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Boat Safety

U.S. Coast Guard guidelines

When boating season is upon us, that means inexperienced and irresponsible boaters can cause accidents, injury and even death on the waterways.

It is estimated that more than 90 percent of those people in North America who drown were occupants of small boats. Contributing factors to these accidents include traveling too fast for water or weather conditions, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, failure to follow boating rules and regulations, carelessness and inexperience.

To prevent boating accidents, we offer the following safety suggestions for you, your family and your friends.

Essential Equipment

Under Federal Equipment Requirements, all vessels must be numbered and/or documented, and must carry a Personal Floatation Device for every individual on board. Additionally, most vessels are required to carry the following equipment, depending on the size and type of the craft:

sound-producing devices;
visual distress signals;
fire extinguisher;
backfire flame control; and
navigation lights (for nighttime operation)

Before Setting Out:

Check weather forecasts.

Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return.

Equip your boat with required navigation lights and a whistle, horn or bell.

Consider additional safety devices such as: a paddle or oars, first-aid kit, supply of fresh water, tool kit, flashlight, flares, radio, anchor, heaving line, ring buoy, binoculars and spare parts and batteries.*

Care and Protection of the Crew and Guests


Make sure every person on board wears a life jacket.

Know and obey marine traffic laws and learn the distress signals.

Keep on the lookout for other water craft, swimmers, floating debris and shallow waters.

Pay attention to loading. Don't overload or distribute the load unevenly.

Don't stand up or shift weight suddenly in a small boat.

The ability to enjoy your boat and the waters requires knowledge, skill and common sense. Know your boat; the equipment on board; the safety devices; the effects of alcohol and other stressors; first-aid and emergency procedures; the environment, area and weather.

And if you do not have any formal boating and safety instructions, take a course right away. Nearly 80 percent of all boating fatalities are caused by boaters who have no formal instruction. Compare that to 3 percents of fatalities caused by those who have state training and 4.4 percent by boaters who have U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, U.S. Power Squadron or American Red Cross instruction.

You can obtain free advice and boating safety courses from the U.S. Coast Guard by callling 1-800-368-5647.

* This List is not absolute and should not be viewed as complete. Additional safety equipment may be necessary depending on the size, location and use of your boat.

More Safety Tips:

Towing Your Boat

Your boat trailer is an important part of your boating equipment. After selecting the appropriate trailer for your boat and towing vehicle, proper maintenance and continual care when hitching and towing are necessary. If care and maintenance are neglected, you may be endangering the safety of your boat, your car, your family, yourself and others.

More damage can be done to a boat by the stresses of road travel than by normal water operation, so make sure you choose the right trailer. The trailer should be designed to carry the total weight of the hull, engine, equipment and any extra gear.

The coupling hitch on the trailer should have a lock or similar device to prevent it from vibrating loose. Periodically lubricate the hitch for longer wear and quieter turns.

The trailer should have two safety chains strong enough to control it if the hitch should come loose or break. The chains should be securely attached to the towing vehicle at a place separate from the ball and bracket. They should be long enough to allow turning, but not long enough to drag on the ground.

Extra caution is necessary when towing any trailer. The heavier the rig, the more time it takes to accelerate, pass and stop. Most boats on trailers obstruct the rear view of the driver. When this happens, a rearview mirror on each side of the towing vehicle is required by law.

Make sure your vehicle is capable of towing the trailer. Be sure the engine, transmission, cooling system and brakes can withstand the strain that towing will put on them.

Out of courtesy to others and to prevent rushing, prepare your boat for launching away from the ramp. If you must leave your vehicle on the ramp, set the parking brake, block the wheels and put the transmission in "park."

Never allow anyone to stand in line with the winch cable when it is in operation or has a strain on it.

Be Properly Equipped

Before you get underway, be sure you have all necessary safety equipment. Make sure fire extinguishers aboard are in working order and that gauges register and nozzles are clear. Make sure that all passengers know where safety equipment is and how to operate it.

Be Especially Careful With Flammables

When refueling, close all hatches, ports and other openings; shut off all engines and motors; and refrain from smoking. Fill all portable tanks on the dock.

Operate the bilge blower for at least FOUR MINUTES before starting an inboard engine. If you smell fumes, find out what is causing them and make repairs before starting the engine.

Make sure that flammable items are stowed safely and cannot come into contact with cooking or heating appliances or hot engine parts. Be sure heating and cooking appliances on board are secured and operate properly.

Plan Ahead For Safety

Don't go out if weather conditions are bad or storms threaten. In most areas you can call Directory Assistance and ask for the marine weather broadcast telephone number to get a complete weather forecast before you set out.

While You Are Boating

Be especially careful if you have a small boat, 20 ft. or under. The overwhelming majority of small boat capsizings occur because of sudden weight shifts.

Keep a good lookout. Failure to do so causes most collisions. You need a second person to act as lookout if you're towing a skier. The lookout should indicate a fallen skier by raising a brightly colored flag.

Don't ride on the bow or gunwales. Also, never ride on seat backs or in other unsteady positions.

Travel at safe speeds. Give swimmers, skiers and divers a wide berth.

Choose a safe spot to anchor -- one that's well protected, has water of a suitable depth and also has a flat bottom. Never anchor from the stern.

Don't pollute the water with leaky oil or fuel, litter or toilet discharge. It's illegal to pollute.

Obey Navigation Rules

Always use lights in fog, bad weather and at night. In fog or areas of reduced visibility, you must give a prolonged blast (4-6 seconds) at least once every two minutes.

Know who has the right-of-way. In general, large boats, tugs, barges and fishing vessels have the right of way over other boats. Sailboats, rowboats and canoes have the right of way over motorboats. Any boat being overtaken (passed) has the right of way.

Pay attention to markers. The expression "red right returning" has long been used as a reminder that the red buoys are passed on the starboard side when proceeding from the open sea into the dock (upstream). Likewise, green buoys are left, to the port side, when going upstream. For more information on nautical traffic signs in your area, contact local boating officials.

What To Do In Emergencies

If you are in distress, or observe another vessel in distress, transmit the international Distress Call on VHF channel 16. This call is, "MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY." State your vessel's name, location, what is wrong, the kind of assistance you need and your listening frequency and schedule. VHF channel 16 is constantly monitored. The Coast Guard also monitors CB channel 9, whenever resources permit.

If you are involved in an accident, you must provide your name, address and vessel registration number to other involved parties, provide assistance to any injured persons and, in case of death or disappearance, report the accident without delay to law enforcement officials. If the accident is a serious one, you may need to make a written report to the Department of Boating and Waterways.

Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)

A Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is the cheapest form of insurance you can buy. It is a jacket, vest, cushion or ring buoy that will serve as a lifesaving aid.

Most boating accidents involve falls overboard, capsizing or sinking. A properly fitted and correctly used PFD can save your life. Recent statistics reveal that over 80 percent of boating-related deaths resulted from drowning. These boaters probably would have lived had they been wearing a PFD.

Children, the elderly and non-swimmers should always wear their life jackets while the boat is underway. In rough water it is recommended that all persons wear their PFDs. Persons waterskiing should always wear PFDs.

When boating in cold water, PFDs should be worn AT ALL TIMES. Cold water can numb the extremities and limit reflexes almost immediately. Should you be plunged into cold water, you may not have the opportunity or the ability to put on a PFD.

Each passenger on board should know where the PFDs are located and should be sure their assigned device fits properly. It is a good idea to hold a practice emergency drill on the proper use of PFDs at least once a year. Practice swimming and floating while wearing a PFD. Try putting one on while in the water.

Families should mark each person's device with their name and stow it with the name facing up in an accessible, well-ventilated area out of the sun. Children's PFDs should be checked periodically for proper fit.

Remember that a PFD is considered an aid: It should not be considered a substitute for good swimming ability.

Accident Survival Tips

Use your Personal Flotation Device! Sudden immersion in cold water can cause rapid breathing, heart stoppage and other problems that result in helplessness and drowning. Wearing a PFD is the only defense. A properly fitted and correctly used PFD can save your life.

If you capsize, stay with the boat. The shore is usually more distant than it appears. In most capsizings, your chances of survival and being found are better if you stay with the boat (even if you are a good swimmer).

Do not disrobe. It is a common belief that someone dressed in heavy clothing will sink immediately if they fall overboard. This is not true. Air trapped in clothing provides considerable flotation. Bending the knees will trap air, providing additional flotation. To stay afloat, remain calm, do not thrash about or try to remove clothing or footwear; this leads to exhaustion and increases the loss of air that keeps you afloat. Keep your knees bent, float on your back and paddle slowly to safety.

Prevent hypothermia (the loss of body heat). It is a life-threatening condition! Your clothing will help trap heat. As much as possible, avoid moving. If several people are in the water, huddle together so you can conserve heat and stay alive. If your boat capsizes, it will likely float on or just below the surface. To reduce the effects of hypothermia, get out of the water as much as possible. If you can't get in the boat, a PFD will enable you to keep your head out of the water. This is very important, because about 50 percent of body heat loss is through the head.

First Aid Do's And Don'ts For Hypothermia

DO get the victim out of the water as soon as possible.
DO give artificial respiration if necessary.
DO gently remove wet clothing and wrap the victim in warm blankets or a sleeping bag.
DO try to keep the person awake.
DO get medical help immediately.

DON'T give the victim alcohol or warm liquids. They don't help warm the person and can pose a choking hazard.
DON'T massage the victim in an attempt to get blood circulating.

NOTE: This page contains generally accepted information about boating safety. However, because every situation is different, the writer does not assume liability for the accuracy or use of the information contained herein.

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