Captain's Tips

Boater Safety Education

Sea Tow Huntington Courtesy of Sea Tow

As summer gets cranking, so does the number of boaters on the water. Unfortunately, it also brings more accidents to the waterways, and many of those are preventable when captains take time to prepare their boat, crew and guests.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a sharp rise in new boaters fueled by COVID social distancing and a desire for outdoor recreation. As our coastal and inland waterways welcome a 31% uptick in new boat owners, this increase is positive for the industry, but it has contributed to a 26% rise in accidents.

While not all accidents are due to inexperienced boaters, everyone can do a lot more to ensure a safe boating environment for ourselves and others. With a new season upon us, now is the time to put in place a plan that you can execute for a safe boating season.

Over the past year, I’ve observed safety gear on many boats in perfect condition, but never taken out of the package or unwrapped to use. I’ve also seen Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB) and Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) that were never registered or armed, and flares and extinguishers that have long since expired. If your boat has all the appropriate safety gear, but no one knows where it is or how to use it, then you are not adequately prepared.

To work toward a more safety-conscious boating community, every boater, new or experienced, can take three steps to make a significant difference in lowering the number of accidents and deaths caused by operator error or unpreparedness.

Take certified boater safety classes

In-person and online courses are available and take as little as four to six hours. More than 40 states now require this training before getting out on the water, and all 50 states have classes where boaters can sign up and take the courses for free or ask for a small donation to help cover the costs.

These courses are recognized by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), according to the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) and Transport Canada. While the degree of boat-handling knowledge is not always determinable following an accident, reports show in 77% of deaths that occurred on boats, it was confirmed the operator did not receive boat safety instruction. The data suggests safety training does make a difference.

Not just for new boaters, safety courses are also a good refresher for experienced boaters. Rules of navigation, required safety gear, etiquette and best boating practices are covered. Those seeking more in-depth training can take additional classes. These specialized courses can last one to two weeks and provide instruction in fighting fires, cold water survival and life raft boarding, to name a few.

Get to know the safety equipment

Boat Safety | soupstock

Whether you are the captain or a guest aboard someone else’s boat, you should be familiar with the safety gear, its uses and location. While the captain is responsible for the wellbeing of his guests and other boaters, each person onboard should pay attention, know how to operate safety gear and where it’s located. It only takes a few minutes for the boat owner/captain to show everyone where the life vests are located and how to properly adjust and wear one.

Sadly, according to U.S. Coast Guard data where the cause of death was known, 75% of fatal boat accident victims were the result of drowning. Of those drowning victims, 86% were not wearing a life jacket. Factors such as speed, operator distractions or inexperience can cause a sudden accident that ejects people out of the boat and renders them unconscious. Life jackets save lives and should always be worn when the boat is underway. If you don’t have life jackets for everyone onboard, borrow them for free in all sizes from the nationwide Sea Tow Foundation Life Jacket Loaner Program.

Pay attention at the helm

USCG accident data points to operator inattention as the leading cause of non-fatal accidents. Yes, boating is a fun, recreational activity, but boat operators should not neglect their responsibilities. It is important to protect boat handlers’ ability to focus on safe boat operation when out on the water for the day.

Not surprisingly, alcohol intoxication is a leading factor in fatal boat accidents. Just like getting behind the wheel of a car, driving a boat while intoxicated is illegal. Captains can still enjoy their time, but they must remain capable of managing the vessel and stay aware of weather or water conditions, as well as other vessels in the waterway. It’s easy to lose track of consumption when the weather is warm, so determine your limit and have a plan.

Let’s all be safe this summer and have a great time on the water. Safe boating is the responsibility of the captain, and he/she sets the tone for guests and others onboard.

Safety classes offer critical skills and education for all levels of boating experience. This training is instrumental to safe boating and can even help reduce insurance costs in many cases. Here are a few that Marinalife recommends:

U.S. Coast Guard auxiliary boating courses provide instruction to boaters at all levels, from the fundamental to the advanced.  

BoatUS offers free safety courses that are recognized in most states and by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.

Chapman School of Seamanship also offers basic to advanced courses for boaters and can also be used for certifications if needed.

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