Be Safe for Your First Day out the Erg Room
By Sarah Marshall • March 2, 2017
After a long winter off the water, many important safety considerations for coaches and the coaching launch may go overlooked. As the rowing community sees crews on the water earlier and earlier almost every year, sometimes this includes pushing the envelope for what are considered safe rowing conditions. Make sure you take charge of your equipment and launches to minimize the risks associated with cold water rowing.
Cold weather means poor circulation, numb extremities and even hypothermia for the coach. If you are not taking care of yourself or your crew on the water, you are adding a great element of risk to your practice. Do not haphazardly rush to practice without taking the time to protect yourself. A coach should do everything possible to preserve their abilities to make good decisions and act quickly in the case of emergency.
Make sure you are well-layered:
• Always wear at least one polyester base layer on top and bottom
• Wear a waterproof outer layer – boots, gloves, hat, rain pants and a rain jacket
• Wear a PFD.
• Consider using a survival suit – a PFD, insulating layers and a waterproof shell all in one.
• Sunglasses to minimize glare.
Make sure every launch for your program has the necessary safety gear. Take into consideration the number of athletes each coach/launch will be working with and your local conditions. If you practice before dawn or near dusk, lights for launches and shells are a necessity.
Do you have these items available?
• A kill switch key with lanyard – you should ALWAYS wear your killswitch
• USCG approved PFD’s – one for every athlete with the launch
• Paddle and tow rope
• Bullhorn/megaphone and air horn
• First aid kit
• Re-warming kit – a few sets of warm and dry clothes, towels and blankets at the boathouse
• A 1NM red/green bow light and 2NM all-around white stern light
• A VHF radio or cell phone for emergency communications
Well before you get to practice, check the local conditions. Each body of water varies for what is considered “rowable” water, so learn what conditions on your water would be unsafe and have the information to make decisions about conducting water practice before arriving at the boathouse. Erging or any other means of land training is always a safe option.
Local conditions to consider include:
• Winds and wind gusts – early-spring conditions bring unpredictable winds and wind gusts.
• White caps – winds of 14-16mph will begin to create white caps, but your body of water may see such conditions at lower speeds if unprotected and the wind is traveling in a certain direction.
• Precipitation – rain and cold temperatures can make for a dangerous practice. If your athletes are not prepared with their own warm and waterproof gear, you should not row in such conditions.
• Ice – if you are unsure about how well-thawed your body of water is, check before practice to ensure the water is cleared of any ice.
• Check docks and ramps for ice. A slippery surface may injure you or your rowers.
Give yourself extra time to set up and start the launch – cold weather can require an extra five to ten minutes of coaxing to get a normally robust engine running.
• Prime the engine with fuel by shifting fully into forward gear and back to neutral several times.
• Use fast idle, if an option.
• Squeeze the bulb on your gas line to help force fuel into the engine.
• Batteries that have not been used all winter may be dead or low on charge – a pull start may be necessary some mornings. Try and keep batteries inside and warm when not in use.
Put on your own PFD and attach your killswitch before leaving the dock. If you fall from your launch, whether from the wind blowing it over, a medical emergency or some other freak accident, you need to plan for stopping the launch in its tracks.
• In a planing hull launch (flat or v-hull Jon boats, Carolina skiffs, etc.) without a steering system, your engine will automatically turn to one side without manual control – if you end up in the water, the launch will automatically start to circle you. While this may allow you to recover and get ahold of the launch, more likely than not you will be struck by the launch or the propeller.
• In a launch with a steering system, the launch will continue forward until stopped by an outside force if you lose control of the throttle. If you end up in the water or otherwise incapacitated, the launch may not hurt you, but could easily run through the boats you are coaching.
• In a John boat or other planing hull, leave cinder blocks, sand bags or some other large weight in the bow of the boat to maximize your stability and control in windy/choppy conditions.
• While pontoon style “wakeless” launches are a great deal more stable than the classic aluminum John boat, smaller models with less mass are susceptible to being thrown about in large wind gusts. Such gusts are unpredictable and may not flip your launch but could certainly throw you off balance.
Know how to troubleshoot your launch – a dead launch is as good as no launch, or possibly even more dangerous, as you become a potential victim or cannot reach your crews.
• Is fuel flowing to the engine? Check the fuel line and bulb to make sure engine is taking in fuel.
• Is the kill switch in place? The lanyard and key can be accidentally dislodged, preventing the engine from starting.
• The engine won’t start after stopping? Check if you are in false neutral – this is common in tiller steered launches.
• Ticking from the engine as you turn the key likely indicates a dead battery. Try pull starting the launch.
Do not be too eager to get on the water.
Take the time to check your safety equipment.
Assess the dangers and delay a day or more if necessary.