In the song, Against the Wind, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band wonder, “…what to leave in, what to leave out…” As the captain of any vessel, large or small, fast or slow, we must decide what to leave in and what to leave out of our situational awareness at the helm.
The simple answer: it’s all important. Think of the helm not at the center of a two-dimensional circle but at the center of a sphere. In that sphere, "the bubble," the captain must not only be aware of the surface of the water for 360 degrees around the compass, but also of what's above and below.
Look Around. Traffic overtaking from the stern, trafficking crossing from port and starboard, traffic dead ahead no matter what direction they are going. There is no substitute for a constant visual scan all around the boat.
What Lies Beneath? A boat is not operating on a flat surface map. The environment under the keel is critical. The average depth gauge may not give an accurate reading of the water under the keel, and a boat may not even be equipped with a depth gauge. Learning to read the Lake can help. The main channel is reasonably safe, but in the upper reaches of the Lake, even where the channel may be deep, there are trees under water that can create havoc with the drive unit. Look for buoys to mark underwater hazards. And at Lake of the Ozarks, boaters should be especially careful on the Niangua, Gravois and Grand Glaize Arms, as well as in the backs of creeks and coves and in the upper parts of the Lake, where the channel narrows and there are more chances to hit something beneath the surface.
A gravel bar leading from a point of land is a different situation, and the back of a cove will always be shallow water. Both require caution. Running aground at idle speed may be embarrassing, but it will also damage props and lower ends. Grounding at higher speeds may result in people being thrown down on the deck or out of the boat.
Look Up! The last place a boater must look is up. Even though the sky and clouds are lovely on the lake and significant parts of the boater’s pleasure, they can’t be taken for granted. Knowing the weather forecast and being vigilant about changing weather conditions are critical. It can mean the difference between a pleasant day on the water or a dangerous and miserable run back to home port.
The captain’s awareness at the helm must include the complete bubble to ensure a safe and pleasant cruise. Ideally, onboard personal safety vests should be pulled from storage and worn while on and near the water. Two fire extinguishers within easy reach, and bottoms planted in seats will go a long way toward helping the Captain enjoy his drive and passengers their ride.