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Fireworks by Water

The fun’s better when you stay safe

The Dream: You take family and friends out on your boat for an evening of spectacular fireworks. Your anchor sets on the first try. There is plenty of space between you and the other boats. You enjoy a picnic and a few cold ones. The weather is warm and clear; the kids enjoy taking a dip. Anticipation builds as the sky darkens; then the fireworks burst and boom. The colors are even more beautiful reflected in the water. Everyone oohs and ahs. After the big crescendo, you up anchor and head for home. Soon, you are tied up at the dock and saying your goodbyes.

    I love seeing fireworks from a water vantage. But these celebrations bring together a set of circumstances that can make them dangerous.

The Reality: You approach the fireworks barge at noon to snag a front row seat. All afternoon, other boats crowd in around you. The weather is Triple H: hot, hazy and humid. The beer is soon gone, and the ice in the cooler melts. You can’t let the kids swim due to the other boats. As darkness approaches, more boats squeeze in front of you. Finally, the show begins, and for a while everyone is happy.
    Bedlam ensues, with boats taking off in all directions. Everyone is night-blind from the fireworks, and few are accustomed to navigating after dark. You can’t see the landmarks and navigation aids you used coming in. The water is rough and confused from multiple wakes. People are swearing at each other on Channel 16. You narrowly avoid being hit by a bigger boat. You are grateful to get back to your dock an hour later than you anticipated.

   Here’s why the reality is often very different from the dream.
    • Inexperienced boaters — and lots of them: July and August see the most boating traffic, and according to Maryland Department of Natural Resources account for half of the annual boating accidents in Maryland. July 3 and 4 are big days on the water. People who haven’t been out much decide to see fireworks from the water. Many have never been on the water after dark and are unfamiliar with night navigation. Some are inexperienced at anchoring, having mostly gone from dock to dock.
    • Fatigue: Sun, heat and a rocking boat are tiring.
    • Alcohol consumption: Adding alcohol to hot weather and the motion of the boat is a recipe for impairment.
    • Night vision problems: Viewing fireworks is like shining a flashlight in your eyes. It takes time to readjust. Also, most fireworks displays take place in a harbor, where background lights make it hard to pick out marks and navigation lights.
    • Poor preparation: A lax attitude can set in when you’re just going out to see the fireworks.
    • Mixed traffic: All manner of boats, moving at different speeds, going in all directions.
    • Homeward rush to get home: Every experienced sailor knows that schedules are dangerous.

    I’ve been involved in two close calls. In Annapolis harbor I was on a sailboat nearly T-boned by a cabin cruiser that — probably running a GPS course — didn’t see us.
    In Baltimore I was on a trawler where vision was impaired due not just to darkness but also spray on the windshield from the wakes. Just in time, I saw the shape of a small sailboat hull crossing in front of us. We were able to stop, but a powerboat that had been following us too closely almost collided with our stern — and had the nerve to yell at us.
    Most boaters have their own tales to tell. Take my word for it: these are stories you’d rather hear than experience first-hand.

Safe Fun Is More Fun

    Safety on the water starts before you set out to see the fireworks. Get a vessel safety exam to make sure you’re ready for emergencies. Don’t overload your boat by taking too many people. On the water, wear life preservers.
    For when it’s time to set out, here’s a checklist based on advice from the Coast Guard and DNR, plus my own experience.
     Take your time. You don’t have to be in the front row to see the fireworks. It’s an aerial show. Neither do you have to arrive at noon and sweat it out all day.
    Anchor beyond the Coast Guard’s exclusion zone.
    Stay cool. Stay in the shade and work on your tan another day. A wet T-shirt is like wearing air conditioning.
    Drink plenty … of water. Designate yourself a sober skipper. Remember that guests who are impaired are more likely to create emergencies like falling overboard.
    Go out with another boat, preferably with an experienced skipper, who might give assistance or raise help immediately.
    Save your flares for emergencies. Don’t shoot them off to celebrate. Shooting fireworks off your boat is also a bad idea.
    Plan your exit strategy. Find a place you can remain anchored until the rush is over, or a creek or fairway you can tuck into. Plan a route that does not take you in or across busy channels. Enter the waypoints in your GPS or chart plotter to help you know your position in darkness.
    Don’t try to do everything yourself. Have at least one experienced person along. Designate people to watch for other boats. If you have radar, use it — though there may be so many boats you can’t track them all.
    Use caution, courtesy and common sense. Realize others might not be able to see your navigation lights. Mind your wake and keep your speed down. Give yourself more time to react.

Beth Dumesco, a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary and Sail and Power Squadrons, lives aboard her 36-foot trawler, Compass Rose.