Tips Tuesday: How to Stay Safe on Your Boat this Weekend

Labor Day is coming, with the chance to get in one last weekend of watersports fun before fall and winter make the lake off-limits. Unfortunately, as recreational boating activity soars during warm weather months, so do boating incidents and injuries. According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s “Boating Statistics 2009,” the most recent year available, there are almost 13 million registered recreational boats in the United States. While overall boating fatalities slightly increased from 709 in 2008 to 736 in 2009, representing a 3.81 percent increase from the previous year, there were other changes in key factors related to boating safety activity. Nearly 4,800 boating accidents were reported in 2009, with far more that go unreported each year, and close to 3,400 people required medical treatment beyond first aid. In addition, the total property damage in 2009 from reported accidents was approximately $36 million.

Though the statistics are sobering, the risk of boating injuries and accidents can be minimized. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the vast majority of reported incidents involved factors that were within the control of boat operators. Here are ten tips to help recreational boaters stay safe this weekend.

Always wear a life jacket and insist that your crew and guests do the same. Approximately 75 percent of all fatal boating accident victims drowned in 2009. Eighty-four percent of those who drowned were not wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) or life jacket, and seven out of 10 boaters who drowned were on vessels less than 21 feet. Always have an adequate supply of personal flotation devices aboard. Make sure that children are wearing appropriate life jackets that fit correctly. Drowning was the reported cause of death for approximately 50 percent of the children under the age of 13 who perished in boating accidents in 2009. In cold water areas, life jackets are even more important. A fall into water colder than 60 degrees (Fahrenheit) can induce “cold shock” – a sudden gasping for air that can increase the risk of drowning, especially in older people.

1. Never drink alcohol while boating. Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents, and the leading factor in 16 percent of all boating deaths in 2009. Stay sharp on the water by leaving the alcohol on dry land.

2. Operator errors account for 70 percent of boating accidents - take a boating safety course. Eighty-six percent of all reported boating fatalities in 2009 occurred on boats where the operator had not completed a boating safety course.1 You may even qualify for a reduced insurance rate if you complete a safety course. Contact your local Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadron chapter, or visit for information on courses in your area.

3. Stay in control by taking charge of your safety and that of your passengers. Boaters between the ages of 36 and 55 accounted for the highest rate of accidents, injuries and boating fatalities in 2009. Don’t forget that safety begins with you. 

4. Understand and obey boating safety recommendations and navigational rules. Imagine the mayhem that would result if car drivers disregarded highway traffic laws. Know and understand boating safety procedures and rules of navigation before taking to the water, and practice them without fail.

5. Operate at a safe speed and always maintain a careful lookout. Overall, operator inattention, operator inexperience, excess speed and improper outlook were the leading contributing factors in all reported accidents. Know your boat’s limitations as well as your own. Take note of visibility, traffic density and the proximity of navigation hazards like shoals, rocks or floating objects. Don’t invite a collision by going faster than is prudent.

6. Check the weather forecast. A calm day can quickly turn ugly on the water. Keep an eye out for changing weather conditions and stay on top of the forecast while boating. Promptly heed all weather and storm advisories.

7. Hypothermia is a significant risk factor for injury or even death while boating. Cold water accelerates the onset and progression of hypothermia since body heat can be lost 25 times faster in cold water than in cold air. The closer you are to rescue support, the better your chances are. Therefore, an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon or Global Positioning System interfaced Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB/GPIRB), and/or a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), is recommended especially when boating in waters that are below 59ºF. These safety devices should be considered when boating in waters of any temperature. Boaters can be at risk of hypothermia in warm waters as well, where expected time of survival can be as little as two hours in waters as warm as 60 - 70ºF.

8. Use a carbon monoxide (CO) detector. Carbon Monoxide can harm and even kill you inside or on the deck of your boat. All internal combustion engines emit carbon monoxide, an odorless, tasteless, colorless, poisonous gas that can make you sick in seconds and kill in minutes. Even just a few breaths in high enough concentrations can be fatal. Carbon monoxide symptoms are similar to seasickness or alcohol intoxication, and can affect you whether you are underway, moored or anchored. Remember, you cannot see, smell or taste carbon monoxide, so know the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning and avoid extended use of the transom area when engines are operating.

9. File a float plan. The U.S. Coast Guard recommends that you always tell a friend or family member where you plan to go and when you’ll be back. Make it a habit before leaving on any boat trip. The proper officials can be notified promptly if you don’t return when expected.

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