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How do I turn the damned thing off? Lessons of a guest skipper

Safety Moment, Cruising Club of America

Chuck Hawley

Recently I had the opportunity to help deliver a 57’ sport fishing boat from Long Beach to Emeryville, CA. This is a brute of a boat, with twin Detroit Diesel engines, and the ability to consume 160 gallons of fuel per hour when pushed to top speed. At least it’s a brute when you’re used to boats that burn a gallon an hour and which you can fend off the dock using your own body weight.

The owner/captain is an experienced sailor and aircraft pilot, and takes his responsibility as the owner of a fast, powerful boat seriously. One of the early lessons he reinforced was the operation of the synchronized throttles on the 1500 HP engines. While this may be common in boats of this type, it was new to me. After pressing a button that was not entirely obvious, the starboard throttle controlled the throttle on both engines, eliminating the need to synchronize the engine RPM.

This was the first lesson: to bring the boat to a stop, the single throttle would be all that was necessary to slow both engines, but it wouldn’t de-couple the engines if you wanted to maneuver the boat using the engines separately. Needless to say, sport fishing boats like the Viking are highly dependent on operating the engines independently at slow speeds, which might be required to recover a person or to avoid lobster or crab pots.

The second lesson occurred as we approached the Golden Gate after voyaging past Pillar Point and Pacifica. I engaged the autopilot, and noticed that the boat was not holding a course, but was slowly veering towards the coast. As I looked at the autopilot head, the course appeared to be slowly increasing, as if someone were holding down the “Starboard 1” button. I put the autopilot in standby and tried again. Now the boat held her course, and we continued under the bridge.

The final, and potentially most dangerous lesson came as we went south of Alcatraz and north of Treasure Island towards Emeryville. As I altered course to avoid the north end of TI, the boat would not respond to either the course selection buttons or the standby button, thus diabolically forcing us to hold a collision course with the island. I called the captain up to the helm, and he reached into a cabinet and turned off the breaker to the autopilot. The cabinet in which the breaker was located was dark, and the breaker panel had perhaps 60 other breakers to choose from. As soon as the autopilot breaker was flipped off, the autopilot released its grip on the wheel, and we manually steered around the island.

So, what were the lessons learned?

  1. Make sure to discuss features regarding your boat that may appear normal or obvious to you, but which may not be obvious to crew coming from a different background. Steering, throttle, shifting, and autopilot use should be gone over, no matter the crew’s experience, so that all controls needed in an emergency are understood. Everyone should know how to put the autopilot on standby.
  2. If you detect a problem with a ship’s system, treat it with great care until it’s proven to work correctly. When we continued to use the autopilot, after an unresolved problem, we were betting on a spontaneous cure, which only happens on televangelist TV shows.
  3. Everyone needs to know where the breaker panel is, and where the likely circuit breakers are located. If the location is dark, they have to know where the fixed lights or flashlights are so that they can identify the breaker. You have to be able to turn off the power to any circuit, due to fire or malfunction.
  4. Finally, every boat has some idiosyncrasies that may lead to confusion or poor results. If you don’t want to take the time to discuss them with the new crew, at least document them with signs or notes so that you have the greatest chance of successful execution.