Cellphones on the Coach Boat

Cellphone use while on the water has become a hot topic in junior sailing over the past few years. Many programs are still conflicted and have very different approaches to the issue. The main concern in this argument lies in the right place; it’s about safety.

Safety for sailing instructors poses a very different set of challenges then a camp counselor on land might face. As a sailing instructor you are not only a coach, but a lifeguard, water is not as forgiving as a soccer field. So looking at the issue of cellphone use while coaching from this simple standpoint is easy, just don’t bring the phone out. But there is so much more to it.

Now lets look at another challenge that is posed to instructors and that is weather. Phones are really good at predicting the weather. Knowing the weather in real-time allows us to decide to either keep kids out in the event of a storm being somewhat close or bring them in based on how close it actually is. Say you’re on the East End of Long Island and you hear thunder off in the distance. Without a phone, I’d immediately start heading back towards shore, but with a phone on hand, I can see that the thunder I heard is moving up Connecticut and will not hit us. I can also check my phone to determine if the wind might suddenly pick up. One time I went out with my beginner Opti class in the morning, it was light breeze, maybe 4 mph. Halfway through the class I check Sailflow on my phone. I see that in the next hour the breeze will clock to a southerly and fill to 20 mph. I know my beginners can’t handle this, it’s only the 3rd week. So I decide to start heading back towards the club. By the time we got back, sailing downwind all the way the breeze had changed direction just as my app said it would. If I hadn’t checked my phone my beginner Opti’s would have had to sail downwind in 20 mph of breeze and it would not have been a good scene. Some programs handle it through radio communication with shore; some do it entirely by water. But if a club is only communicating through VHF radios with shore that can also be a safety hazard. Say a class gets out of range, or the radio didn’t charge correctly the night before.

Simply put, there are a lot of variables in communicating from the water. So is it fair to say no phone can be brought on the water? Probably not for me to say, but I will say to instructors, keep in mind that if you are allowed to use your phone on the water it is a tool, not for pleasure. There are always risks and it’s up to the instructor to remain accountable and manage risks, this means a balance of tools and restraint. If we can drive down the highway and know not to check our phone, why shouldn’t it be the same for a boat? In the end this restraint is what will create a safe environment, allowing cellphones to remain a useful tool without becoming a distraction.