Have the Water to Yourself - Enjoy off-season boating, but plan for emergencies.

Posted: September 1, 2011

By: John M. Malatak, chief, program operations, U.S. Coast Guard, Boating Safety Division

I love boating in the fall. The waterways that bustle with activity in the summer often have a different feel in the off-season, which is why fall is a great time to explore along the waterfront or find a quiet place to drop anchor and take in the scenery.

However, boating in the off-season - when the sun sets early, temperatures drop fast and there are fewer boaters to come to your aid or call for help - carries certain risks, and experienced boaters know to plan for every emergency before heading out.

Consider Worst Case Scenarios

There's little or no margin for error in the off-season, so consider every possible scenario, beginning with the possibility of being stranded. Be sure you have enough fuel to get where you're going and back. The rule of thumb is one-third out, one-third back and one-third for emergencies.

As a responsible boater, you should always carry a first-aid kit, but in the off-season be sure you also have an onboard emergency kit that includes a change of clothes; calorie-dense snack food; fresh water; a thermos of coffee, cocoa or other warm beverage; duct tape; a waterproof portable flashlight with extra batteries; flares and matches. Stow all of these items in a waterproof bag. Remember to stay away from alcohol when you're out on the water. It impairs your judgment and hastens the onset of hypothermia.

Carry a mobile phone only as a backup to your VHF-FM marine radio. Mobile phones frequently lose a signal and are unidirectional - only one person receives the phone call compared to many who may hear a VHF radio distress call. If your boating activity takes you far from shore, consider adding an EPIRB as well. Rescue 21, the advanced command, control and communications system created to improve search and rescue, is currently being deployed in stages across the U.S. This new system gives the Coast Guard the ability to pinpoint the location of a distress call from a DSC-VHF marine radio connected to a GPS receiver. If you get in trouble, especially during the chilly off-season, every minute counts.

Life jackets are essential boating equipment in any season. Lightweight inflatables are popular in the summer months, but in cold weather, float coats and jackets will not only keep you afloat but also provide additional insulation. Since there is rarely time to put on a life jacket during an emergency, make sure everyone wears one at all times while the boat is under way. Also, consider equipping your life jackets with devices to help rescuers find you more quickly (e.g., whistles, strobe lights, signal mirrors and/or personal locator beacons). If you do fall in, stay with your boat, so rescuers can spot you more easily.

If anyone ends up in the water, think about how you'll get them back in the boat. Climbing back in after a fall overboard can be next to impossible in heavy, cold, wet winter clothes, even for someone who is uninjured. Consider providing a sling if your boat has no boarding ladder. If you boat in cold weather often, I strongly recommend that you practice (under warmer conditions) getting back in your boat, as well as bringing passengers aboard under cold-weather conditions.

This is the first of a two-part column about boating in the off-season.

See Part II in the Winter issue of Boating World.

What to Wear

If you go boating in the fall, dress appropriately:

  • Dress in layers and recognize that even slight changes in the weather can make hypothermia a threat.
  • Take extra dry clothing in a waterproof bag.
  • Wear quality, nonslip footwear; wear socks, even with sandals.

Wear your life jacket or float coat/jacket. Cold water quickly saps your strength. Life jackets provide added insulation. If you fall overboard, wearing a life jacket could give you the time you need to safely reboard the boat. The first reaction when hitting cold water is to gasp and suck in water. A life jacket can give you crucial minutes to regulate your breathing after the shock of falling in.

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