For many Americans, summer means relaxing days spent out on the lake, river or ocean. But, in 2015 alone, 626 boaters died and over 2,600 were injured as a result of recreational boating accidents.
When you’re out on the water, you’re probably not thinking much about safety. But you should be. When you’re on a boat, failing to follow safety procedures, poor weather or even a lapse in common sense can lead to a life-or-death situation very quickly.
But there’s good news. By taking simple safety precautions and remaining aware of your surroundings, you can help prevent boating injuries and fatalities.
Here are seven tips to help you stay safe on the water this summer.
1. Prep Before You Go
Take a safety course, even if you’re an experienced boater. After all, a refresher can’t hurt. Even if you’re just riding in a friend’s boat, taking a safety course before the trip is still a good idea. Should the captain of the vessel become incapacitated, you’ll at least have a sense of what to do, says Amanda Suttles Perez, Director of Education at the Boat Owners Association of The United States (BoatUS).
You can take courses on safety precautions, vessel capacity limits, cold water boating and safe water skiing. Many of them are free, including several offered by BoatUS.
In addition to preparing yourself for the trip, be sure to prepare your vessel. Take advantage of a free vessel safety check offered by the U.S. Coast Guard. You can schedule an in-person check, or complete a virtual check online to determine whether you have enough safety equipment on board.
2. Check Your Coverage
Even with planning and preparation, accidents can still occur. That’s why it’s a good idea to purchase boat insurance. Even if your state does not require insurance, other institutions might, such as your bank, your marina, as well as organizations that put together boating events.
Although your homeowners policy may cover boats below a certain size, it may not offer much protection. For example, your home policy probably won’t cover you for wreck removal or pollution liability. A specialized boat policy will ensure that you are covered up to the value of your boat. It can also provide additional protection for your personal belongings and safety equipment, and you can extend your liability coverage to other boating activities, such as skiing or tubing.
Many insurers offer a discount for taking a safety course. Check with your agent or insurance company to determine what level of coverage best suits your needs and to see if you qualify for any discounts.
3. Make a Float Plan
Before you depart, put together a float plan and leave it with someone on shore, such as a family member, friend or staff member at the marina. If you don’t return, this person will know to notify the Coast Guard.
Minimally, your plan should include where you’re heading, when you’re returning and the names and contact information for the vessel’s captain and all passengers. Also include your boat type and registration number, as well as a list of the communications devices you have on board, such as a personal locator beacon.
Once you return to shore (or if you’re delayed in your return), notify the holder of your float plan.
4. Wear the Right Life Jacket
The Coast Guard reports that 85 percent of drowning victims involved in boating accidents were not wearing life jackets. Just as you buckle your seatbelt whenever you’re in a car, you should wear a life jacket whenever you’re on a boat–no matter how old you are or how well you swim. This applies whether you’re driving a motorized craft, paddling a kayak, rowing a boat or just along for the ride.
Most people think that they’re safer when on a motorized vessel and as a result, don’t wear a life jacket, says Perez. “You think you’re a strong swimmer,” she remarks, “but imagine if you’re paddling all day in a kayak, or you’re thrown off a boat into two-foot waves, are tired, and have to keep swimming to keep your head above water.”
Even if you think that a life jacket will restrict your movement or be too hot, there’s no excuse to not wear one. As Perez notes, you can wear an inflatable life jacket that’s hardly noticeable, and if you enter the water, it will automatically inflate.
Note that “in most states, children under the age of 13 are required to wear life jackets,” says Perez. Make sure you, your children and your grandchildren are equipped with ones that fit. If your life jacket is too big or improperly secured, it could slip off when you hit the water, providing you no aid in staying afloat.
5. Don’t Drink and Ride
Just as you know that it’s not safe to drink and drive, you probably know that it’s not safe to drink and boat. But, did you know that you shouldn’t even drink and ride?
As Perez points out, if you’re under the influence of alcohol, your slowed reaction time and perhaps even mobile instability will only be exacerbated by the movement of the boat. And, if you become dehydrated—a common problem for those spending a day in the sun on the water—you’ll feel the effects of intoxication more quickly. Simply put, being thrown off or falling off becomes a lot more probable when you’ve been drinking.
“Enjoy your beers on the dock, not on the boat,” advises Perez. “Drink water and Gatorade while you’re out on the water.”
6. Keep a Lookout
Here’s another reason to refrain from alcohol. When you’re on the water, it’s extremely important to remain alert, pay attention and watch for safety hazards, such as other boats or obstructions in the water.
Remember that bodies of water are not divided into lanes and can become very busy during the summer months. Therefore, in addition to knowing the rules regarding overtaking, signaling and yielding, you should keep an eye out–not just in the direction that you’re heading, but all the way around your boat.
Also, be aware of any constraints that are particular to the types of vessels you’re likely to encounter. A sailboat, for instance, can neither turn nor stop quickly. If you approach one in a motorized craft, give it plenty of space.
7. Mind the Weather
It’s obvious that you shouldn’t go out on the water if the weather is bad or a storm is forecast. But even on a nice day, weather conditions can take an abrupt turn for the worst. “Look for clouds building on the horizon,” warns Perez. “Keep an eye on the weather radar and your surroundings. Know your charts and what marinas are nearby in case the weather prevents you from being able to make it to your home marina.”
If the water suddenly becomes rough, turn the boat into the waves, and take them at a slight angle to avoid capsizing. As you steer, maintain a consistent, low speed. And always keep a VHF radio on board to instantly alert the U.S. Coast Guard should you run into trouble.
If you plan ahead for safety, you’ll be much more likely to enjoy your time on the water this summer. Don’t allow your vacation to be spoiled by a dangerous accident that might have been easily avoided.