By Stephen Sheedy
TEXAS — Keeping waterways open for the safe navigation of vessels is no easy task -- even for seasoned U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' boat operators who brave the elements year round to collect essential hydrographic survey data that is used to help determine dredging cycles. To ensure operators incorporate safety while working to provide a safe environment for mariners, they must complete a refresher course designed to hone seamanship skills as part of the USACE Galveston District's renewed commitment to water safety.
"When the training is complete, our boat operators earn a license from the Corps' Safety Office," said Project Operations Branch Chief Karl Brown, USACE Galveston District. "The license proves that the operator can proficiently sail a vessel. Additionally, the course also emphasizes the importance of water and boating safety."
While most people might not associate boats with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the USACE Galveston District's primary mission of keeping Texas waterways open for navigation and commerce requires the use of nearly 40 vessels to keep operations running smoothly.
"The most important task performed aboard our boats is hydrographic surveying," said Brown. "This measures the depth of shipping channels and helps our engineers determine whether it's time for them to be dredged."
The vessels in the Galveston District's fleet are used to perform a wide variety of tasks ranging from collecting navigation-related data at sea to transporting equipment and resources to various work sites, some of which are only accessible by boat (such as the West Gate of the Colorado River). With so many different requirements, the Corps' training course provides a balance of classroom work and hands-on instruction to ensure all functional areas are covered.
"For two days, the course's classroom is on the water," said Brown. "Attendees will be piloting the same boats they operate on the job and they will be put through a series of tests, such as backing off a boat and proper docking procedures to observe their ability to control their crafts."
While many Corps boat operators have years of experience at the helm and flawless safety records, they are required to complete the safety training refresher course every five years to ensure their skill sets remain proficient and are up-to-date with current local, state and federal safety procedures and guidelines.
"Over the years, even professionals need a reminder about proper procedures and safety measures," said Brown. "Therefore, this training is beneficial to everyone, no matter how long an operator has piloted a boat."
According to Petty Officer 1st Class Kyle Norman, USCG Station Galveston Operations, many boaters become complacent and can develop unsafe habits that can often result in unnecessary accidents.
"The U.S. Coast Guard estimates that 80 percent of boating fatalities are the result of people not wearing a life jacket," said Norman. "With a little forethought and attention to proper safety procedures, most boating deaths can be prevented."
The USCG reports there are five common factors that contribute to boating accidents: inattention, reckless operation, passenger behavior, operator inexperience and the not having a proper lookout -- all of which can be avoided through proper education and training.
Although the USACE Safety Office Boat Operators Training Course is only offered to Corps employees, water safety experts encourage recreational boaters to periodically complete a local safety refresher course and to always practice responsible boating.
"It's important for all our operators to remember that we are professionals operating on the Texas waterways and we are in the public eye representing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers," said Training Instructor William Hernandez, USACE Safety Office Boat Operators Training Course. "It's our responsibility to demonstrate good seamanship and operate our vessels in a safe and prudent manner in all circumstances. I hope others will follow our lead."
The USACE Galveston District has been an integral part of Texas coastal communities for 132 years, providing vital public engineering services to areas along the Texas coast. As the leading provider of outdoor recreation on all federally-managed public lands in the U.S., the Corps has a dedicated focus on water safety by putting "safety first" and becoming "water aware" when participating in water-related recreational activities.