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How to Stay off the Rocks

Common sense and caution help, but they may not be enough

The last thing we wanted to read was Bay Weekly’s ­October 3 story “On a Rock and a Hard Place: The Last Place in the World You Want to Take Your Boat.” Those nightmare memories didn’t need refreshing.
    That’s the kind of lament I’ve heard over the past week from people who know all too well the shock and painful aftermath of a hard landing.
    Those jetties aren’t lighted. You can’t see them at night. Why didn’t you write about that?
    This week, I tried to.
    But I still can’t answer the reasonable question of why the Deale jetties — the Scylla and Charybdis pair that catch so many boats on their rocks — have no warning lights. Or whether any jetties are marked with lights to warn boats off.
    Here’s as far as I got: “It depends on a lot of things. Each area is different and considered in its own right.”
    A round of a dozen phone calls got me to that Coastguardsman, who, he said, was “way down the ranks from the people who make the decisions.”
    I started with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, charged with keeping commercial channels of navigation open by dredging waterways and building jetties. Aiding navigation on the waterways isn’t on the Corps’ work list. That’s the work of the U.S. Coast Guard. Hopping around that agency over a couple of days, I might have found an authority, in Portsmouth, Va. But he’s a civilian. As he’s not answering his phone, chances are he’s been furloughed.
    The placement and lighting of aids to navigation is a big question, and so far, it’s a secret. If and when I find out, I promise to tell you.
    So how do you stay off the rocks?
    Once trouble has been found, Maryland’s Natural Resources Police take over. I asked the man next to the top — Captain Jerry Kirkwood, adjutant to the superintendent — how to avoid meeting up with the Natural Resources Police.
    Pretty much all you’ve got to depend on, Kirkwood explained, is your wits and knowledge.
    “We just encourage people to use good common sense,” he told me.
    Awareness is Kirkwood’s No. 1 precaution. You’ve got to be on the lookout for anything, including trouble.
    “Know the area,” he said. “These are permanent structures out there, no different from a bridge piling that’s not lit. It’s on your navigation chart. So are lighthouses. Even they get hit, and they’re lit.”
    We know we’re supposed to read our charts before we set out and have them — print or electronic — in view while underway. We’re supposed to keep obstacles in mind and be as alert to aids to navigation as we would to roadway postings. And, of course, avoid distractions.
    Because, Kirkwood said, “a second’s lapse in judgment or distraction can put you in trouble.”
    “People have accidents on roadways — and waterways — they’re familiar with,” he allowed. “Lots of times accidents happen because of a false sense of security.”
    That, I suspect, was the case at 8:30pm, an hour and a half after sunset, on September 26 when a 40-foot powerboat struck a channel marker in the Magothy River head-on. That boat was proceeding under autopilot.
    Autopilot could be a great distraction. So could, I tell myself, chattering passengers. Worse, a chattering mate. Reminder to self: keep your mouth closed and eyes on the job. Especially entering and leaving harbors.
    “You have to slow down for the conditions,” Kirkwood said. “Don’t go faster than conditions allow for.”
    In the Deale channel, that’s six knots. Even that may be too fast at night, with a pair of jetties narrowing the channel to needle width.
    Should nighttime boaters use a spotlight? I asked.
    “We wouldn’t encourage using a spotlight,” Kirkwood said. “While you might be helping yourself, you could be thwarting someone else’s navigation. When you see that white light and see it turning, how do you know what to think?”
    White lights highlight a boat underway. In a harbor at night, they’re also speckled like stars in the sky: streetlights, marina lights, house lights. Against that starry night, red and green lights mark the port and starboard of boats and channels, where illuminated markers flash their prescribed codes. Would more lights, lights on jetties, make the way clearer?
    “It’s not uncommon for people to run into something and then want a light put on it,” Kirkwood told me. “I don’t think that’s the answer.”

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com