy: I watch young couples skitter across big stretches of ocean water entirely reliant on an iPad without anyone ever doing any chart work. Seriously, in all these videos, I’ve never seen a paper chart! And, understand, I’m not suggesting anyone break out the sextant and pencil-mark the celestial navigation tables, but how about some plotting? How about some regularly timed intervals where you mark your position on a paper chart so that when the doodad in the sky quits, you can point your bow toward shore?

Radar. My experience is that these machines are bolted onto recreational crafts and rarely used. It’s like vessel owners figure radar must be as plug-and-play as a cell phone or Facebook, and when there’s fog they imagine hollering on the VHF: “Don’t worry, Bud. I’ll turn it on and you can follow me home!” Eh, not really. You see, radar (and these new wireless options look awesome and are creeping lower in price) requires some finesse. Surprise, you need some skills to work a radar! You need time interpreting what the hell is on the screen, and it’s time you don’t want to acquire when the fog is socked in solid. Practice using your radar on a clear day and understand how to adjust range and learn what happens when you fuss with the gain, zoom, trail and ring options. Anyone can noose a stethoscope around their neck and look like a doctor, but it takes some practice to learn what a leaky heart valve sounds like. It’s the same thing with radar and you’d be foolish not to spend time acquiring some imaging skills before you need its wizardry for real.

AIS. If you’ve read my words over the last few years, you know my Alex Jones tendencies when it comes to the government barging in our collective business. This makes my growing attraction for AIS difficult. I’m unsuccessfully trying to fight my AIS urges and might as well just confess I think AIS may be a good thing. Like an airplane’s transponder that whistles out its location in the air, a vessel’s AIS broadcasts similar information. At this time, my understanding is that certain commercial vessels, passenger vessels and towing vessels are required to have AIS. The rest of the floating lot not covered by the federal statutes may (but aren’t required to) have an AIS aboard. I suspect the AIS requirements may broaden in the years to come. As my sailing steed and I sometimes break out of our coastal confines and tilt across ocean waters, I’ve got an AIS aboard. This prudent mariner’s thinking is that when I’m in pea-thick fog in the Gulf of Maine, maybe that tug and barge unit will see me aboard my plastic hull whereas they might not have on radar.

A good head. This will sound like the talk of an elderly man, chewing too much on his lip and spinning on about how it was when he was young. Still, in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, I spent a lot of time alone on a vessel assisting others in what was the beginning of the various boating assistance opportunities that exist today. I quickly learned the importance of measuring risk and analyzing options before picking a path forward. I learned how to huff big breaths to calm yourself when a flood tide’s worth of panic wants to roll over you and cloud your thinking. Small skills, maybe, but skills I still rely on today in my maritime personal injury practice. You can’t book-learn your way into being a competent sailor. You’ve got to practice at being the best and smoothest in all your shipboard activities from docking to fueling to tacking around to avoid a powerboat.

It’s late morning here on a beautiful Saturday and I’m going to run out and leave my prudent mariner thoughts to simmer. I’ve got a sea strainer to install, a ten-year-old daughter wanting to uncover her Opti, and a southern wife still wondering how she got herself into all this boating stuff!

Underway and making way.

John Fulweiler, EsqJohn K. Fulweiler, Esq. is a Proctor-in-Admiralty representing individuals and small businesses in maritime matters including personal injury claims throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and with his office in Newport, Rhode Island. He can be reached at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293), or visit his website at