The water is warming up and before you know it, fishing opener will be here and kids will be playing in the water. We can’t wait but we wanted to keep you informed about safety tips to remember. Every year, about 700 Americans die in recreational boating accidents. Not surprisingly, a disproportional number of those accidents occur in the summer months, when we’re more likely to be out on the water—and less likely to be thinking about personal safety than about keeping the ice cold and the cooler well-stocked. “People suffer from that cabin fever,” says Frank Jennings Jr., the recreational boating safety program manager for the Great Lakes region, where there are more registered pleasure boats than in any other Coast Guard district. “They’ve been cooped up all winter. The weather is finally getting warmer, the lakes are open, and they want to get out there and boat as much as they can before the season’s over.” Luckily, better technology (and a hearty dose of common sense) is making it easier than ever to keep yourself safe on the water. Here are the Coast Guard’s top tips on boater safety brought to you by popularmechanics.com.
You’ve heard it before: Life jackets save lives. According to Coast Guard studies, 90 percent of drowning victims were not wearing a personal flotation device (PFD). Of the remaining 10 percent, many were wearing a model that wasn’t designed to keep the head out of the water after the wearer lost consciousness. Legally, having PFDs in the boat is good enough—it’s not mandatory that you wear a life jacket, just that there’s one onboard for each person on a boat. And there are plenty of reasons boaters usually leave the jackets below deck: They can be bulky and uncomfortable and seem unnecessary on warm days.
“The air temperature may be 72 degrees F, but the water temperature is still in the 50s,” Jennings says. “People do get that false sense of security,” he says. “They never think there’s a chance that they could slip and fall.” The bad news is that once in that water, it can take as little as 60 seconds for an adult to drown. The good news is that today’s life jackets are less cumbersome than older models. For $40 or $50 you can get a comfortable vest-style PFD designed to keep your head above the surface. Sleek, suspender-like, inflatable models popular with sailors but great for anyone who’s looking for barely noticeable protection run closer to $100.
It’s a sad fact that 17 percent of all recreational boating fatalities are the direct result of drunk boating, or BUI (boating under the influence). While attitudes toward land-based drinking and driving have evolved significantly in the past couple of decades, downing a cold one as the wake fans out behind you still feels like a rite of summer. “It’s not illegal to drink in boats. The problem is, people often don’t know when to stop,” says Jennings, whose office has seen accidents in which drunk boaters plowed into bridges, jetties, as well as other boats. “Very rarely is a stone-sober mariner involved in a serious boating accident.”
In most places, boat operators can be cited if their blood-alcohol content is above .08, though punishments for BUI offenses remain less stringent than for DUI accidents. Many of the dangers are the same, though, including the added hazards of night-time driving. “Judgment, of course, is the first thing to go, and then perception,” Jennings says. “They don’t necessarily know that they’re going as fast as they are. Things on a boat on the water look entirely differently at night or even when it’s dusk. You lose that depth perception, and you don’t recognize closing distances.”
Stay in Touch
Cellphone coverage is often spotty; phones can get wet, and batteries can die. A modern VHF marine radio, on the other hand, is a near guarantee that you’ll be able to communicate with rescuers and guide them to your exact location in the event of an accident. (A good marine radio runs about $100, provides frequent weather updates and can be connected to your boat’s GPS for even greater geographic accuracy.) All marine radios sold after June 1999 have a built-in feature called DSC, or digital selective calling, a button that sends an automatic mayday call with your vessel’s name and location. The trick is that your radio must be properly registered, a step that many mariners neglect. Check out this site for a guide to setting up your radio. And make sure the rest of your boat’s safety equipment is functioning properly by scheduling a free vessel safety check. A certified examiner will meet you at the dock, make sure you have the proper gear and walk you through any recommended upgrades. There are no penalties for failing the exam, though passing boats get a decal for the windshield (go to safetyseal.net to set up an appointment). And remember, even with high-tech electronics, filing a float plan is a must—especially for solo boaters.
In most parts of the country, there are no licensing requirements for boat operators. But you can still hone your skills by taking a safe-boating course. (A class is also an excellent idea for young drivers; in most states kids as young as 12 are permitted to operate small motorboats.) Go to boatus.com to find classes near you. The best reason: Of those 700 annual fatalities, just 10 percent are in the boat with a driver who has had any sort of formal safety training. And when you know how to safely operate a boat, you can take the wheel if you ever find yourself in a vessel with a driver who’s had one—or 10—too many.