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The Basics of Boating Safety

A boat can be a great investment and it can give you the opportunity to spend your free time on the water, relaxing your body and mind. However, it can also quickly put you in danger if certain safety precautions are ignored.

In 2017, the U.S. Coast Guard reported that 4,291 boating accidents led to 2,629 injuries, 658 deaths and approximately $46 million in damages. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways you can reduce your risk of a boating accident and keep yourself and your loved ones safe. Here are a few basics of boat safety.

What are the most common boating accidents and why?

According to Yvonne Pentz, communications director for the National Safe Boating Council in Manassas, Va., poor weather and hazardous seas are not usually to blame for most boating accidents. In fact, she noted, they often occur when the water is calm, winds are light and the weather and visibility are good.

Despite ideal conditions, there are many ways that a boating accident can be caused. A boat may collide with other boats or fixed objects; someone may fall overboard and cause the boat to swamp or capsize. Boats may also run aground, which is when the ship hits or touches the shore, sea bottom, or underwater objects.

According to a 2017 study by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in conjunction with the Coast Guard, the most common factors causing boating accidents include inattention or inexperience, machinery failure, excessive speed, alcohol us and/or violations of navigation rules. The good news, however, is that these accidents are easy to prevent with proper safety equipment and measures.

Safety equipment you must have on your boat to help avoid and prevent accidents

The Coast Guard sets minimum standards for recreational boats and the safety equipment they must carry and have onboard at all times. These requirements hold true whether you are boating in a canal, the open ocean, or the Intercoastal Waterway, or even a local lake, stream or river. On lakes and rivers, the local authorities (usually state or local police) are in charge of enforcing these requirements. If you do not carry the items listed below, you can be fined up to $1000 for each missing thing.

Below is a list of safety equipment requirements you must have if you own and operate a boat.

  • Life jackets: Also known as Personal Floatation Devices or PFDs, life jackets are required for each person on board. There are different kinds of life jackets out there, so be sure that the ones you bring match the Coast Guard’s requirements. If your boat is 16 feet or longer, you must also carry one throwable floatation device.
  • Fire extinguishers: Boats with engines or fuel systems that may pose a fire hazard must be equipped with Coast Guard-approved fire extinguishers that are hand portable and feature a B-I or B-II classification. These kinds of extinguishers are specially designed to put out fires fueled by flaming liquids like gas and oil. They must also include a mounting bracket, per the Coast Guard.
  • Visual distress signals: Visual distress signals are also called VDS. If your boat is more than 16 feet in length, you are required to carry visual distress signals. There are two different types of distress signals: pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic; daytime signals are generally non-pyrotechnic, while some nighttime signals are pyrotechnic. The Coast Guard has regulations regarding these distress signals, including how many to keep and how they are stored. Before heading out on the water, check the expiration date on all flares and pyrotechnics to ensure they are in usable condition.
  • Ventilation system: Any boat that has a permanently installed gasoline engine, fuel tank and/or an electrical component that is not ignition protected, in any of the boat compartments must be naturally ventilated. These ventilation systems consist of a supply opening from the outside air, from a ventilated compartment, or an exhaust opening into another ventilated compartment or exhaust duct.
  • Backfire flame controls: Motorboats or motor vessels with gasoline engines installed after April 25, 1940 must contain a backfire flame control. A backfire flame control ensures that any engine backfire is dispersed into the atmosphere and significantly reduces the risk of a fire or explosion. The backfire flame control must be approved by the Coast Guard or adhere to SAE J-1928 standards and be properly marked.
  • Sound producing devices: Depending on the length of your boat, you are required to carry sound producing devices for use at anchor and in certain navigation situations. Boats that are 39.4 feet or longer must carry a whistle, while boats that are 65.6 feet or longer must carry a whistle and a bell. Those that are longer than 328 feet must carry a whistle, bell and gong.
  • Navigation lights: The type and size of your boat will dictate the required navigation lights you’ll need. If you have a power-driven vessel that’s less than 65.6 feet long, it must contain red and green sidelights visible from a distance of at least two miles away. In addition, it is required to have an all-round white light or both a masthead light and a stern light.
  • Marine sanitation device: If your boat contains a toilet, it must be furnished with a Marine Sanitation Device (MSD). The required MSD for vessels 65 feet and under are Type I, II, or III.

What is a float plan and how do you create one?

A float plan is a written summary of your boating itinerary that you share with a trustworthy friend or family member who is not going with you. It lets them know where you are going and when you’ll return. While a float plan is not required by the Coast Guard, it is highly recommended — going boating without one risks the lives of everyone onboard.

If you don’t check in, or you go missing on your boating trip, your friend or family member can use the float plan to alert the Coast Guard or another local rescue agency.

When creating a float plan, be sure to include the following:

  • A description of your boat: Note its license number, size, make, capacity, horsepower and engine type.
  • An outline of your plan: State where you are going, your proposed route and your anticipated departure and arrival times.
  • Details of everyone who will be on board: Provide the name, address and phone number of each person who will be with you on the boat. Include an emergency contact for each of them.
  • Photographs: Detailed photos of the outside and inside of your boat are also good to include in your float plan.

You can download the free Coast Guard mobile app or visit the Float Plan Central website to create your float plan. Notify your float plan contact of any changes and delays as they happen, and let them know once you’ve made it home safely.

How do you prepare for bad weather?

Weather on the water can change very quickly, and it is vital to be prepared for bad weather. Get into the habit of checking the forecast before departing for a day of boating, and keep an eye out for possible storms that may unexpectedly blow in.

You should also pay attention to tides, as they can have a major impact on your boating experience. Tides are long-period waves that move through the oceans in response to the forces of the sun and moon. Their rise and fall can cause water levels to fluctuate by several feet and generate strong currents that can make boating dangerous.

The most common signs that the weather is about to turn include:

  • A sudden drop in temperature
  • Dark clouds
  • Fog
  • Lightning

You can stay up-to-date on the weather by downloading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) app. NOAA focuses on the conditions of the oceans, major waterways and the atmosphere, and offers regular weather forecasts for those areas.

If the weather gets bad while you are out on the boat, remain calm and take the following safety precautions:

  • Slow down.
  • Close all windows, doors and hatches.
  • Turn on navigation lights.
  • Disconnect all electrical equipment if lightning is present.
  • Stow any unnecessary gear.
  • Ask all passengers to put on a life jacket and sit on the vessel floor near the centerline to ensure stability.

If possible, Pentz of the National Safe Boating Council noted, head for the nearest dock or sheltered waters immediately: “It’s better to cut a day on the water short than to try to ‘weather’ a storm and rough seas.”

Where can you find boating safety courses?

According to Coast Guard boating accident statistics, 81% of boating deaths occurred on boats where the operator did not receive instruction on boating safety. If you are a boat owner and operator, do not overlook taking a boating safety course.

Boating safety courses are available online, in-person and on the water. They cover all aspects of boating safety including boat handling and reading the water. By taking a boating safety course, you can protect yourself and others on the water.

You can find a boating safety course by visiting the BoatUS Foundation’s website. The BoatUS Foundation offers the only free online boating safety course that is specifically developed for each state. In addition, the organization offers a variety of free and fee-based courses such as Propane Systems on Your Boat, How to Use GPS, Sailing Lingo and Hurricane Preparation for Boaters. The National Safe Boating Council also offers boating safety courses.

The costs for boating safety courses can run the gamut from free to thousands of dollars, depending on what type of class you take and how in-depth it goes. Some colleges and universities, as well as volunteer organizations, also offer boat safety courses.

“If a boat operator has taken a boating safety education course, [it can increase] the likelihood of their time spent on the water being a safe and enjoyable experience — for them as well as their passengers,” Pentz explained. “An educated boater is simply safer on the water.”


Boating can be a very enjoyable activity if you love the water and appreciate the outdoors, but it doesn’t take much for a calm, pleasant ocean to become dangerous.

By taking the time to educate yourself on the basics of boat safety and following all safety regulations, you can stay out of trouble and be prepared for any difficult situation that may come your way. Becoming a responsible, informed boater is truly the ideal way to enjoy memorable and safe experiences on the water.


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