When springtime comes and devours the chill of winter, thoughts go to outdoor activities, the end of school and family fun. Many head to the ocean, lakes and mountain streams for fishing, swimming, skiing, scuba diving, snorkeling and a seemingly endless variety of water sports. Much water play is associated with boats and if you drive down any neighborhood street, you’ll see a watercraft of some sort at many of the residences. Boating is big and people ply the waters in everything from modest outboard powered aluminum fishing boats and high powered speedboats to immaculate cabin cruisers and sailboats. Many boaters are as good as the best and have a thorough knowledge of seamanship and boat handling, others have only a rudimentary knowledge, but are safety minded and there are those that are an accident waiting to happen.
In some ways boats operate much like cars. They go forward and backwards, they turn right and left and can go slow or fast. Here the similarities stop. Boats have no brakes, no turn signals, no wheels and they can operate outside the lines; there are no marked lanes in the water. They can be difficult to maneuver, hard to turn at slow speeds and are affected by the wind and currents. There are a lot of new and casual boaters that are not fortunate enough to have an experienced mariner to teach them and therefore will have to learn the ropes the hard way.
Being able to put your boat where you want it sounds like a simple proposition, but docking a boat or approaching a mooring on a windy day can be trying to even experienced captains. Add in a 3 knot current and most boaters will have their hands full. The first step to being safe on the water is proper boat handling. Boats come in all shapes and sizes and each one handles a little different. Twin engine boats are easier to maneuver and can be spun around in a circle on their axis; single engine craft are more difficult and use a different technique, but with practice, handling an individual boat well will become second nature. Safely docking or mooring a boat should be one of the first skills to be mastered.
There is some standard safety equipment that should be onboard all boats and some of it is required by law. There should be one personal floatation device for each person onboard. Lifejackets assure that everyone can stay afloat even if the boat can’t. PFDs come in sizes and are rated according to type by the Coast Guard. Check local laws to see what is required for the type of boating you do. There’s nothing much worse than a fire at sea and each craft should have sufficient fire extinguishers and be placed in strategic places. The engine room, fuel supply and the galley are where the greatest fire danger lies and on larger boats, a unit should be place in each cabin and stateroom. In addition to floatation and fire extinguishers, a flare gun or other signaling device should be onboard along with a suitable first aid kit.
Anchoring a boat involves much more than just throwing something heavy over the side. Although most people don’t think of an anchor as a safety device, having proper ground tackle can avert a disaster whether the boater is anchoring for the night or being blown onto a rocky, lee, shore. No one anchor is ideal in all bottom conditions and if only a single anchor is to be carried, a fluke anchor of the proper size, weight and construction is a good all around choice. For recreational boaters, a combination of a proper anchor and shackled nylon rope and chain of sufficient length will assure that the vessel will stay where you want it. Have your ground tackle ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.
Rules of the Road
On the water as on land there are rules that must be followed to avoid collisions between boats. Maritime rules of the road are involved and complex and the boat owner should have a working knowledge of what applies on the body of water that is frequented. Collision avoidance is a first priority and in many ways the waters of inland lakes can be more dangerous than the ocean. On lakes, the often limited space is shared by a large variety of craft traveling at different speeds and going in all directions and the rules of right of way should be observed. When two boats are meeting head on they should pass to the right as cars do on land. When on a converging course, the boat on the right has the right of way and when overtaking another boat, pass it on the right. Boats under sail always have the right of way.
There is much non-required equipment that increases safety on the water. Having the proper charts to familiarize yourself with the waters is essential and a depth sounder is worth its weight in gold. A ladder or other means of re-boarding the boat should be available and man overboard contingencies well thought out. A communication device, be it a cell phone where applicable or a VHF radio should be available and single engine craft should have a means of auxiliary propulsion. Excess alcohol consumption has shown to be a killer on the water and boat operators should abstain or use ‘booze’ in moderation.
The greatest safety device aboard any craft is a competent captain, who is knowledgeable, vigilant and continues to apply good seamanship to all outings on the water.