An educated boater is a safe boater: Coast Guard Auxiliary talks water emergency procedures

Lance Shearer

“The Coast Guard believes an educated boater is a safe boater,” said Mitch Schlitt. He is the flotilla staff officer and recreational boating specialist for the local Coast Guard Auxiliary, and on Saturday, he and his fellow USCGA officers did their best to educate area boaters.

Marco Island’s USCGA Flotilla 95 held a series of “On the Water Emergency Safety Seminars” at Rose History Auditorium, highlighting the importance of having the proper equipment on board and knowing how to use it. This week leading up to Memorial Day is National Safe Boating Week, and across the country, Auxiliary flotillas are holding similar events. In most of the U.S., the boating season is just getting underway, while in Southwest Florida, the waterways will be noticeably less congested in the months to come.

But safety is important any time, even though all you need to rent a boat is a credit card, not a driver’s license or anything certifying you have a clue about how to operate a marine vessel – which is the reason experienced boaters give a little extra room to any boat with a phone number on the side of the hull.

Even those who own boats don’t necessarily understand proper safety procedures, said Schlitt.

“A lot of people don’t know how to use the radio for anything except to call for a berth at the Snook,” he said. “If they can find their life jackets, they’re doing good.”


Finding the life jackets, and having the proper ones on board, is a key first step in an emergency situation, Schlitt told attendees. If the boat operator “makes the articulate decision you are in trouble, or to quote Gordon Lightfoot, ‘the good ship and crew are in peril,’ what’s the first thing you do? Put on your life jackets.”
This step, he said, helps prevent an “on the water emergency” from becoming an “in the water emergency.” Schlitt went over the various types of life jackets available for different types of boating, from the Type 4 throwing device required to be carried by any boat over 16 feet in length, along with one life jacket for each person on board, discussing PFDs designed for offshore, coastal waters, kayaks, and the increasingly popular inflatable models, which are less bulky until deployed.

Schlitt also devoted time to the marine or VHF radio, saying it can do things your cell phone cannot, including hailing vessels nearby as well as the Coast Guard or emergency responders, and working even out of cell phone reception.

“Where are cell towers pointed?” he asked. “They face inland.” Calling for help is the next step to follow in an emergency, after putting on life jackets, he said. Making a distress call on VHF Channel 16 will elicit a response and a triangulation of the signal after just two seconds of transmission, said Schlitt, according to the Coast Guard, and signals from an EPIRB or Emergency Position Indicting Radio Beacon, or its personal equivalent, the PEPIRB, will have a search initiated within two hours, “and that’s anywhere from Greenland to Tierra del Fuego.”

More advanced VHF radios with digital select calling and a GPS interface can automatically send the vessel’s type and position at the press of a button, and some even allow the choice of what type of emergency exists. These could include fire, sinking, medical, “or piracy,” said Schlitt.

Speaking of fires, he told his listeners of a handy acronym for using a fire extinguisher – which should be checked and recharged or replaced as needed.

“You follow the PASS rule. You pull the pin, aim at the base of the flame, squeeze the trigger, and sweep.” Grease fires in galleys, though, can be spread by attempts to douse them, said Schlitt.

He showed the various types of flares available, from a handheld tube up to parachute flares that shoot up 1,000 feet and can be seen for 20 miles.

“Flares get very hot. The best method is to duct-tape it to a boathook,” he said.

Carolyn Thibeault came to the first session with her boyfriend, Isles of Capri resident Paul Wickberg.

“Paul saw it in the paper, and I said it’s good if we both go to the class,” she said. While Thibeault is herself a longtime boat owner, many “first mates” are not familiar with safety procedures if they suddenly find themselves faced with taking command of the vessel.

For more information on safe boating classes, some starting as early as August, call 239-384-7416 or go online to USCGAuxMarco.org.