Enjoying the sights and sounds of the water can be a relaxing way to spend a day, whether in the warmth of summer or the chill of winter. But no matter how short your trip or experienced your captain, you should always be prepared with boating safety practices and supplies that save lives.
Each year, between 600-800 people die in the United States as a result of recreational boating accidents, and more than two-thirds of all accident victims drown. These boating safety tips for both captains and passengers will ensure that everyone makes it back to shore.
Wear a life jacket at all times. All children and adults should have on properly fitting life jackets, which are absolutely essential to boating safety. If there's an accident or an unexpected storm, your life jacket will keep you afloat and help you remain visible, even at night. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 90 percent of drowning victims were not wearing life jackets.
Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. If you're going on a cold-weather boating excursion, wear layers that will protect you from hypothermia in an emergency. Wool clothing is best.
Always check the weather first. If the forecast predicts a storm, don't take any chances. Even if the weather service calls for a sunny day, keep a lookout for signs that the weather is shifting, including sudden winds or choppy water.
Don't drink and boat. It may be tempting to join into the celebrations when your boating party is enjoying alcoholic beverages on the water, but the boat captain should always be sober. In fact, it's best to leave alcohol on the shore altogether, as many boating accidents involve drug or alcohol use and the effects of alcohol are exaggerated by exposure to sun, glare, wind, noise and vibration.
Take a boating safety course. No matter how much boating experience you have, it can be helpful to brush up on safe boating information offered by the U.S. Coast Guard, a state boating regulation agency or another boating organization. Free boating safety courses are also available online. You'll learn how to help a vessel in distress, respond to a wreck and prevent impacts with boat propellers, among other crucial information.
File a float plan. Tell a responsible friend, family member or other party your planned route, departure and arrival times, a description of the boat and a list of everyone going on the boating trip. If there's an emergency, like a mechanical failure or an unexpected storm, rescuers can begin looking for your boating party much faster, and their search will be much more efficient.
Pack emergency supplies. If the boat is longer than sixteen feet, it must have a throwable PFD, or portable floatation device, onboard. Other necessary supplies include a fire extinguisher, boat lights, maps, flares, a first aid kit and an anchor.
Know how to react to cold water. The initial shock of cold water provokes an involuntary gasping reaction that can lead to hyperventilating and fainting — another reason why life jackets are so important. Within 5 to 15 minutes, you can lose your ability to move your extremities. Save your energy if possible and put yourself in the HELP position (Heat Escape Lessening Posture) by drawing your limbs to your body, keeping the armpits and groin areas protected from exposure.
Follow the rules of the water. The captain should always maintain safe speeds, keep the proper navigation lights on from sunset to sunrise, and follow boat traffic rules like yielding to the boat on the right in a crossing. Never allow passengers to ride on gunwales, setbacks or outside of protective railings.
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Related safety stories from MNN and partners:
- Boater safety: a quick primer
- 5 lesser-known swimming safety tips
- Tips to keep clear of other boats (from Allstate)