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Breakdowns at sea can be disastrous because of high winds and seas, so it’s critical to do the proper safety checks before heading out. (Capt. David Bacon courtesy photo)

I took a call from a boater in distress and ran to his rescue. If you have a boat or if you ever go out on a friend’s boat (vs. a professional service with a licensed and experienced captain), please read this and learn. The life you save may be very near and dear to you. It may well be the sometimes innocent and sometimes guilty person in the mirror.

This story is about a man we’ll call “Boater Joe,” although I’m tempted to spell out his name in all caps and include a photo.


Capt. David Bacon (Ramona Lisa McFadyen photo)

The weather and sea state were marginally acceptable for the small used craft Boater Joe had recently purchased. To his credit, he had the boat checked out by a qualified marine mechanic. Some issues were found and repairs were made. Also to his credit, he made a few local shakedown cruises. On his first island run, he also enlisted the help of a friend (we’ll call him “Dan”) with considerable boating experience, some of it on a professional level. It all sounds good so far, right? Now the story takes a pronounced downward curve.

Dan asked Joe the right questions but accepted less than solid answers. How is your fuel supply? Fine. I checked it last time I went out. Have you checked the engine oil? Yes, the gauge looks fine. Do you have proper safety equipment? Yes.

Off they went on a fine adventure to explore beautiful Santa Cruz Island. They had a blast cruising along the sheer cliffs and filling their souls with the splendid scenery. They stopped at Prisoners Harbor to enjoy a short walk ashore. Then they headed back across the Channel before the afternoon winds whipped up the sea to an uncomfortable — and perhaps dangerous — state.

Several miles from Santa Barbara Harbor, the engine sputtered and died. They ran out of gas. This was no problem, according to Boater Joe, who switched to the reserve tank. The engine started up and they resumed their course — for about 30 seconds, until they again ran out of gas. He had neglected to refill the reserve tank because the hose at the gas station wasn’t long enough to reach the filler for the tank, and he didn’t remember to go to the fuel dock (where they have long hoses) before heading out.

Now Dan was asking more pointed questions and checking everything. He checked the engine oil and found that the oil didn’t even register on the dipstick. Joe had assured him that the gauge looked good, but it measures oil pressure, not oil level. Fortunately, Joe had a spare quart of oil, which was enough to at least show on the dipstick. Dan asked to be shown the safety equipment, including life jackets, flares and fire extinguishers. It was either nonexistent or in poor condition, with the exception of a lone fire extinguisher. Joe had a handheld GPS unit, but the batteries were old and it had failed earlier in the day.

The afternoon weather was worsening and the seas were building as they pondered what to do. To call a commercial tow service (they had cell phones) would cost hundreds of dollars. Instead, they called me (I confess that I have known Joe for many years). I ran gas out to them. Finding them was a good trick, but Dan knew his stuff and gave me a compass course to follow by shooting the compass course to harbor and calculating a reciprocal course.

That was yesterday. Today, I’m calling Joe to tell him we’re going shopping at boating shops and to bring his checkbook.

Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a new nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need.

— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit to learn more about the organization and how you can help. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.