I was reading a great Panbo post on a grounding in Camden harbor, and it reminded me of some things to think of when dealing with groundings. Panbo, by the way, written by Ben Ellison, is the best boating blog about marine electronics there is, and a must read about everything boating too.
Why do we go aground in the first place? I believe #1 on the list is loss of "situational awareness." What exactly does this mean? Think of the U.S. Navy ships getting run down by commercial vessels in Asian waters, which unfortunately has happened a bit too frequently lately. Here are ships presumably equipped with not only the latest in navigational equipment, but also crewed by extremely well trained and disciplined teams of people who should know exactly what is going on all around them. Yet, two large ships collide with good visibility and no apparent reasons why. What happens?
#1, I am convinced, is the great demand put on everyone to monitor all the amazing navigation equipment we have nowadays. Think of all that gear, people staring at screens, punching in coordinates, noting courses and bearings, monitoring radios, listening to commands, etc., etc. No matter how well trained, how well equipped, or how well disciplined there is only so much information the mind can process and at a limited speed too. Couple that with night vision being ruined by staring at brightly lit screens, while also being constantly distracted by people coming and going, coffee being delivered, and all the whatnot that goes on with many people around and it is a recipe for disaster.
How does this relate to us ordinary Joe Blows sailing the coast in small boats? The same exact problem can rear its ugly head. I was sailing offshore behind a large catamaran that was equipped with all the mod cons, including radar, chart plotters, etc. Offshore the watch stayed below watching videos while assuming that various alarms would alert them that something needed actual attention. However, even if the alarm worked, it takes a few minutes to scramble out of the cabin, and then your eyes aren't adjusted to the dark, and it is very easy to turn the wrong way, let go of the wrong line, or trip over something lurking in the dark. I had to call this boat on the VHF repeatedly to warn them they were sailing directly into the path of an enormous cruise ship, lit up like a city, miles from land, traveling at high speed and likely on autopilot. The alarms didn't work, the crew wasn't watching, disaster was close at hand.
Entering some crowded gunkhole you may have to deal with the same issues. The depth sounder alarm starts blaring painfully, your wife is shouting something from the galley, the chart plotter is glared out in the sun, the harbormaster is yakking about something on the radio, boats are jammed all around on moorings, people are board sailing and paddle boarding across the channel, your dinghy painter is too long, the engine is overheating, and your hoping to get anchored in time to catch the water taxi. Your boat comes to a sudden stop and your brain is crashing due to sensory overload. Where exactly am I? Why have I come to a crashing stop? Is that the bilge alarm going off? What is that cruiser shouting at me?
In other words, too much information, too quickly. Just like on those Navy bridges. But, what is the answer? You don't want to abandon the chart plotters, radar, VHF radio, depth sounders, etc. I often find that the simplest answer is often the best. Reduce clutter. Turn off depth alarms. Use a printed chart that you can see in bright light and won't be at the wrong scale. Turn the VHF radio way down or maybe even off if it is a distraction. Reduce your speed--create more time for your brain to process all the information. The other day I was sitting on the beach next to a popular channel when a big boat approached at high speed, then suddenly throttled way down, actually went into reverse, did a 360, then entered the channel at dead slow and under control. I admire that skipper for suddenly realizing that life was coming at him way too swiftly and a little bit of patience would probably make the day go much better. I have gone so far as to tell guests to stop talking to me and/or realize that I may or may not answer. If they ignore my suggestion, I just ignore them. Better to be a social outcast and afloat than the life of the party and aground!