Use our 21 tips to keep boating safely after the air and water turn cold.
One year when I was a kid, my father got a wild hair about going fishing in October, our last boat outing of the year. We had a sportboat and mostly waterskied on mountain lakes. Although ours was not a fishing family, I was up for whatever prolonged my time on the water, so I was all in with this late-season adventure.
The plan was to ski and lounge in the pale sunlight of Indian summer and then get a few bites at dusk, when my dad suspected the fish would be active. He borrowed a couple of rods and picked a new, bigger lake than we usually went to, because “the fish were biting there.” We skied all day, coming out of the chilly water a bit blue, and then settled into sweatshirts and ate sandwiches for dinner aboard.
The fish were indeed biting, especially when it got dark and our Coleman lantern on the transom attracted them. We lost track of time and soon it was past 10 p.m. No problem. My dad started the 110 hp outboard, and we plowed through the darkness in the direction of the boat ramp. About 30 seconds later, the outboard quit — and that started a two-hour outboard mechanic lesson that, in the end, left us drifting back toward our fishing spot. A damp fog rolled in, as did a cold wind, and my bare feet grew numb. The lone paddle aboard was a state safety requirement and came in handy when you needed to get yourself a few feet from the trailer to the dock, but for going any distance, a single paddle is fairly useless. These were the days before cellphones, and because it was a small sportboat, there was no VHF. Most of the lake coastline was covered with rocks and roots, so walking the shore while pulling the boat was not an option. We took turns paddling in a semicircular butterfl y-in-fl ight pattern while I fantasized about a hot fish dinner, until we reached the ramp around 2 a.m. Nothing serious happened to us that night, but we made mistakes that could have resulted in an emergency late in the season. Early season boating poses the same risks. This May, on a lake in Utah, four members of a family were lost when their skiboat capsized in 8-foot waves churned up by unexpected 50 mph winds. Although the day started at 80 degrees, the water was only 53 degrees and proved fatal even to those who were wearing PFDs. It doesn’t matter whether you’re skiing, fishing, paddling a kayak or birding from a skiff, when you stretch the season, it’s best to think things through. Granted, much of shoulder-season cold-water boating preparation is like safe boating any other time, but it has a few twists. Read on, because forearmed is forewarned.
Enhance your situational awareness
Late-season boating doesn’t have to mean cold temperatures, but in the northern hemisphere it does mean shorter days. When you have less daylight to work with, plan on shorter trips or break up a long trip into several legs. A change of season brings faster changes in weather, so don’t rely on the weather forecast you got in the morning or the night before. Check weather throughout the day, if you’re within cellular range or have Wi-Fi connectivity. You’ll be texting your friends with pictures of the fish you just caught, so check your weather app at the same time and stay on top of changing conditions. When boating on lakes and rivers, you’re more likely to encounter lower water levels in the fall. Obstacles and hazards will be exposed or, worse, just under the water where you can’t see them. Keep an eye out for rocks, stumps and sandbars that wouldn’t have been an issue with three more feet of water. Don’t overload the boat—ever. Too much weight will make a boat handle differently and sit lower in the water. And more bodies aboard increase the chances that someone will go into frigid water. And finally, as always, boat sober. Alcohol not only impairs judgment, it exacerbates the effects of hypothermia. Save that cold beer for later. Enough said.
Make sure someone knows where you’re going and when you expect to be back. If you’re going offshore, consider filing a free float plan with a towboat service. Even when boating on a lake or river, tell someone your plans and have him call you, since you never know when you’ll get so caught up in your daily catch that you forget to communicate you’re back and in the local pub. Of course, you’ll bring your cellphone; if you’re going offshore, add a handheld VHF. If you’re boating in a remote area, consider a satellite tracking device such as Spot or InReach that shows position and allows you to send limited messages. Bring a dry bag to carry the electronics. Communicating also means having signaling devices aboard such as flares, a mirror and a whistle. Check the flares for expiration dates and make sure everyone aboard knows where the emergency equipment is kept.
Make sure all equipment works
Don’t assume that a sputtering engine or a sketchy starter will make it just one more trip. Deferring maintenance until next spring can be fine when you’re not planning to use the boat, but there’s no excuse for it when you’re going out. Before you leave the dock, test your GPS and VHF, if you have them aboard. Check your battery condition and fuel level while you’re at it.
Dress for success
Even if you start the day in T-shirts, shorts and flip flops, bring extra layers of clothes — fleece, sweatpants, windproof jackets and closed footwear. Try not to rely on cotton; rather, go with wool or today’s synthetic, quick-drying materials. Don’t rely on your baseball cap. Pack a wool watch cap and toss in gloves and socks. If you’re going offshore or boating in particularly cold waters, consider bringing a wet- or drysuit. You don’t have to plan on diving to have a wetsuit aboard, and if you get hit with pouring rain in an open boat, a wetsuit will keep you warm, even on deck.
Rethink your food and drinks: Cold soda and potato chips are great in July, but those won’t get you through a night on the water or even a prolonged wait for assistance in October. Think hot liquids. Bring a large thermos of hot water to make tea, hot chocolate, coffee, instant soup or oatmeal. If you don’t use the water, you’re not out anything. Bring extra lights and batteries because the days are shorter. And finally, toss a sleeping bag aboard. If you’re on a kayak, just add a large trash bag in case you get caught paddling in the rain and need an extra layer of waterproofing. Being less wet is always better. If you took anything off the boat earlier, thinking the last time was the last time for season, then make sure to replace it, especially extra line (for towing), a first aid kit or the PFDs.
Think through the worst-case scenario
Thinking through what you’ll do if the unexpected happens is the best way to prepare—not only for what to bring but also for what to do in the chaos of a developing emergency. The biggest issue will be sudden cold-water immersion, as in falling or getting thrown overboard. Get out of the water if possible, even if it means climbing onto your overturned boat. The 50/50/50 rule states that a 50-year-old person will last about 50 minutes in 50-degree water. (There are other interpretations of this rule, but let’s stick to this one.) That’s not a lot of time even if you’re uninjured.
Sudden immersion can also cause gasping, which can lead to water inhalation, so wear your PFD in case you’re too shocked to swim. Don your lifejacket early when the weather turns and things start to look dicey. If you do end up in the water, tuck your legs and arms together to conserve heat, and if you’re with a group, huddle together to stave off hypothermia as long as possible.
One note on late-season boating by yourself: don’t. If at all possible, bring a friend. A fishing or kayaking buddy makes it more fun anyway. If you absolutely can’t rustle up a friend or just plain must commune with nature alone, then the communications aspect becomes critical.
The one thing that is certain about a lovely Indian summer day is that it is fickle and fleeting and the weather can turn on a dime. That’s no reason not to take the boat out one last time, but a few tweaks in your boating routine may make all the difference between numb feet and a hot fish dinner at home.