“Ditch Bag” Basics Every Boater Should Know

September 24, 2018

“Abandon Ship!” For most of us, those words seem like a silly line from an old movie. Indeed, as a boater, you may not ever need to ditch your ship and jump overboard. But emergencies do happen. And it’s important to be prepared in case they do.

That’s where your ditch bag (aka: ditch kit; abandon ship bag) comes in.

Here are 8 ways to ensure your ditch bag serves its purpose:

  1. Stock your ditch bag with the right contents. Some key items include an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB); Personal Locator Beacons (PLB); a waterproof emergency VHF; emergency lights; and a waterproof handheld GPS. This is a partial list only; most ditch bag manufacturers provide a full list of essential items.
  2. Always have your ditch bag onboard—whether you’re planning a long sea journey or a few hours of fun on a lake. As you well know, winds and currents can be unpredictable. Never assume you—and everyone else on your boat—will be able to make it safely ashore.
  3. Keep your ditch bag visible—and in the same location for every trip. Make sure your bag is in a place where you can grab it quickly as you evacuate the boat (like near the helm). Make sure every person on the boat knows where the bag is located.
  4. Make sure your ditch bag can float and that it can remain buoyant with the weight of its contents.
  5. Attach a strong lanyard to the bag. Because you’ll likely need to use both hands during your evacuation, it’s important to secure yourself to the ditch bag before you exit.
  6. Attach lanyards to the contents of the bag. To make sure your emergency items don’t float away, connect each item to the bag with an individual lanyard.
  7. Equip your ditch bag with a passive signaling device, just in case you become separated from it in the water.
  8. Make sure all battery-powered ditch bag items are equipped with working batteries.

In the event of an onboard (or non-evacuation type) emergency, your ditch bag will serve as a convenient storage place for many of the safety items you may need. In addition to the contents of your ditch bag, however, you should always have other precautionary items—like paper charts and PFDs—on board as well.





Plastic Free July: A Growing Global Movement

June 20, 2018

Have you heard about Plastic Free July?

What started off as International Plastic Bag Free Day (observed every year on July 3) is now part of a growing global movement to end plastic pollution.

In addition to crowding landfills, plastic waste pollutes our oceans, threatens sea life, and contaminates groundwater. Sadly, nearly 90% of the debris in our oceans is plastic, including massive floating islands of plastic waste hundreds of miles long.

You probably already know that single-use plastic bags are bad for the environment. Perhaps you even bring reusable canvas bags with you to the grocery store. The growing number of consumers using reusable bags is a good first step to reducing plastic waste.

But what about when you stop at the hardware store? Or pop into a convenience store on the way home from work? Do you bring a reusable bag for that type of shopping, too? According to the Earth Policy Institute, a trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide each year. That’s nearly 2 million every minute! With that in mind, consider these statistics:

  • Plastic bags are typically used for 25 minutes or less
  • A plastic bag can take between 100 to 1,000 years to break down in the environment

But single-use plastic bags are only part of the problem. According the National Park Service, Americans use 5 million plastic straws every day. Every day! What’s more, plastic bottles are one of the most commonly found items on the ocean’s surface. If you want to help protect our oceans from plastic pollution, resolving not to use any single-use plastic during month of July is a great first step. To learn more, visit BreakFreeFromPlastic.org.




How to Spot Someone Who’s (Silently) Drowning

May 16, 2018

As you gear up for a summer of fun on the water, reading a blog post about drowning is probably not at the top of your “fun things to do” list. But it could be lifesaving.

The information below is a brief summary of an eye-opening, in-depth article by Mario Vittone.

First, a few sobering facts:

  • Drowning is the number two cause of accidental death in children ages 15 and under.
  • Of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult.
  • In 10% of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening.

Drowning looks different than you may think.

Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., coined the term “Instinctive Drowning Response” to describe how people’s bodies react when they are drowning. Here are a few things that may surprise you:

DROWNING PEOPLE RARELY CALL OUT FOR HELP: A drowning person’s mouth is not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale and call out for help.

DROWNING PEOPLE CANNOT WAVE FOR HELP. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.

DROWNING HAPPENS FAST: People can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

NOTE: If you DO see someone thrashing, yelling and waving for help, they are likely experiencing aquatic distress—which can briefly precede Instinctive Drowning Response. People in this stage can still grab a lifeline and help in their own rescue. Once a person has gone into Instinctive Drowning Response, however, they need to be rescued by a trained lifeguard.

10 signs that someone is drowning:

  1. Head low in the water, mouth at water level
  2. Head tilted back with mouth open
  3. Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  4. Eyes closed
  5. Hair over forehead or eyes
  6. Not using legs
  7. Hyperventilating or gasping
  8. Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  9. Trying to roll over onto the back
  10. Appears to be climbing an invisible ladder

Watch this video to see what drowning really looks like: Recognize the Signs of Drowning

Be Safe This Summer! According to the CDC, two of the main factors that affect drowning risk are alcohol use and failure to wear life jackets.



Ship Markings and What They Mean

May 3, 2018

A recent article in Hakai magazine grabbed our attention with its enticing title: “The Secret Language of Ships.” The piece explains the meaning of the various signs and symbols that are printed on the sides of commercial ships. It also includes beautiful photos, worthy of a coffee table book. We recommend taking a look.

Here’s a brief rundown of what those mysterious markings and symbols mean:

IDENTITY INFO: Most commercial ships have the following information on the stern:

  • Name of company that owns the ship
  • Name of the ship
  • Port or “flag” that the ship sails under (70% of commercial ships don’t sail under their own country’s flag!)
  • International Maritime Organization (IMO) number

LOAD LINES: The following letters and markings indicate the maximum load a ship can carry:

  • A circle with a horizontal line through it: Known as the “Plimsoll line,” it disappears underwater if the ship is carrying too much weight.
  • To the right of the circle, another collection of letters and lines shows the maximum load the ship can carry under various climatic conditions (because different condition affect the ship’s buoyancy). Again, if the line disappears underwater, the load is too heavy for that specific weather condition. Here’s what each letter means:
    • W = winter temperate seawater
    • S = summer temperate seawater
    • T = tropical seawater
    • F = fresh water
    • TF = tropical fresh water

BULBOUS BOW: Some ships are designed with a protrusion low on the bow, which can sometimes be completely submerged. A white symbol that looks the numeral five without the top line (or sometimes, like the numeral three), alerts tugboats to be aware of the “bulbous bow.”

BOW THRUSTER: A white circle with an “X” inside indicates the ship is equipped with a bow thruster, which helps the boat maneuver sideways. The position of the bow thruster is shown as well (e.g. “BT/FP” would indicate a location between the ballast tank and the forepeak).

DRAFT MARKS: Numbers arranged in a vertical line—located on both sides of the ship—measure the distance between the bottom of the hull and the waterline. These numbers can be used to determine if the ship is overloaded and/or listing to one side.

SAFE WORKING LOAD: Tugboats fasten lines to strong posts on a ship, called bitts. White arrows point to the location of the bitts. Letters and numbers next to the bitts indicate the maximum pulling pressure (i.e. “safe working load”) the tug should exert as it helps the ship brake or negotiate docking.

PILOT BOARDING MARK: Just before a ship comes into port, a maritime pilot will ride out to take over for the captain. A white rectangle with a yellow border lets the pilot know where to board the ship.



When Hurricanes Strike, NOAA Helps Speed Re-Opening of Ports

October 29, 2017

After a damaging storm, ports will only operate when it is safe for navigation.

When a hurricane hits, the U.S. Coast Guard calls on NOAA navigation response teams to conduct emergency hydrographic services—to map the ocean floor for hidden debris or shoaling that might pose a danger to navigation. Their work is essential to speeding the re-opening of ports and waterways.

According to the Office of Coast Survey, the faster NOAA teams can notify USCG of its findings, the faster the ports can re-open and resume shipping—allowing goods and services to enter.


Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on September 21, 2017, wreaking havoc on the infrastructure of many critical ports—and preventing vessels with critical fuel supplies and commodities from entering safely.

On September 23, NOAA’s mobile integrated survey team (MIST)—which can set up equipment and manpower quickly on a vessel of opportunity—arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to conduct emergency hydrographic surveys in the Port of Arecibo, an important fuel and chemical port.

NOAA Photo Library Photo Credit: ship1010

On September 24, while the MIST was conducting its emergency surveys, NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson—a hydrographic survey vessel that maps the ocean—departed Port Everglades, Florida, for San Juan. Upon its arrival on September 28, Thomas Jefferson deployed its launches and delivered supplies to NOAA’s National Weather Service at the USCG small boat pier.

But Thomas Jefferson’s mission didn’t stop there. The ship was also tasked with the following duties:

  • Providing equipment needed to repair the NOAA tide gauge station in San Juan
  • Traveling to Ponce, a large city on Puerto Rico’s southern coast, to deploy launches to survey the deep draft channel—a crucial step to re-opening the port
  • Performing a complete side scan sonar survey to locate a crane that was potentially knocked into the water during the storm and to check for any other obstructions in the channel and port
  • Conducting additional survey operations, based on USCG priority, to help re-open ports from Puerto Rico to St. Croix
  • Conducting surveys to update charts in the affected areas

“NOAA is really proud that the Thomas Jefferson has arrived in Puerto Rico to help the United States Coast Guard and the local port authorities to restore the full capacity of the island’s sea ports,” said Rear Adm. Shepard Smith, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey. “The people of Puerto Rico need the transportation infrastructure restored to bring relief to the stricken and rebuild their lives after this tragic storm.”

How to Select Charts: A Cheat Sheet for Boaters

October 15, 2017

NOAA has a massive library of charts, which they continually update. With so many charts available, how do you know which ones you’ll need?

Here are two key pointers to get you started:

  • Get only the charts you need. Clearly, your charts should cover the entire route you will travel. But since for many boaters there’s a storage issue (as well as costs) associated with charts, you don’t want to load up on more than you actually need.
  • Ensure your charts are up to date. Charts are continuously being updated based on information from a variety of sources. Depending on the area of boating, you should consider updating your charts regularly.

We’ve created the “cheat sheet” below to help you select the right charts for your next voyage.

Chart Selection By Region


  1. Get each of the 1:80,000 scale charts between your starting point and intended destination.
    Explanation: 1:80,000 scale charts provide end-to-end coverage from the Canadian border in Maine to the Mexican border in Texas. Each offers about 50 miles of coverage along the coast. They are presented North-Up (which makes it easier to “get your bearings”) and provide sufficient detail for safely navigating in the near coastal area they cover.
  2. Optionally, select more detailed charts for harbors you intend to visit.
    Explanation: There are more detailed charts (e.g. 1:40,000, 1:20,000, 1:10,000, or even 1:5,000 scales in some places) that provide coverage along the way. These charts mainly provide supplemental coverage of local harbors or regions. You may also want these more detailed charts for those harbors you intend to visit along the way.
  3. If you intend on traveling the ICW, select the corresponding 1:40,000 scale strip charts.
    Explanation: In some places, more detailed charts of 1:40,000 scale provide contiguous end-to-end coverage. They are rotated to align with the shoreline, focus near the coastline, and include the ICW. They don’t need much width, so they are printed end-to-end, side-by-side, to double the overall length of coverage. If you intend on taking the ICW, add the appropriate 1:40,000 charts to your list.



  1. Get each of the end-to-end contiguous charts (generally around 1:200,000 scale) between your starting point and intended destination.
    Explanation: Much of the Pacific coastline is devoid of harbors in Washington, Oregon and California—so there’s little reason for NOAA to provide detailed charts. Therefore, the end-to-end contiguous charts are generally around 1:200,000 scale in these areas. If this is part of your planned voyage, you’ll want these charts—each of which is presented North-Up and covers 100-150 nautical miles North-South.
  2. Optionally, select more detailed charts for harbors you intend to visit.
    Explanation: For those few harbors along the way, there are more detailed charts. Given the distance between them, you’ll probably want to get all of those you consider stopovers.
  3. If you intend on cruising the Puget Sound or interior Washington and the region, select the appropriate 1:40,000 scale charts.
    Explanation: There are lots of charts available for these areas. Your decision of which to get will be based on which waterways you intend to traverse and which islands and harbors you will visit. The larger area coverage is best reflected in 1:40,000 scale charts.
  4. If you’re planning to visit any islands off the coast of California, you don’t need any additional charts.
    Explanation: There are a number of islands, such as the Channel Islands off San Francisco, Catalina and San Clemente, where 1:20,000 scale charts are available. However, since these islands are all well within the coverage of the respective 1:200,000 scale coastal charts, you don’t really need them.



  1. Get each of the contiguous charts between your starting point and intended destination.
    Explanation: The contiguous charts are 1:120,000 scale, North-Up in Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior, and 1:80,000 in Lakes Erie and Ontario. NOAA creates charts for the U.S. side, and CHS (Canadian Hydrographic Service) creates charts for the Canadian side. The CHS charts provide contiguous North-Up coverage and vary from around 1:20,000 to around 1:80,000 scale.

Do a lot of boating in various US regions? If you boat locally in a number of regions around the country, you may want to consider getting one of NOAA’s small-craft folios. Each folio contains a collection of charts showing the extended shorelines in various scales and orientations, with generally greater detail than is available on other charts.


NOAA Proposes National Marine Sanctuary to Preserve Historic Shipwrecks in Lake Michigan

October 4, 2017

Thunder Bay 2010 Expedition, NOAA-OER (expl4133)

In Lake Michigan, a 1,075 square-mile area spanning Wisconsin’s shoreline is home to a historic graveyard of sunken ships. NOAA is proposing to designate the area as a national marine sanctuary.

According to NOAA, “The shipwrecks in this proposed sanctuary represent a cross-section of vessel types that played critical roles in the expansion of the United States and the development of the Midwest during the 19th and early 20th centuries. During this period entrepreneurs and shipbuilders launched tens of thousands of ships of many different designs, with eastbound ships carrying grain and raw materials, and westbound vessels carrying coal, manufactured goods, and settlers.”

“These shipwrecks really tell us the history of how shipping was the engine of the American economy,” said Russ Green, NOAA regional coordinator. “There’s a huge legacy of risk, sometimes tragedy, personal stories of innovation, entrepreneurship—all locked into this proposed area.”

The proposed sanctuary site includes:

  • 37 known historic shipwrecks, 18 of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places
  • About 80 potential shipwrecks yet to be discovered
  • Wisconsin’s two oldest shipwrecks, dating to the 1830s

What’s more, many of the shipwrecks in Lake Michigan are still in relatively good shape—thanks to the cold, salt-free water, which helps preserve iron and wood, as well as the cold temperature, which helps prevent deterioration.

According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, “Divers have found many [of the sunken ships] with masts still standing, unbreached hulls, and even one with nautical charts still stowed in the drawers of the wheelhouse—something that would be unlikely in ocean waters.”

Unfortunately, a population explosion of zebra mussels (which cling to the sunken ships and rapidly reproduce) poses a serious risk to the structural integrity of the ships.

But the zebra mussels aren’t all bad. Because they can filter a liter of water a day, they’ve helped improve the water clarity. In fact, since their introduction in 1990, underwater visibility has improved from 5-10 feet up to 80-100 feet. The improved clarity in the lake makes it easier to find new shipwrecks, as well as to view and study them.

If the Wisconsin site receives national marine sanctuary designation, it would bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal resources each year. It would be the first national marine sanctuary in Lake Michigan and the second in the Great Lakes.

According to NOAA, the proposed national marine sanctuary designation does not include restrictions on commercial or recreational fishing. The scope of the proposed sanctuary regulations are narrowly focused on maritime heritage resources.

NOAA is expected to make its decision on the proposal by next year. Before the designation would become effective, Governor Scott Walker has 30 days to review the documents.