Boating Season Safety Tips

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Most critical boating accidents stem from these 11 events.

Zach Stovall

Boating accidents make news. Maybe it’s a throwback to the great tales of misadventure at sea. Maybe it’s their novelty; many mundane activities are statistically riskier. But beyond the headlines, one or more of a relative handful of causes are usually to blame, says Randy Vance, editor-at-large at Boating. Here are 11 situations to avoid:

RUNNING OUT OF GAS: It’s amusing, maybe, on small water in good weather or when a marine towing company can quickly bring rescue in a gas can. But run out of gas in the middle of the Gulf Stream, or just above Niagara Falls, and the situation can be dire.

How does this happen? Maybe you miscalculated your bearing and burned up too much fuel finding your way, or you fished or cruised longer than you intended. Perhaps you skirted unexpected storms or ran offshore to avoid them. Or maybe you just plain forgot to gas up.

Plan ahead: Calculate how much fuel you need, and then add a generous cushion. “If I’m going 25 miles offshore to fish,” Vance says, “I figure 15 gallons out, 15 gallons to fish and 15 gallons back. Then I add 5-10 gallons (about 10-20 percent) for a safety margin.” Your mileage may vary, so be even more conservative until you get to know yours.

RUNNING AGROUND: Sometimes entertaining, often embarrassing, occasionally truly dangerous — that’s grounding. Vance says that while commuting by boat to his family’s Lake of the Ozarks resort and marina, more than once he came upon a boat high and dry in the woods, evidence someone had been inebriated or careless. Stay sober, slow down, keep watch and keep afloat.

In the water but stuck on a bar, you’ll likely be eager to yank the boat off the rocks and end the humiliating drama. First, make sure a cracked hull is not flooding the bilge. Red-faced or not, Vance says, “It’s better to be safely aground than sinking!”

FALLING OVERBOARD: An overboard tumble can likewise be mainly embarrassing — unless you knock yourself out on the way over. You don’t naturally float face up, so be sure wear a life jacket that will turn you over. Also remember that as a solo boater who falls overboard you will likely watch the boat run off into the distance — unless it turns a hard circle and threatens to run you down. Wear the emergency cut-off-switch lanyard, or its modern, electronic replacement, which kills the motor if anyone wearing a sender falls over.

SINKING: What sinks boats? Laugh if you want, but most often it’s a hole in the boat, often one intentionally made for a through-hull fitting. Brass through-hulls are best, but plastic ones are less expensive and less corrosion prone. Plastic fittings do crack if overtightened, though, and then may not actually leak until long after that happens. Test wiggle through-hulls for a clue, and get in the habit of checking the bilge for water. Check the bilge pump and the bilge plug (formal name “garboard plug”) as well. Added anti-sinking insurance? A small selection of wooden bungs for quick-plugging holes, including through-hulls.

CATCHING FIRE: Boat fires are increasingly rare, thanks to spark-protected mechanical systems and double-clamped fuel lines. Still, it pays to be safe. Always sniff the bilge for fuel fumes. Look for obvious fuel spills or leaks, or a rainbow-hued slick on bilge water. And never start a marine engine without running the bilge blower for at least five minutes. Make sure you have fire extinguishers aboard, rated for fuel or electrical fires, and that they’re still charged. Have them inspected or replace them if in doubt.

BREAKING DOWN: The U.S. Coast Guard says serious accidents often reflect mechanical failure and that can easily stem from electrical troubles. A faulty battery won’t start a boat motor. Boat lights won’t work either, so if it’s nighttime, you’re stranded and practically invisible. Many boats now have absorbed-glass mat batteries, requiring no maintenance and threatening no leakage or battery-acid boil-off. But if you have a flooded-cell battery, check it regularly — say, every weekend — for proper fluid level, adding only distilled water if needed. Watch gauges for battery voltage; it should be no less than 12 volts. Carry a backup flashlight to use as a signal, and of course, make sure your safety kit includes flares.

SPEEDING AT NIGHT: A chief cause of boating accidents is not matching speed to conditions or setting. At night you can’t always trust your senses to determine a clear path. (Maybe another boat’s gone dark, see previous item.)

LACKING PROPER SAFETY GEAR: Too many boaters neglect the safety equipment that’s on (or should be on) their boat. Or worse yet, on themselves. Wear your life jacket. Blah, blah, blah, you say. Well, life jackets save lives. The U.S. Coast Guard says about half of drowning fatalities involve boaters without life jackets.

A life jacket only really helps if it’s the right kind, the right size and handy — ideally on you before you need it. Remember, immersed in 50-something-degree F water, you have but a few moments of coordinated movement before you muscles fail you, and you can’t keep your head out of the water.

Right size? “I once rescued three boaters when their boat sank,” Vance said. “One was a small child who couldn’t keep his head above water without assistance because his father had put him in an adult-size life jacket.”

Inappropriate. Unlawful. Unsafe.

Wear a life jacket always, but at the very least keep it handy, and put it on in rough weather, during night passages and in cold weather. Stay alive.

Don’t leave port without working flares, lights or horn, and backup propulsion such as a canoe paddle. Anchors are overlooked safety items too; they’re first line of defense in a breakdown or storm.

IGNORING WEATHER: Boaters once got weather updates only from dedicated weather radios or marine (VHF) radios. Then some stereo systems added settings for NOAA weather channels. Now your smart phone, provided you’re in tower range, can run weather apps, including live radar. You know that keeping a piloting lookout is important; keep a weather lookout too, and don’t leave port if conditions are questionable. Too many good-weather days lie ahead.

FAILING TO MAINTAIN A LOOKOUT: “I didn’t see them coming” is the too-oft explanation for a crash. Well, see them coming, by maintaining a lookout whether underway or at anchor.

STAY SOBER: Alcohol slows reflexes and clouds judgment. Both can lead to an accident. Why chance it?


The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r) or your state boating agency’s Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to “Boat Responsibly!” For more tips on boating safety, visit www.uscgboating.org.Tags:

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