Safe Boating

  • Essential Safety Items For Boats
  • Operators’ Responsibilities
  • Overloading Precautions
  • Fueling Precautions
  • Anchoring Precautions
  • Water Precautions
  • Weather
  • Severe Weather Instructions
  • Cold Water Survival
  • Rescue Sequence
  • Distress Signaling And Radios
  • Alcohol And Boating
  • Safe boating is a combination of awareness, proper knowledge of the boat, equipment and procedures, and operator responsibility.

    Essential Safety Items For Boats

  • Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs), or life jackets, that are United States Coast Guard approved (wearable and throwable) and in good condition. As of May 1995, federal law states that every boat under 16 feet in length must have one per person on board. Penalties for violating the law range from a $25 to $1,000 fine and jail time for repeat offenders.
  • Fire extinguishers that are charged, rust-free, readily accessible and mounted securely to the boat.
  • Visual Distress Signals or flares that have not expired.
  • Anchors and line.
  • Bilge device with the pump working and/or an alternative bailing device.
  • Working watch or clock.
  • Bright flashlights or searchlights.
  • Paddles or oars.
  • Horn, bell or whistle.
  • Compass.
  • First Aid kit and sunscreen.
  • Weather radio, particularly one that monitors reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
  • Tools including spare prop and lock nut.
  • Extra batteries in plastic bags.
  • Operators’ Responsibilities

  • Before leaving on a boating/fishing trip make sure someone knows where you are going to be, a description of your boat and when you expect to return.
  • Make sure the boat is operating properly and that you have complete knowledge of how to operate it.
  • Make sure the boat is free of tripping and fire hazards.
  • Make sure the required safety equipment is present, in working order, readily accessible and that you know how to use it. Always wear life vests.
  • Hook up the kill switch and turn on the boat’s lights. The kill switch is a safety device that automatically shuts off the engine if the operator is removed from the boat or the boat is not upright.
  • Make sure the passengers are seated safely. In a small boat, make sure the passengers are in the position they want to stay in, since standing or moving around in a small boat can capsize it.
  • Do not drink and drive!!! Around half of the fatal boating accidents in the United States are alcohol related.
  • Set an example for safety on the water. Drive at a safe speed while scanning for other boaters near you.
  • Make sure to alert swimmers to stay clear of the stern/propellers while passing by. If swimmers are very close to your boat turn off your engine; do not depend upon the neutral gear or your propeller guards to prevent serious injuries.
  • Stay away from dams. Currents above the dams can draw boats into the water going over or through it. Areas below dams are dangerous because of powerful recirculating currents and turbulent water.
  • Know and follow any state or federal regulations and waterway markers.
  • Report any unsafe, reckless boat handling.
  • Overloading Precautions

    Too many people and/or cargo in a boat can exceed its safe carrying capacity and cause it to become unstable.

  • Keep the load light and distribute it evenly throughout the boat.
  • Tie down cargo to keep it from shifting.
  • Do not exceed the Capacity Plate or U.S. Coast Guard Maximum Capacities information label posted in your boat.
  • Fueling Precautions

    Before Fueling

  • Stop all engines, shut off all electricity and heat sources and put out all smoking materials.
  • Portable tanks should be refueled on shore.
  • Have everyone leave the boat except for the person refueling.
  • Close all hatches or openings that would allow fuel vapors into the boat’s enclosed spaces.
  • During Fueling

  • Keep the fill nozzle in contact with the tank.
  • Do not leave the nozzle unattended.
  • Do not overfill.
  • Wipe up any spilled fuel immediately.
  • After Fueling

  • Open all hatches (including bilge hatch) or openings for better ventilation.
  • Check for fuel odors or leakage before starting the engine. Do not start the engine until all odors are gone.
  • To make sure you always have enough fuel, use the “One-third Rule.” One-third of the fuel can be spent getting to your location and one-third coming back, so you have one-third left in reserve for emergencies.

    Anchoring Precautions

    A boat is anchored to stop it for fishing, lunch, etc., to keep the boat from running aground in bad weather or because of engine failure.

  • A “Rode” combination, which is attaching some nylon anchor line to the end of the chain, works best. Chain stands up to rock, sand or mud the best, but nylon stretches under heavy strain, which can cushion the boat against the impact of wind or waves.
  • When anchoring, select an area out of the traffic of other boats. When in a storm, select an area that offers shelter from the wind and current.
  • Secure the anchor line to the bow cleat and bring the bow of the boat into the wind or current. Place the engine in neutral.
  • Do not anchor by the stern in a small boat, which can cause the boat to sink.
  • Do not throw the anchor overboard because it can get entangled. After the boat has stopped, slowly lower the anchor.
  • Next, back down on the anchor with the engine in idle or in reverse to set the anchor.
  • Check reference points frequently to make sure the boat is not drifting.
  • Water Precautions

    Moving Water

  • Take into account the power of the current, which can be very deceptive. Parts of many rivers have different current class ratings from the river as a whole. The ratings can also vary with the seasons.
  • Be on the lookout for strainers, which are obstructions in the water that allow water to pass but will trap and hold boats and boaters.
  • Large Bodies of Water

  • Large, shallow lakes may develop large waves faster than deeper lakes of similar size.
  • Small boats should not go out on large lakes (such as the Great Lakes) or oceans. Large waves in big bodies of water can place small boats in danger.
  • Waves

  • When crossing waves or the wake from another boat head into the waves at a 45 degree angle to reduce the impact.
  • Knowing the tides and tidal currents is important to boaters because they affect where a boater can travel, anchor safely, how long it takes to get to a place and the speed and heading. The tidal cycle is usually a high tide followed six hours later by a low tide. The tidal range is the vertical distance between high tide and low tide. An example is the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, which has a tidal range that varies from 1 to 11 feet. For times of high and low tides boaters should consult tide tables for the body of water they are on.


    Know the weather conditions and stay informed about changes. Weather can change rapidly, so watch out for cloud buildups, clouds darkening and increasing in size, sudden temperature drops and changes in wind direction or speed. Static on AM band radios may also indicate an approaching storm.

    Severe Weather Instructions

  • Put on life jackets and turn on the lights.
  • Seat passengers near the centerline at the bottom of the boat. Stow away any cargo.
  • Reduce the boat’s speed so you have just enough power to maintain headway. Keep the bilges free of water.
  • Head for the nearest shore immediately.
  • Beach your boat if that is your only alternative to reach shore safely.
  • If the engine fails, trail a sea anchor or bucket on a line from the bow, which will keep your boat headed into the waves.
  • Cold Water Survival

    A sudden plunge into cold water can cause rapid breathing, cardiac arrest and hypothermia (the abnormal lowering of your body temperature). Cold water robs your body of heat 25 times faster than air at the same temperature. If you fall in:

  • Remain calm and keep your life jacket on. Wearing a life jacket will help protect you from hypothermia because it decreases the amount of effort it takes to remain afloat, helps insulate from heat loss and can keep you afloat if you lose consciousness.
  • Keep your head out of the water if possible. Fifty percent of body heat loss is from the head.
  • Try to get as much of your body as possible out of the water. If capsized, the boat should float on or near the surface of the water and you can get on top of it. Most overturned small boats can be righted and bailed out.
  • Layers of clothing actually provide additional flotation help by trapping air in the clothing, so do not try to remove any of your clothes, including shoes.
  • Bend your knees. Bending the knees is especially helpful if you have waders on because it helps to trap the air inside of them.
  • Float on your back and slowly paddle/swim to safety. Moving around a lot increases air loss in clothes and leads to exhaustion.
  • Recent medical research has found that it is possible to revive a drowning victim who has been submerged for as long as one hour if the victim has been submerged in cold water.

    CPR should be started immediately for a hypothermia victim who is no longer breathing. Replace wet clothing and wrap them in blankets, warming them slowly. Seek medical help as quickly as possibly. Never give alcohol to a hypothermia victim to “warm them up.”

    Rescue Sequence

    1. Self Rescue—Calmly talk the person through rescuing themselves by giving them directions.

    2. Reach Rescue—Use an object, such as fishing pole, towel, shirt, branch, etc., to reach out to the victim and pull them to safety. If no objects are available, lay flat and extend a leg out to the victim and pull them to safety. Hold on tightly to a solid object on land, if available.

    3. Throw Rescue—If the victim is too far away to be reached by an object, throw a rope, life jacket, ice chest or anything else that will float to the victim. Yell at the victim to alert them to the object’s location.

    4. Enter Rescue—Only as a last resort should another person enter the water. Make sure to take a flotation device.

    Distress Signaling And Radios

    Because different signaling devices are best for various conditions (day or night, for example), boaters should carry with them a mixture of distress signaling devices. There are many different kinds of distress signals, including:

  • Hand-held or aerial pyrotechnic red flares. SOLAS-grade (Safety Of Life At Sea) flares are the best because they are brighter and more reliable.
  • Parachute red flares.
  • A continuous sounding foghorn or other noisemaker.
  • A gun fired at one-minute intervals.
  • Waving of arms.
  • Dye markers.
  • Electronic distress lights that send SOS signals (night use only).
  • Hand-held or floating pyrotechnic orange smoke (day use only).
  • Distress flag-the distress flag has a black ball and square on an orange background (day use only).
  • Radio alarm.
  • All distress signaling devices that are not Coast Guard approved should be replaced. Some of the signals may require the use of a launching device and should be handled with caution. Also, pistol launchers in some states are considered a firearm, so consult the regulations of the state you will be boating in.

    The most common radio alarm system is the Very High Frequency (VHF) radio and antennae. They come with a choice of transmitter power from one watt for communication within one mile, and 25 watts for communication up to 25 miles. Another option is a Single Side Band (SSB) radio, which can transmit over hundreds of miles.

    Besides distress calls, VHF radios can be used for ship-to-shore communications, navigation communication with other vessels and bridges, and NOAA weather broadcasts. They can also be used to request that the marine operator place calls to shore for you. VHF radios are not private, so make the conversation brief because other people may be waiting to get on.

    The most important channels on VHF radios are:

  • Channel 16 VHF-FM is used for distress and emergency calling, whether ship-to-ship or ship-to-coast. If it is not a “Mayday” call or extreme emergency (no one is in grave and immediate danger), after making the initial contact users should switch to another channel. All vessels must monitor this station when they are not using their radio in case they can offer assistance.
  • Channel 22 VHF-FM is used to communicate with the Coast Guard after initial contact on channel 16.
  • Channel 9 VHF-FM can be used if you need assistance but it is not an emergency. It is recommended all non-Mayday distress calls try this channel first.
  • Channel 6 VHF-FM is used for ship-to-ship safety messages, and communication with Coast Guard vessels or aircraft in search-and-rescue operations.
  • Mayday Precautions/Instructions:

  • The use of the Mayday distress call when there is not an immediate risk of loss of property or life can result in a fine of up to $10,000. For example, normal engine trouble is not a Mayday emergency, but if someone on board is seriously ill or your boat is sinking or on fire you should make a Mayday call.
  • To make a Mayday call, say “Mayday” three times, then state the name of your boat three times by saying “this is vessel _______.” State your call signal. Begin your message by repeating “Mayday” and the name of your boat before stating your position (in latitude and longitude or by geographical reference), what your emergency is, a description of your boat and the number of people on board. Release the button and if you do not get a response in a couple minutes, repeat the entire broadcast.
  • If you have tried Mayday calling several times and gotten no response, your radio is probably not working. Use your time wisely and try your back-up signaling method, such as flares.
  • If you hear a Mayday call stay off the line. The Coast Guard or the boat in trouble may also announce “Seelonce Mayday” over the radio, which means that all other people need to stay off the line. If no one else is broadcasting it is possible for the Coast Guard to determine the distressed boat’s position by using the Radio Directional Finder.
  • Keep on board a copy of the Mayday procedure information. Even if you have it memorized, in an emergency you may be distracted by other concerns.
  • Alcohol And Boating

    Alcohol and boating are a dangerous mixture. Waterways are the second leading location of accidental deaths after highways. In addition, boat operators with a blood alcohol level above 0.10% are 10 times more likely to be killed in a boating accident than a sober operator. Alcohol affects your balance, coordination, vision and judgment, as well as speeding up hypothermia by dilating the blood vessels.

    Even without alcohol, hours of sun, wind, engine vibration and other noises can induce a kind of “boater’s hypnosis” that impedes reaction time. Adding alcohol to this situation only exacerbates it. The following is a summary of state laws regulating alcohol use and boating as of April 2001:

  • 32 states utilize boating-under-the-influence (BUI) checkpoints.
  • 29 states allow random BUI inspections that include boarding the boat.
  • Defending yourself against a BUI claim can be difficult, because 27 states do not require any tests for criminal convictions!
  • In Alaska, California, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire and New Jersey, a BUI conviction can also affect your driving record and privileges.
  • Iowa is the only state with no blood alcohol concentration intoxication level. New Mexico has a legal limit of 0.02.
  • 0.08 is the legal limit in California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington, as well as in Ontario, Canada.
  • 0.10 is the legal limit in all other states as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.