The arrival of summer and warm weather means putting on your captain's hat and taking to the open water on boats. But like driving, boating is a big responsibility and comes with risks. Follow these 13 guidelines to make sure you stay safe while out at sea.
1. Take a boating safety course
Get to know the basics before you hit the water, from handling a boat to reading the weather. You can find a boating safety course nearby wherever you live. The U.S. Coast Guard's Boating Safety Division lists a dozen options on its website.
2. Get a vessel safety check
The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the United States Power Squadron, a nonprofit maritime educational organization, perform free vessel safety checks. Failing comes with no penalties — the goal is to help people boat safely. Request a safety check on the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary's website.
3. Wear a life jacket
The U.S. Coast Guard requires boats to have a life jacket for each person on board. Every state has separate regulations for life jackets worn by children. Make sure to test life jackets every year for wear and buoyancy. Discard them if they leak.
4. Check your equipment
Aside from life jackets, make sure other safety equipment, like a fire extinguisher and boat lights, are in good working order before leaving the dock. Keep emergency supplies like a map, flares and a first aid kit in a floating pouch. Toss your cell phone in there too for safekeeping.
5. Create a float plan
Every boater needs a float plan with details about the vessel, who is on board and the trip itinerary. Complete the plan and share it electronically with someone on land who can notify the Coast Guard or another rescue agency if you don't return or check in as planned. The Coast Guard Auxiliary has a float plan template on its website.
6. Install a carbon monoxide alarm
Engine exhaust creates the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, especially in areas where fresh air doesn't circulate. Install and maintain carbon monoxide alarms inside your boat. Watch for symptoms that seem like seasickness, which could also be the result of CO poisoning. If someone is displaying symptoms, get them into fresh air quickly. (Learn which cities have the best air quality.)
7. Never boat under the influence
A third of all recreational boating fatalities involve alcohol, according to the Coast Guard. Federal law prohibits boating under the influence. Penalties can include fines and jail time.
8. Wear a lanyard
An engine cut-off switch lanyard ties a boat driver's wrist to the controls, so if they're thrown overboard, the engine will shut off, protecting the driver and others from possible propeller accidents.
9. Get covered
Boat insurance can help protect your finances in the event of damage to a vessel, whether it's a fishing boat or a yacht. Many insurers let you bundle boat insurance with home and auto policies. Learn more here.
10. Know the law
Every state has its own boating laws covering everything from education requirements to blood alcohol limits. The National Association of State Boating Laws has a guide to state laws on its website.
11. Learn safe navigation rules
Just as there are rules for driving on land, boating navigation comes with rules. Learn what to do when passing a boat, crossing paths with a boat or meeting a boat head-on using the BoatOnCourse.com, a program produced by the National Safe Boating Council.
12. Watch for heat illness
Time on the water is also typically time in the sun. Get familiar with the signs of heat-related illnesses, especially if you're boating with young children or people 65 and older. The signs of heat exhaustion can include headaches, dizziness and nausea. Have plenty of water onboard and always wear sunscreen.
13. Check the weather
Even if you checked the forecast before heading out, keep a close eye on the weather. Conditions can change quickly on the water. Take seriously signs of ominous weather like the appearance of storm clouds, a sudden drop in temperature or a rise in wind speeds.
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Image: Chris Lawton