Expert Fishing Advice for Saltwater Anglers

How to NOT DIE When Boating

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Here's How to NOT DIE When Boating

  1. DO NOT USE A PHONEDo not use a smartphone or personal electronic device while operating a watercraft. If you're a passenger, demand that your watercraft operator NOT use a phone or PED while operating the boat.
  2. ASSIGN A LOOKOUT. Assign another person on board to serve as a LOOKOUT for hazards and potential threats. If running a watercraft yourself, act as your own LOOKOUT and avoid all distractions with 100% focus on safely driving your watercraft.
  3. TAKE COURSES ON BOATING SAFETY. Get educated on safe boat operation. Free boater safety courses are offered EVERYWHERE! There are zero excuses to operate a watercraft without boater safety training.
  4. SLOW DOWN.  Obey the law, and don't exceed posted speed limits and obey all no wake zones. 
  5. DON'T DRINK AND DRIVE. Period. There should be designated drivers if alcohol and/or substances that might impair a watercraft operator's attention, judgment, or ability to react quickly are used. Everyone should wear a life jacket at all times - but especially when consuming alcohol.
  6. WEAR LIFE JACKETS 100% OF THE TIME WHEN BOATINGLife jackets now come in many comfortable, unobtrusive styles. With inflatables, you won't even know you have one on. There are zero excuses not to wear a lifesaving jacket 100% of the time when on a watercraft.
  7. INSPECT YOUR WATERCRAFT BEFORE EVERY DEPARTURE. It would be unthinkable for an airplane pilot to jump in his airplane and fly without performing a pre-flight safety inspection. Watercraft should be no different. The operator should inspect all moving parts and safety equipment before leaving the dock. 

What are the Top Causes of Boating Accidents?

Sadly, we read or hear about too many boating accidents resulting in bodily injuries and fatalities each year. Of the thousands of boating accidents that result in injuries or death each year, the top causes are:

 1) Operator inattention

 2) Improper lookout 

3) Operator inexperience 

4) Excessive speed

5) Driving under the influence of alcohol 

6) Mechanical Issues

Not surprisingly (but very tragically), nearly 90% of the boating accident fatalities occurred due to drowning where the victims were not wearing a life jacket! Nearly 80% of the boating accident fatalities occurred on boats where the operator did not take boating safety instruction!

Here’s More Detailed Information on How Can You Protect Yourself and Your Passengers from Becoming Boating Accident Statistics?


Operator Inattention

It’s impossible to ignore the apparent increase in accidents attributed to operator inattention and the massive increase in smartphones everywhere - including on the water while operating watercraft. Driving a watercraft while distracted is as dangerous as distracted automobile driving.

According to a comprehensive study by The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB): “Vessel operators should keep their eyes and mind on vessel operation, and not use personal electronic devices (PEDs) inappropriately. They should also minimize other distractions, such as nonessential conversations. Vessel control and safe handling must be maintained until the vessel is safely anchored or moored. While underway, cell phone use is a violation of the U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Rules, which require mariners to maintain a proper “lookout” by sight and sound.

“Owners (operators) and safety managers should establish policies and practices to combat distractions in marine operations. For decades, the aviation mode has recognized the need for “sterile cockpit” procedures that restrict activities and conversations within the cockpit to the task at hand. Likewise, the marine industry should recognize the benefits of this procedure and limit extraneous activities and conversation on deck by vessel operators, says the NTSB, and prohibit the use of phones for nonoperational purposes.

To avoid being distracted or losing your attention while operating a watercraft:

  • DON’T use a phone while operating a watercraft that is underway. This includes talking, texting, taking pictures, using apps, and reading or writing an email. Also, even hands-free talking on your phone can take your eyes off the water and lead to accidents. Using phones and being distracted while boating can be even more dangerous on the water than in a car. Unlike cars, boaters are not restricted to lanes and can come and go from almost any direction. So, if you need to contact someone while underway on the water, stop your boat clear of all boating traffic or wait until you are docked or anchored. Alternatively, have a passenger or crew member do it for you.
  • DON’T multi-task while driving a watercraft. Performing any tasks simultaneously while driving is an accident waiting to happen. This includes but is not limited to checking equipment, adjusting music, taking pictures, and even eating and driving. Eating while driving usually requires you to have only one hand on the wheel - which means that you won’t have as much control over your boat as you should if you encounter a hazard, obstacle, or unexpected watercraft on a collision course. Get assistance with any non-driving tasks that might be a distraction and have you take your eyes off the water. If you’re operating the watercraft alone - stop in a safe location away from boating traffic to perform all non-driving tasks. 
  • KNOW your controls. Learn the location and operation of all your controls before you leave the dock. Be able to move your hands between the controls and the steering wheel without taking your eyes off the water.


Improper Lookout

All watercraft operators should use a buddy system when operating their vessels, with at least one other person acting as a designated lookout. As the watercraft operator, you must constantly scan your surroundings to ensure no hazards or threats. You must keep your eyes and ears attentive to anything that could endanger your watercraft and the people on board. Some of these hazards and obstacles are in the water, such as other watercraft, floating debris, rocks, sand bars, buoys, channel markers, swimmers, and divers. And sometimes there are dangers out of the water like low bridges and powerlines. 

To improve your awareness of hazards and obstacles:

  • Use electronics to improve your surveillance. If available to you, use radar, AIS, automatic radar plotting aids, vessel traffic services, and VHF radios. 
  • Know your traffic signals. You should have explicit working knowledge of all marine markers, signs, lights, and light patterns. This applies to stationary markers and navigational lights used by commercial vessels to alert you to their movement intentions. Here’s a great resource put out by the U.S. Coast Guard.
  • Map your trip. Use a marine navigation app if you are planning a trip through unfamiliar waters. Even if you will be traveling in familiar waters, it’s a great idea to check the area you will be boating for any unusual conditions (channel modifications from dredging, seawall, or channel marker changes). These are not common; they do happen. For trips to unfamiliar waters, you must review your navigational maps to identify any hazards or obstacles such as sandbars, rocks, or other obstructions that could pose risks to your watercraft. 

  

Operator Inexperience

Unlike operating a motorized vehicle on land or air, using a watercraft requires operational and safety training. Here’s an excellent collection of Safety Videos to get started. But definitely take a free Boating Safety Course before operating any Watercraft. Here are some excellent boating training programs:

Boat US Education Programs

BoatUS offers great boating education programs through its affiliate, the BoatUS Foundation. They offer free boating safety courses given online. They also provide additional online classes with relatively small fees but cover topics from GPS use to hurricane preparation.

The very best boating education option is on-the-water hands-on training classes. These are limited to specific locations that you can identify through the link above. Fees vary depending on the boating course you choose, and its length, but options include topics like Introduction to Powerboating, Precision Docking and Boat Handling, Open-Water Boat Handling, and Open-Water Advanced Maneuvering.

The National Safe Boating Council

The National Safe Boating Council (NSBC) focuses on boating safety and education. They offer different training courses for boaters with skill levels ranging from novice to expert. Here is their excellent video library focused on boater safety and training. They also offer a wide range of fantastic water safety programs, online courses, and multi-day on-the-water courses. One particularly notable program is called the Skipper Club. Presented in partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard - this program is for teaching teens aged 13 through 19 safe boating skills, from on-water powerboating skills and maneuvers to overboard retrieval.

NSBC also offers an online database of National Safe Boating Council certified instructors. Anyone can search for a powerboat instructor in their area and reach out directly to them to inquire about training. The instructors have undergone rigorous training to teach recreational boaters following the American National Standard for on-water skills. NSBC Instructors help cultivate a safer recreational boating experience by training responsible boaters. Visit NSBC to find an instructor near you.

The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary

The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary offers one of the most widely available and topically wide-ranging selections of training courses out there. Their National Public Education Calendar Database lists out subject matter, including boating skills and seamanship, boating safety, sailing skills, GPS use, etc. You can then search for availability by zip code. These range from one-hour classes targeting four- to nine-year-olds to advanced eight-hour courses that benefit even old salts.

United States Power Squadron

The U.S. Power Squadron, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to boating safety and education, offers several educational courses through its America’s Boating Club arm. These interactive online sessions cover topics like marine radios and GPS, weather, and more. Note that many of these are provided through the BoatU.S. Foundation and are identical, though they also offer webinars that bring students and instructors together via a “virtual classroom.”

Boat Clubs

National boat clubs like Carefree Boat Club, Freedom Boat ClubYour Boat ClubSailTime, and smaller regional boat clubs offer hands-on, on-the-water training. In fact, before taking out one of the club boats, the training is usually mandatory for new members. In addition, many clubs also offer yearly refreshers, special education sessions, and other opportunities to advance your boating education regularly. This training is included in your membership at no extra charge in most cases.


Excessive Speed

It’s easy to drive at excessive speed in a boat. It’s exhilarating to go fast with the sun and sea breeze in your face as you cruise across the water. But too much speed can quickly put you and your passengers in danger. 

Every risk factor is amplified when you are traveling at a high rate of speed. Collision risk with other watercraft, swimmers, divers, unseen hazards, or obstacles increases dramatically when driving fast. The severity of the impact is magnified when traveling at high speed. If you are traveling in waters with any chop or waves, your watercraft’s risk of taking on water (swamping) increases. 

Always stay within the posted speed limit and don’t push past a speed threshold where you are testing the limits of your watercraft and your operating skills. Even if you are highly skilled, remember that many of the watercraft around you are being operated by inexperienced operators.

Finally, note that different localities implement different rules regarding speed limits and no-wake zones. Therefore, always verify the local regulations before you take your watercraft out so you can operate within limits set by local authorities.


Alcohol Use

Since most watercraft operators are on the water for fun and recreation with family and friends, alcohol is commonly consumed. Alcohol use is the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents where the primary cause was known. It’s the leading factor in approximately 18% of fatalities.  

Statistics have found that alcohol use is the most common cause of boating-related deaths, but not only due to collisions or accidents from an intoxicated watercraft operator but also because intoxicated passengers who fall overboard are often not fully capable of perceiving or reacting to their risk of drowning. Many watercraft operators don’t realize that drunk passengers are also at risk. Falling overboard without a life jacket when you’re intoxicated increases the risk of drowning.

If alcohol will be served on your watercraft, use a buddy and designated driver system. Every passenger should be wearing a life jacket regardless, especially if alcohol is being consumed.


Mechanical Issues

All watercrafts have many moving parts and systems that must be in good working order for safe operation. The boat operator’s responsibility is to make the necessary checks to ensure that the boat is ready to operate safely before every departure.

While it’s impossible to prevent every mechanical failure, many issues can easily be detected and prevented by implementing the following procedures:

  • Inspect your watercraft before every departure. Many easily detectable mechanical failures and problems can be identified before leaving the dock. Before cast-off, every moving part and mechanical system of your watercraft should be inspected. All equipment should be operating correctly. If any mechanical component or equipment is not functioning correctly, the departure should be postponed or scrubbed until repairs can be completed. This inspection should include all safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, flares, life jackets, safety whistles, flashlights, etc. Where applicable, rigging should also be checked for potential failures, cracks, or weaknesses in wires or rods. 
  • Manufacturer’s product defect notifications:  You can obtain information about product recalls / defects from the Coast Guard Boating Safety Division.
  • Get a Vessel Safety Check. Did you know you can have a Vessel Safety Check performed on your vessel to determine if your boat complies with all applicable federal and state laws? Vessel Safety Check requirements are parallel to federal and individual state regulations to see that the vessel’s equipment is in working and safe conditions. When renting a boat or using a friend’s recreational watercraft, always check for the Vessel Safety Decal. Vessel Safety Checks are generally performed on recreational boats under 65 feet in length. The following U.S. Coast Guard-approved /certified equipment should be available and in reliable condition:
    • Wearable life jackets/throwable devices (one of suitable size for EVERY person onboard)
    • Fire extinguisher(s) 
    • Flame arrester(s) 
    • Visual emergency distress signal device + launching device 
    • Marine sanitation device(s)


  • Carry critical spare parts and know-how to replace them. Before departure, you should ensure that you have essential spares onboard and the proper tools and know-how for common emergency repairs. These will vary by type of watercraft but might include fuel hose and filter, water hoses, spark plugs, and even a propeller on smaller watercraft. 
  • Listen to your watercraft. If your bilge-pump alarm goes off, investigate the cause immediately! Did you know that 1 gallon of freshwater weighs 8.3 pounds & saltwater weighs 8.6 pounds? Depending upon the size of your watercraft, a few gallons of seawater in the bilge can affect its’ stability. If you hear your bilge alarm, take action immediately to try and prevent more water from coming onto your vessel. Do not underestimate how quickly water could rush aboard and capsize your boat. It could be minutes, so be sure to have your exit plan and well-informed passengers of emergency plans.
  • Top off your tank. When you run out of gas on the water, towing services will either tow you or bring you enough fuel to get you to port - for a fee. But if you run out of gas offshore, the situation can become very dangerous very quickly. Unless someone is in range of your VHF, you could be stranded for a while. Running out of fuel happens far more frequently than you can imagine. Watercraft operators either fail to check their fuel levels before departing, develop a fuel leak, or miscalculate their fuel consumption while underway due to unexpected weather. Fuel gauges are also prone to malfunction periodically. Before leaving the dock, calculate the fuel you think you’ll need on your trip. Then add 10 to 20 percent more as a safety margin. 
  • Know how to navigate the old-fashioned way. It’s easy to rely upon navigational electronics and/or apps. But you need to know how to read charts and navigate should these electronic systems be unavailable. Merchant mariners are trained to never rely on just one source of navigation. If possible, you should use two navigation systems and compare the data both are delivering. For example, match the shoreline you see on the radar with the chart. Your depth finder can be matched to the depths on your charts. Throughout your travels, you should be confirming your location through multiple sources.


Life Jackets

With nearly 90% of boating accident fatalities being the result of drowning, the use of life jackets should NOT be optional:

  • Every person on board should wear life jackets in appropriate sizes 100% of the time - from when you leave the dock to when you return. 
  • At a minimum, life jackets in appropriate sizes must be stowed and readily available for every person on board.
  • All passengers must be physically shown where the life jackets are located. Have everyone on board determine which size life jacket suits them best by trying them on and familiarizing themself with all straps and fasteners. 
  • Everyone aboard must be able to identify and access their right-sized life jacket quickly.
  • Again, preferably everyone on board should wear a life jacket while the watercraft is underway on the water. However, if you are wearing a bulky life jacket, be aware of wearing them in enclosed spaces or belowdecks, as this could hinder your movement.  

Captains Tip: Inflatable life jackets are comfortable and unobtrusive and should be worn at all times. If you don’t wear a life jacket regularly, you may have trouble finding and unlocking the so-called quick-release buckles or inflation tabs in the case of inflatable life jackets. Have all passengers familiarize and practice using their life jackets.


Weather

The storm “came out of nowhere.”  

storm forming on the ocean

While storms can form quickly, they rarely occur without any warning. But, weather services issue warnings as soon as they see the slightest hint that inclement weather is upon us. So, get up-to-date forecasts before you head out on the water and, set weather alerts on your smartphone at a minimum, and stay alert for changes in the wind, sky, clouds & water.

Have an exit plan. If you need to get off and away from your boat in a hurry, you need an exit plan. Always do a pre-departure briefing, especially with first-timers aboard, to brief them on safety procedures. If you need to get back to shore in a hurry, take note of “emergency exit” opportunities along your route, such as:

  • Take note of the closest exit ramps nearby if you need to run ashore.
  • Do you know where the best opportunities are to ride out a storm if you have to? ( a well-protected marina with a floating wave barrier)

When you see a thunderhead approaching, get prepared. You might need to prepare for more than rain and lightning. You might also get strong wind. 

Tall and tight waves will begin forming in shallow waters that lack the volume to disperse the extreme weather conditions. 

Captains Tip: When passengers come aboard your watercraft, brief them about how to handle an emergency. Your briefing must cover life jackets, fire extinguishers, and your exit strategy.

Develop your seamanship skills. In large waves, coming about is a matter of carefully timing a turn to minimize your exposure when sideways in the wave’s trough, which can cause your boat to roll or capsize. 

In mild conditions, try running your boat with the bow high to see how it handles, and practice turning in swells to get a feel for your timing and steering strategy when the weather demands it.

  • Waves often come in sets, with larger ones followed by smaller ones.  
  • Watch the wave patterns and time your turn within the smallest swells possible using throttle and steering, setting your downwind course as soon as possible. 
  • Keep the bow as high and dry, shifting your passenger weight as needed until you can make your turn.
  • Once you’ve turned downwind, slow your speed, so you don’t plunge into the wave ahead. Accelerate to prevent waves from coming aboard astern.

Final Thoughts on How to NOT DIE when Boating

Thankfully, most recreational boat owners operate their water vessels responsibly, using appropriate safety practices. With close to 12 million registered recreational boats, reported boating accidents, injuries and deaths are well under 1%, standing at approximately 6.5 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels.

Following the recommendations provided above should give you the confidence to safely enjoy your watercraft on the water. 

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Matt Spector


Over the last 25 years, Captain Matt Spector has established himself as an expert fisherman and Captain. He's taught thousands how to be safer, smarter, more efficient anglers! There's simply nothing more satisfying than sharing a lesson, recommendation or tip that helps another angler be able to yell...GottemonDood!

Captain Matt


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