Mike Baron, U.S. Coast Guard, Boating Safety Division
The educated recreational boater who boats year-round knows to take the extra precautions that come with boating during the off-season, but summer comes with its own unique challenges and precautions.
To begin with, stressors such as heat, sun glare, noise, engine vibration and the motion of the boat can produce signs and symptoms that mimic those caused by ingesting alcoholic beverages. That’s because the impacts are synergistic; taken as a whole, the effect is greater than the sum of each individual stressor. That’s also why we recommend that boaters avoid drinking alcohol while boating.
Hot weather can be deceiving. The days may be warm and sunny, but many U.S. waters are designated as cold waters for safety purposes throughout the year — Lake Tahoe, for example. A temperature of less than 65 degrees Fahrenheit can adversely affect a person in the water. Consider the water temperature where you’ll be boating before you dive in.
Hot weather also makes it tempting to remove your life jacket. Don’t. If you are still carrying the old “horse collar” type, consider summer the perfect excuse to move up to an inflatable life jacket for everyone on board. Inflatables come in many shapes and styles that are comfortable, cool and tan-friendly.
Then there are the weekend and holiday hazards: increased number of boats. People in the water. Music and fun activities onshore and off.
July 4 brings out record numbers of boaters to celebrate America’s birthday and enjoy an evening of fireworks. But if you’re like some boaters, heading in after the festivities may be the only time all year you’re navigating your boat in the dark. Make sure your vessel’s navigation lights are in proper working order, because they let other boaters know your vessel type, activity and direction of travel, so you and anyone else can take the proper action to avoid a collision. Designate a lookout, and operate at a speed that allows you to react appropriately under the prevailing conditions. Boating at night requires heightened awareness. Buoys, floating logs, sandbars, unlighted piers — all of these are much more difficult to see at night, as are you.
Here are a few specific dos and don’ts for keeping your summer boating safe, carefree and fun.
Do mind the traffic. The number of recreational boats on the water peaks in midsummer, and so do boating accidents, rising more than fourfold from April to July, according to the most recent Coast Guard data. Maintain a safe speed and stay alert to other boaters, swimmers, skiers and other towed watersport participants, especially during holiday weekends when fireworks and festivities add to the distraction.
Don’t forget about the hazards of carbon monoxide. Avoid high CO-risk behaviors, such as hanging off the swim platform of a boat moving forward (known as teak surfing). Don’t linger near powerboats that are idling in close proximity. Once you launch, move off to a clear area.
Do take along insect repellent. Nothing else ruins enjoyment of the outdoors like a swarm of biting flies or mosquitoes. Plus, they could provide that momentary distraction that leads to a collision.
Don’t forget your sunglasses. Not only do they provide UV protection for your eyes, but by reducing glare they also give you a clearer view of other boats and any hazards in the water.
Do stay hydrated. Dehydration can lead to headaches and fatigue. In hot weather, the drink of choice should be water or other non-alcoholic liquids such as lemonade, fruit juice or soft drinks.
Don’t drink alcohol and boat. Alcohol impairs judgment, accelerates dehydration and intensifies the effects of other on-the-water stressors, such as heat, glare and engine vibration. Early in the season, when air and water temperatures are still chilly, alcohol can accelerate hypothermia. Alcohol use also increases the risk of someone falling overboard accidentally. Be aware that operating a boat under the influence of alcohol (BUI) is illegal, and in some states the penalties mirror those associated with driving under the influence.
Do update your marine first-aid kit. Make sure it is fully stocked for emergencies and appropriate for the distance you’ll be boating from shore. The farther you are from medical assistance, the more first aid you’ll need to render until help arrives.
Don’t forget the sunscreen. Be sure it combats both UVA and UVB rays and has a minimum SPF of 30. Summer sun and heat can lead to headaches, sunstroke and sunburn. Apply sunscreen every two to three hours, and more often if you are swimming.
Do keep a weather eye. Summer squalls can build quickly, depending on the local climate. Know the signs of a threatening storm, and monitor the forecast for your area on a marine VHF-FM radio. If a storm threatens, head in. If you’re caught in a storm, seek a sheltered spot and keep everyone low in the center of the boat until the storm passes.
Do wear your Coast Guard-approved life jacket and insist that everyone on board does the same, even those who know how to swim. Remember that accidents can happen quickly; people injured or unconscious are unable to save themselves from drowning. Wearing a life jacket also dramatically improves the chances of surviving an inadvertent fall overboard into cold water and provides some protection against hypothermia until assistance arrives. No matter how skilled a mariner you are, a life jacket is the backup plan. Wear it.