We had gotten off to our typical early-morning start on the water, anticipating catching a few striped bass during the fall run. As often happens along the coast of Long Island, New York, the brisk autumn air interacting with the warmer coastal water created a thick, all-encompassing fog.
No matter, we had our radar and chart plotter going and could “see” where we were on the water and what was around us. Then suddenly, without warning, our entire electronics suite went dead. Enveloped in the thick fog, it seemed near impossible to get our bearings. Fortunately, we were not too far outside the inlet, which helped us rely on our natural senses to find our way. The inlet happened to be marked with a bell buoy, so we used the chime to orient us. Also, we could hear the sound of surf fishermen’s 4WD vehicles making their way along the beach. We idled toward the buoy, and once we were able to finally see it, made our way slowly and safely back through the inlet.
With all the technological advancements available to the modern boater, the pastime of boating has never been safer. But every boater will be doing themselves a favor if they learn to rely on their God-given senses on the water.
Our vision is the most obvious sense we all rely on to make decisions on the water. In fact, despite the prevalence of satellites tracking storms and sea conditions globally, commercial shipping still relies on voluntary firsthand reports from ships’ crews through the National Weather Service’s Voluntary Observing Ship (VOS) program. Beyond eyeballing the weather, our vision can help us in many different ways.
Diesel exhaust from passing commercial vessels, for example, can help determine the direction of the prevailing wind. And if the smoke seems to be drooping rather than rising from its stack, that could indicate a low-pressure system and impending bad weather.
When navigating in shallow water, use your eyes to look for breaking waves, wind ripples or current seams to gauge depth changes. Also look for color changes in the water that could indicate a transition from the channel to shallower water. And finally, if you see a bird standing in the water, don’t go that way.
As noted with the bell buoy and the beach sounds, your ears can help you safely navigate when your vision is limited. They can also help you keep alert for signs of trouble on board your boat. Changes in your engine noise, creaks, rattles, rumbles and thuds can all indicate that something’s wrong with your boat. Whether at the dock or at sea, if you hear your bilge pump constantly activate, start searching for a reason why. There could be an open seacock, a leaky through-hull or a breach causing you to take on water.
The most obvious use here for most boaters is smelling gasoline. If you smell gas in your cockpit or in the bilge when you open a hatch, there could be a leaky hose or valve in your fuel system. You need to find the source and repair it immediately to prevent an accidental explosion or boat fire. Your sense of smell can also help in other, more positive ways. For instance, if you’re fishing in the Northeast and you pick up a scent similar to cantaloupe, that could mean a school of bluefish is nearby. Oil floating to the surface from chomped baitfish create the aroma, sometimes also resulting in a slick that you can see as well.
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Your hands are your first line of defense to search for loose fittings, wires, hose clamps and more. You can feel for flexing and soft spots in your deck and transom, as well as for handholds and rails that have come loose from their mounts. One of the most important ways you can use touch, though, is to sense irregular vibrations. Feel for vibrations that could indicate issues such as a misaligned shaft, a bent prop, or an engine in need of some maintenance.
One of my colleagues has used his sense of taste to determine if water in the bilge is salty, meaning it’s a leak, or if it’s leftover fresh water from a washdown. But by doing this, you run the risk of tasting battery acid, oil or some other chemical you’d rather not taste. So, don’t get carried away. Just a taste from your fingertip to the tip of your tongue will tell the story.