Lessons learned from the airline industry

Aboard D-Sea-10, the author’s 27-foot Eastern, life jackets are worn at all times. Photo courtesy Rand Peck

By Rand Peck

Although we’ve been lake boaters for years, my wife Linda and I only recently began spending time on salt water, which was an entirely new experience with tides, navigation and unique weather concerns. But we had great mentors in Marblehead, Mass., native and fellow airline pilot John Lund and his wife Joanne, who frequently took us out on their own boat, and coached us once we’d purchased one of our own. The boat we chose was a 27-foot Eastern we named D-Sea-10, in homage to my commercial-aviation career, and moored at Hawthorne Cove in Salem, Mass. From there we regularly left Salem Sound to explore Boston, Gloucester and the coast between Cape Ann and Ipswich Bay.

After nearly 40 years of flying I have a serious side, and approached boating with an eye toward safety and situational awareness. This “think-safety” mindset is shared and encouraged by John and Joanne, who have spent decades on the water. To me, boating is much more enjoyable when you’re prepared, or have at least thought about potentially hazardous situations.

After buying our Eastern late in the fall, we spent much of that winter studying the North Shore – the coastal area between Boston and New Hampshire – to familiarize ourselves with the region. Our main focus was on Salem Sound and later out into Massachusetts Bay and around Cape Ann. After many trips aboard the Lund’s boat, where everyone wears self-inflating life vests at all times, I acquired six of these for D-Sea-10, bought at half price at West Marine during one of their Black Friday sales.

By spring our boat was equipped with GPS, the new vests, and various equipment required by the U.S. Coast Guard. We were ready to weigh anchor and explore . . . or so we thought. After each new trip it became apparent that there were still things we needed, often-encountered situations to plan for, and equipment aboard that should be better understood. Case in point: The trip from Gloucester to Salem from one late afternoon, with seas running at about two feet. That particular voyage – way rougher than expected – really opened my eyes. It was the day I vowed to create procedures and train on them, versus just acknowledging the existence of potential hazards.

Things aboard D-Sea-10 are now a bit different. We require everyone aboard the boat to wear inflatable PFD’s at all times. They’re light and comfortable, and besides, what good are they stored below in a locker? We’re always sure to instruct folks on what to do in case they should suddenly find themselves in the water, and the PFD doesn’t self-inflate. Again, it’s a useless piece of equipment unless you know how to use it.

A big-ticket item we’ve added is a self-inflating life raft. Probably a rare item aboard a boat our size, but if Linda and I were offshore late in the season and there was a fire, it’s nice to know it’s there. We’ve got an inboard engine – a possible ignition source – and what if no one heard our mayday call? It’s piece of mind when we leave the docks, especially when our five small grandchildren are aboard. A waterproof, hand-held VHF radio completes this self-rescue package. How does that old insurance saying go? “Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.”

And, of course, we have procedures in place to familiarize ourselves with the use of this equipment, which ensures that it will be both handy and functional if/when we need it. In a time of crisis, it’s important that more than one spouse can handle the vessel. To that end, Linda handles the boat as much as I do. Because of this, she’s highly proficient and knowledgeable with its operation. Several times during the season we’ll throw a cushion overboard and practice a man-overboard procedure. We also have a “fire-aboard” procedure. It’s true: practice does make perfect.

Another big aspect of our boating life is the use of checklists. This began after returning from one of our first cruises, mooring the boat, and boarding the launch, whose driver quietly reminded me that my forward hatch was still open. Whoops! While I was at it I thought it might be a good idea to check other items . . . like the battery switch I’d left on. For 40 years as a pilot, checklists kept me focused and on track, and they can be particularly useful during times of extreme stress. To that end, I’ve created checklists for both normal boating circumstances and extreme ones, the emergency lists being bordered in red.

A normal checklist has headings like “Arriving at Boat” or “Leaving the Boat,” while an emergency checklist has headings that address more extreme circumstances, as well as extra information such as emergency-contact phone numbers.

Here’s an example of an emergency checklist with the heading “Man Overboard,” in which someone’s gone over the side and is no longer in sight. What to do? Number one, before reading the list, DO NOT PANIC. Manage your vessel, and then, when things are under control, consult the list:

1) Slow the boat so as not to further increase the distance. This will also make your radius smaller during your turn.

2) Note your heading. You’ll need the reciprocal heading during your search.

3) Toss a brightly colored cushion off the stern. This will help guide your turn and establish a known starting point with a known heading.

4) Make your 180º turn back toward the cushion.

5) Proceed at headway speed so as to not run over, or pass, the victim.

6) Assign a lookout on the bow, if possible.

7) While motoring back, assume the worst and call the Coast Guard on VHF channel 16. Time may be of the essence if the victim is injured or hypothermic. (Where is the contact information for various authorities? Right there on your checklist).

8) Note your lat/long or make a GPS marker. The CG, or other boats listening in, will need this info.

Checklists are designed to organize your thoughts in stressful situations. You don’t need to wonder what to do – just follow the checklist’s guidance and deviate as necessary. All of this is designed to keep you focused and suppress panic.

Familiarity is key. Occasionally pick up the lists and discuss them, along with equipment operations, with your regular crew. The airlines demand that we use checklists; no professional pilot would operate without them. It just makes sense to apply this known, successful procedure to the boating world, too.

Amherst, N.H., resident Rand Peck was a commercial pilot between 1974 and 2012. His career began with Air New England and ended with Delta Air Lines, where he was a 747-400 captain. Since his retirement in 2012 his life has centered around his family and cruising D-Sea-10, a 27-foot Eastern Downeast Cruiser.