How Dangerous Are Boats? 16 Safety Tips (For Newbies)

Boating can be a great way to enjoy a warm summer day.

Spending time with the people you love out on the water can be a great, relaxing, and fun activity.

However, most people forget that boating can be dangerous if the proper precautions are not taken.

This guide will help you stay safe when you are out on the water:

Statistics On Boating Accidents

The most important thing to know is that most boating accidents are avoidable.

A large majority of boating accidents are caused by user error or inattention, which can be prevented.

The top 5 contributing factors for boating accidents:

Contributing Factor Accidents Per Year Deaths Per Year
Operator Inattention 620 45
Improper Lookout 471 23
Operator Inexperience 436 63
Machinery Failure 305 9
Alcohol Use 275 102

One of the major contributors to user error is the lack of boater safety.

In boating accidents for 2017 where we knew who had taken boater safety instruction:

  • 81% of deaths occurred on boats with an operator that had not previously had boater safety instruction.
  • 14% of deaths occurred on boats where the operator had a boater’s safety certificate.

Another major contributor to boating accidents is alcohol use:

  • Alcohol use was the leading contributor to fatal boating accidents and accounted for 19% of deaths in 2017.

As you can see in the chart above, alcohol use caused more deaths than any other contributing factor.

16 Important Tips For Staying Safe On Boats

As you can see from the accident information above, most boating accidents and fatalities can be prevented.

Below is a list of things you can do to stay safe while you are out on the water.

1) Take A Safety Course

Boater safety is important to reduce user error. Much like acquiring a driver’s license, getting a boater’s safety certification is important.

Boater safety covers a wide selection of knowledge that is helpful to boaters out on the water.

The knowledge included in an average boater’s safety course is:

  • Boat Education: this includes general information about boats and their required maintenance
  • Boat Safety
  • Boating Law and Regulations that need to be followed
  • Introduction to Navigation

Most states require boat operators to complete a certified boater education course. Once completed, you should receive a Boater Education Card, otherwise known as a boater’s license.

Boater Education Cards are accepted across all states (except Alabama,) which means that you only need to pass the course to operate a water vehicle in the United States.

Once you acquire your Boater Education Card, you will want to make sure you carry it on you when operating a water vehicle.

This is important if you were to be stopped by the Coast Guard.

2) Don’t Drink And Sail

This is a straightforward concept. If you shouldn’t drink and drive, you shouldn’t drink and operate a boat either.

Similar to a car, it is illegal to operate a boat while intoxicated.

Alcohol impairs your ability to make quick decisions and can reduce your reaction time. It is important when operating a boat that you be sober and alert at all times, but especially in the case of an issue or emergency.

Alcohol can also increase your likeliness to become distracted or otherwise occupied.

Boating is a very involved activity, and you will want to ensure you have a designated sober operator every time you go out on the water.

3) Get Your Boat Checked Regularly

Guy doing an inspection of a tiny house on wheels

Mechanical failure was the fourth highest cause of boating accidents in the year 2017.

While mechanical failure cannot always be controlled, some steps can be taken to decrease the likeliness.

There are a few things that you can get checked before you go out on the water.

Mechanical failure can include engine, hull, and other issues. Before launching your boat, it is important to check and properly maintain all aspects of your vessel.

You can also get a safety check done on your boat. These are often free and will ensure you have the proper safety equipment, and everything is functioning as it should be.

Hull issues are one of the most important to get checked out. Even a small crack can expand and cause issues.

You will want to make sure if a crack does develop, it is repaired immediately. This is not an issue you want to discover while you are out on the water.

The easiest way to ensure your boat is in order is to follow a seasonal maintenance checklist. This will help give you confidence that everything is alright for the coming boating season.

4) Use a Pre-Departure Checklist

Besides seasonal boating maintenance, there are things you should look at every time you plan to depart.

This checklist includes but is not limited to:

  • Have at least one approved life jacket per passenger that follows their weight (min. 2 lifejackets onboard).
  • Have an additional throwable floatation device.
  • Have a working horn on board.
  • Have all required navigation lights functioning.
  • Have a flashlight and spare batteries.
  • Make sure you have your emergency kit, and all the supplies are functional.
  • Have a properly working fire extinguisher onboard.
  • Ensure you have enough gas.
  • Ensure your oil and coolant levels are correct.
  • Ensure your battery is charged and working.
  • Make sure you know the weather forecast.

If you check the things on the above list every launch, you can prevent or deal with emergencies properly.

5) Be Aware of Weather Conditions

Knowing the expected weather forecast and conditions are highly important before launch.

Aggressive storms or high winds are not only uncomfortable, but they can cause challenges for boaters.

Depending on if you are boating in the sea or on a lake, you will want to make sure the conditions are something you and your boat can handle.

Boating accidents due to weather include:

Contributing Factor Number of Accidents Number of Deaths
Weather 198 40
Hazardous Waters 187 64
The force of Wave/Wake 169 17

This is especially important in ocean boating during hurricane season.

Proper attention paid to weather conditions can be the difference between a safe journey and a potentially fatal accident.

6) Know the Rules

The best way to know the rules you need to follow out on the water is to get the Boater Education Card or boater’s license.

These programs give you all you need to know about proper handling of the water.

If this is not an option for you, you still need to know the rules and regulations that come with owning and operating a boat.

Licensing and safety laws differ by state, but many rules are universal.

Federal laws explain general operation and provisions, inspection requirements, what is needed for proper documentation, boater safety programs, and other general information.

Federal regulations explain similar things as above and explain penalties for things like negligence and the safety, identification, and other requirements needed per vessel.

The Coast Guard has safety directives that should be followed, and they often check to make sure vessels are up to code.

As previously mentioned, state boating laws can vary, and it is important that you know the laws in the state and water body you are boating in. These cover a wide variety of topics that any boat operator should be familiar with and aware of.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you will need to know the navigation rules of boating. Like driving laws, these rules lay down a consistent way to navigate the water and other boaters.

The navigations rules outline what to do when another boat is nearby in a variety of circumstances. You can also find how to properly navigate certain waterways, channels, and other operating information.

Make sure you know how to navigate buoys and other safety markers.

They also outline audible and visual signals that allow you to communicate with other boaters consistently.

Knowing these rules allows you to travel safely and gives you the ability to communicate with your fellow boaters out on the water. This is important because you want them to have the ability to understand you and vice versa.

7) Develop A Float Plan

Another good safety tip is to develop a plan.

This involves letting someone who is not on the trip with you know where you are going and how long you expect to be gone.

This is sometimes referred to as a “float plan.”

You can give your float plan to a family member or even someone at your local marina.

A float plan can include:

  • The name and contact information of all the passengers on board.
  • Boat type and registration.
  • Estimated trip destination and duration time.
  • Types of communication and signal equipment onboard.

Having this plan in place will mean that someone will be more likely to notice and try to contact you if you do not return as planned.

They can then alert the Coast Guard or other emergency services to set out to look for you.

Getting stranded is not a pleasant experience, and if your contact equipment or other communication devices fail, you can be stranded for even longer than you should be. This is especially true on days when the water is not very busy.

Being stranded for too long can be dangerous to your boat and your health, depending on the sun, weather conditions, or sustenance on board.

Without a functioning engine, you can also kill your boat’s battery while attempting to use your electronic communications, lights, or emergency equipment.

8) Properly Utilize Lifejackets

Each passenger on board your watercraft should have a regulation life jacket that fits them and corresponds to their weight.

You can be fined for not having the proper lifejackets on board. This is not just for motorized vehicles.

Non-motor vehicles such as kayaks, canoes, paddleboats, and others also require this.

Generally, children under the age of 16 are required to wear a life jacket at all times. It is also usually required that anyone participating in a watersport needs to be wearing a life jacket. This can include jet-skiing, waterskiing, wakeboarding, tubing, etc.

Make sure to check the regulations in your state as the above rules can differ, but safety means anyone moving around on a boat should wear a life jacket.

9) Do Not Swim in a Marina

You should never swim or be in the water in a marina or other locations where boats are stored.

Oftentimes boats that are in a marina or otherwise stored are connected to power.

Stray power can create a shock hazard for swimmers and other people in the water.

Beyond electrical issues, it is not safe to swim in marinas for other reasons. Because swimming is often prohibited in marinas, it is highly likely that boaters are not looking for you and will not see you.

It is also possible that the marina’s water is not clean due to possible emissions and other issues.

10) Stay Away from the Engine

When swimming, participating in watersports, or are otherwise in the water around your boat, you want to make sure you stay away from your boat’s motor.

It is up to the operator to ensure that no one is near your motor when they are in the water.

It is also important that no one exits or boards the boat to or from the water when the engine is on or even idling.

When crossing paths with other boats that might have water sports participants, you will want to take extra precautions and allow for a larger distance between both you and their boat and their water sports participants.

Ensure you know the proper navigation rules when coming into contact with a boat that is towing a person for a watersport.

Be careful when you or your passengers participate in watersports and allow for a large distance between them and your motor.

Tow rope lengths have specific guidelines to follow. Make sure you know these and properly follow them.

11) Be Aware of Carbon Monoxide Risks

While this rule does not apply to everyone, it should be followed when applicable.

If your boat has a covered or enclosed area, you should be aware of the possibility of carbon monoxide.

It is required that all enclosed spaces on a boat have a properly functioning carbon monoxide detector.

This may be the last thing on your mind when thinking of boat safety, but it is still important. In 2017 there were 4 deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning while boating.

You also want to make sure you know the signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:

  • Dull headache
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of consciousness

Carbon monoxide poisoning could cause:

  • Brain damage
  • Heart damage
  • Fetal death or miscarriage
  • Death

Besides installing a detector, you can also avoid carbon monoxide poisoning by ensuring all your areas are properly ventilated, and you are not using gas or fuel-burning appliances in enclosed spaces.

12) Bring Your Tools and Safety Equipment

You hope it doesn’t, but things can happen and fail while you are out on the water.

For this reason, it is a good idea to have the proper tools and safety equipment.

In the care of engine or other mechanical issues, having a toolbox equipped with tools will allow you to fix this issue yourself.

Fixing your engine while out on the water can be a challenge, but it is completely possible to have the correct equipment.

In your toolbox, you should have the standard tools and any tools specific to your vessel. This can save you the headache of waiting for assistance from others or even having to be towed back to shore.

You should also have the proper jumper cables needed to restart your boat battery. This ensures that you are not depending on the person helping you to have the necessary tools.

You should also have the safety equipment required for your vessel. This includes a fire extinguisher, visual distress signals, a sound device such as a horn or whistle, lifejackets, etc.

The full requirements for safety devices required onboard can depend on your boat type and boat length. A guide can be found on the Coast Guard’s website.

It is also good to keep a first aid kit on board for injury or other medical needs.

13) Pack and Dress Appropriately

Safety is not all about the actual handling of the watercraft.

You also need to make sure you are safe with your health. This can be accomplished by packing and dressing appropriately.

Sun exposure can be dangerous to your skin and has been known to cause skin cancer. Sun exposure can also cause sensitive and painful sunburns.

Much like a day at the beach, you will want to pack everything you need to protect yourself from the sun’s UV rays.

The first thing you can do to protect yourself from the sun is to bring sunscreen. This can help protect you from the sun’s UV rays. While sunscreen does not block all rays, it is your best defense.

Know what SPF is right for you and apply regularly.

You should also pack clothing to help protect yourself from the sun. Shirts that will protect your shoulders can be essential because shoulders are highly likely to receive sunburns.

Hats and sunglasses protect both your face and eyes, which are both very sensitive to sun exposure.

14) Avoid Dehydration

Another possible health risk that can be prevented is dehydration.

You can lose water more quickly in warm weather, especially if you are sweating. Most people get too busy or may not feel thirsty and forget to drink enough water when they are out in the sun.

Signs of dehydration include:

  • Excessive thirst
  • Dry mouth
  • Lack of or dark urination
  • Dry and cool skin
  • Headaches
  • Muscle cramps

Signs of more severe dehydration include:

  • Very dry skin
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Rapid breathing
  • Sunken eyes
  • Sleepiness, lack of energy, confusion, or irritability
  • Fainting

Symptoms to look for in babies and children:

  • Dry mouth or tongue
  • No tears when crying
  • Dry diapers for over 3 hours
  • Sunken eyes, sunken cheeks, the soft spot on top of the skull
  • Sleepiness, lack of energy, or irritability

This level of dehydration is a medical emergency and needs immediate treatment.

Dehydration can be prevented by packing enough water and making sure you are not overheating.

Due to poor planning, our family experienced a severe dehydration episode while out on the water. My sister ended up fainting. This is very dangerous and can be easily avoided with proper planning.

15) Have a Backup Operator

When setting out, you will want to make sure you have at least one other person on board, in addition to the main operator who knows how to operate and handle the watercraft.

This is important in case the main operator becomes incapacitated.

This individual should know all the aspects of handling and operating the vessel. They should also know the navigation rules and general boater safety.

If the main operator were to become incapacitated, the backup operator would then bring the boat to shore.

It is also essential that the backup operator does not become intoxicated in an emergency. They would then have to take over the operation of the vehicle.

16) Keep all Passengers Informed on Safety Procedures

In addition to a backup operator, all passengers should be made aware of all safety equipment’s safety procedures and locations.

This includes lifejackets, floatation devices, and fire extinguishers. In case of emergency, well-informed passengers tend to be less frantic and panicked.

They can also help take control and make sure everyone gets the proper life jacket and that the proper emergency procedures are followed.

Additional Safety Information for Different Bodies of Water:

Besides the above safety tips, there are certain factors to keep an eye out for depending on the body of water you plan to go out on. Each type of water body is different and comes with its own challenges.

Considerations to Make on a River:

  1. Changing water levels
    • Water levels decreasing can cause you to hit boulders or other water hazards that previously were not an issue.
  2. Unknown obstacles
    • If you are not familiar with a body of water, you may not know where rocks, tree stumps, or other obstructions are beneath the water’s surface.
  3. Blind curves
    • With a twisting and turning river, you will not always have the best vision around turns. Take these carefully to avoid possible collisions. Navigational rules require boaters to keep right when passing, but these are not always followed.
  4. Traffic
    • Rivers are smaller and tend to have more concentrated traffic. Be respectful and careful while navigating, as well as avoid high speeds. Most rivers don’t allow wake anyway.

Lakes share a few similar considerations to that of rivers.

Considerations to Make on a Lake:

  • Changing water levels on lakes that have water flow controlled by dams.
  • Unmarked obstacles
    • This can include boulders, stumps, shoals, and other obstacles.
  • Traffic
    • Like rivers, lakes can also experience high traffic, especially on busy weekends.
  • Rough waters
    • Wind can cause high waves or other difficult water. This can be challenging to navigate, even for experienced operators.

The ocean is probably one of the most unique to handle and can be challenging for inexperienced and even experienced boaters.

Considerations to Make While in the Ocean:

  • Weather
    • This can be more important in the ocean than a lake or river, especially during hurricane season.
  • Rough water
    • The ocean can get incredibly high waves, which can be hard to handle in small recreational boats or personal watercraft.
  • Inexperience
    • Depending on your boating experience, you may not want to venture too far out unless you are confident in your abilities.
  • Swimming
    • Swimming in the ocean is something not to be taken lightly. Undertows and other currents can be dangerous for swimmers, especially the farther out you are. You also run the risk of being attacked by a shark or other creature the farther out you are.

Boating can be a fun and rewarding activity if you do it properly.

Boating allows you to enjoy the nice weather and beautiful bodies of water. Boating can also be a bonding experience and create wonderful memories between you and your loved ones.

While boating, you should not have to worry about boating being dangerous as long as you are careful and well prepared.

As long as you have properly functioning safety equipment, you should have a safe and enjoyable experience out on the water.

You should also avoid and lessen human error and follow the rest of the above safety tips and instructions.

With proper planning and attention, boating can be safe and fun for the whole family.

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