Wayne Stacey, United States Coast Guard, Boating Safety Division
We know how it is. You see that sleek powerboat beauty at a boat show. Or a boating friend is trading up and has a boat for sale cheap. Suddenly you see yourself cruising over a glassy stretch of water and enjoying the good life.
Well, boating can be all that and more. But if you’re new to boating, understanding and applying the following four disciplines will have you well on your way to becoming a skillful and knowledgeable boater — and keep you and your boat out of potentially dangerous situations.
Know Your Boat
Every boat handles differently, and your own boat will respond differently from day to day as a result of weather, current, temperature, load and other factors. Read your owner’s manual, if you have it, for important information on the safe operation and maintenance of your boat. Learn how to operate the boat’s electronics.
Once comfortable, try a few on-water drills. Choose an open area on a calm day. Practice turning, stopping and reversing course at various speeds, and pay attention to your turning radius, stopping distance and maneuverability when the boat has more or less momentum.
Later, try these same drills in rougher water, with more wind, and with more or less weight in the boat. You may be surprised how much these variables can change the way your boat handles. If you store your boat during the winter, you should repeat these drills each spring when you launch.
Know the “Rules of the Road”
Boating quickly becomes challenging when boaters apply highway driving rules to on-the-water situations. Boaters need the other “rules of the road,” the Navigation Rules (NavRules) for inland or international waters, depending on where you operate your boat. Knowing the rules ensures that each operator understands the responsibilities and can anticipate the actions of other boaters who also follow the rules. The NavRules establish a consistent way to navigate safely and avoid collisions, such as when two boats are crossing paths, are on course to meet head-on or when one boat wishes to overtake another.
For example, when boats cross paths, one is designated as the stand-on boat and one is the give-way boat. A stand-on boat is expected to maintain its course and speed, not making any unexpected maneuvers. The give-way boat is responsible for taking whatever measures are necessary to avoid a collision with the stand-on boat.
Know Your Area
If you confine your boating to your local area, the newspaper or local radio will likely provide information on tides, currents and the weather forecast. Sometimes, local boaters are the best resource for insight into potentially dangerous on-the-water conditions. The point is to find out as much as you can about the area where you’ll be boating: weather conditions, expected boat traffic, hazard areas such as shallows and submerged objects, and the location of recreation and fishing areas.
If you’re taking a trip outside your local area, the Internet provides a wealth of information for planning trips in advance. You can research particular bodies of water for tips on travel planning, navigating and tide management. You can take advantage of new tide-tracking technology in boat GPS units and nautical watches. You can even find tide tables in various formats through commercial vendors.
Regional charts can be found online through the National Ocean Service at tidesonline.nos.noaa.gov. Hard-copy versions are available at marine retail stores. Study them thoroughly, and store hard copies on your boat. Memorize local landmarks and safe channel markers.
Know the Safety Regulations
The U.S. Coast Guard and local boating agencies have the authority to board your boat at any time to make sure you are in compliance with safety equipment carriage requirements. If you’re not sure you’re in compliance, consult “A Boater’s Guide to Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats” at uscgboating.org and/or schedule a free Vessel Safety Check (VSC) at safetyseal.net.
A VSC is a once-a-year check of your boat’s safety-related equipment and is conducted by specially trained members of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, U.S. Power Squadrons or state boating law enforcement agency. A vessel examiner will evaluate your boat and make sure it’s in compliance with federal regulations and state and local laws. Most important, you will be required to have properly fitting U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets aboard for you and all passengers.
There’s no penalty if anything is missing or not as it should be. Vessel examiners don’t write tickets. But a VSC could save you money if you correct a problem that would otherwise draw a citation from marine law enforcement officers, and it goes without saying that preventative maintenance saves you money in the long run and assures you that systems and equipment will respond when you need them. These are important considerations, especially if you purchased an older boat.
Once you have the required safety equipment on board, be sure you know how to use it. Boating safety courses are offered throughout the country for all types of recreational boaters. You can find a list of courses at uscgboating.org