What’s the Most Important Safety Device on the Boat? (It’s a trick question…)

I sometimes ask prospective coxswains and crewmembers what they think is the most important safety device on the boat.  In each case, the individual will invariably begin to rattle off all of the PPE they wear (PFD, PLB, strobe light, etc).  Or they will itemize all of the boat’s equipment such as the ring life buoy, visual distress signals, ignition cutoff and all other safety equipment.

While these are all very important, there is one other item which is both the cause and prevention of more mishaps than any other item. What is this item?

The throttle.

Of course most folks don’t think of the throttle as a safety device.  But just think about what the throttle actually does – it THROTTLES the engine, meaning it is used to strangle the engine of air (and fuel) and prevent it from running away at full RPM.  It doesn’t MAKE the engine go – it holds it back as desired.

What an amazing device!  With just a couple of fingertips, the helmsperson can choose at will how fast several tons of facility is moving.   With that thought comes the realization that probably the majority of (or maybe all) “close calls” you might have experienced in the past were directly related to throttle position.  Remember that wake that was struck with excessive speed and caused your crewmember to bang their head into the bulkhead?  Or that time the boat struck the dock too hard due to excessive speed when docking?

Of course this is a bit tongue in cheek, and there are numerous other factors at play. But I feel comfortable in the argument that in the majority of mishaps, the single thing that would have most directly changed the outcome is a different throttle position.

Now, the key thing here is proper manipulation of the throttle for the situation at hand, whether it is approaching a dock, or an alongside tow, or any other maneuver.  And that takes practice – lots of it.  But the key takeaway should be the need to make an honest assessment of one’s skills and the conditions at hand (such as night ops) and more often than not that you should SLOW DOWN!  There is no doubt that some maneuvers such as boat handling in wind require more aggressiveness on the throttle.  If you think of those little levers as miracle safety devices which slow down tons of mass at will, then you will find a greater respect of their importance in staying safe.