Power Boating For Dummies
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Too often, boaters are ill-prepared for accidents. They leave the dock without properly fitting life vests, working fire extinguishers (or none at all), or even an anchor onboard. I’ve rescued boaters and “put out fires” in several incidents where they were having problems because their equipment was outdated or poorly fitted and failed when they needed it. They needed a boat safety equipment checklist, and they needed to follow it.

©Adobe Stock

Being prepared means having the right safety equipment for boats onboard and making sure that equipment is "shipshape," as we boaters like to say. Being prepared also means planning ahead and sharing those plans with others onshore so that someone always knows what you’re up to.

Checking your safety equipment for boating

Here is the essential safety gear (as far as I'm concerned, required boat safety equipment) you should have on board:
  • First-aid kit
  • Anchors
  • Fire extinguishers
  • Life jackets
  • Life preservers
  • Paddles
For some reason, many boaters consider this safety gear optional. What a mistake! And now you know better.

Every time you go out on your boat, you need to check your safety gear to make sure it’s in good, working condition. Use this boat safety equipment checklist and see the figure below:

  • Before each trip, make sure your communication devices (cellphone and/or VHF radio) are charged and working properly.
  • Check your fire extinguisher to make sure the charge gauge indicates it’s ready for action.
  • Check that the anchor, rode (the anchor rope and chain), and shackles that hold the rode to the anchor are secure and the rope isn’t frayed.
  • Even if you don’t expect your crew to wear life preservers, hand one to each person so they can make sure it fits before leaving the dock.
Illustration of boat safety equipment ©John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Check your boat equipment and safety gear every time you head out on the water.

Federal law requires children under the age of 14 to wear life jackets at all times while boating. This law applies in all states unless the state has its own minimum age requirement for life jacket wear. In boating, state laws take priority over federal law, so make sure you check the rules where you boat.

Stowing a first-aid kit

A first-aid kit can’t carry everything needed for an appendectomy or a heart attack, but you should at the least stock the same type of basic medical supplies you have at home in your medicine cabinet. A complete first-aid kit is an essential part of your boating safety equipment checklist.

While the potential always exists for a serious medical emergency to arise when you’re boating, 99 percent of what you’ll run into on your boat will be manageable if you keep handy all the basic supplies for relieving discomfort and injury. Here's a list of gear I keep on the boat in my first-aid kit:

  • Adhesive bandages
  • Antibiotic ointment
  • Antihistamine for bug bites or allergic reactions
  • Aspirin or another painkiller
  • Bug repellent
  • Cortisone cream for bug bites
  • Elastic tape for binding wounds or sprains
  • Medical tape
  • Seasick remedies and antacid
  • Sterile gauze pads in several sizes
  • Sterile rolled gauze
  • Sunscreen
Before you go boating, grab your first-aid kit — and check its contents — so you’ll be ready for what ails you.

Bringing communication gear

You should have the equipment needed to call the U.S. Coast Guard or other local rescue operators. This equipment may include a VHF radio in some places, but on many smaller inland waters, a cellphone for a call to 911 is sometimes better.

Ask your local boating acquaintances which they use and suggest. Or do like most boaters and take both. I discuss how to properly call for help on the water using whatever communication device you choose in the section, “Calling for the Help You Need,” later in this chapter.

If you’re going into more remote areas without communication, you’re dependent on your boat and motor for a safe return. Even though you can often count on friendly boaters for a rescue should your boat fail, you also should be prepared to go it alone. It’s a good idea to carry a personal locator beacon (PLB) that sends a distress signal across search and rescue satellite networks to rescue personnel. Some don’t carry them due to the cost, but at least use a VHF radio.

Reaching out with a VHF radio

VHF radios are special radios operating on bands reserved for marine communications. Before the cellphone, many boaters inland and offshore used VHF radios daily, and you could walk the docks of any marina and hear radio chatter. Today, the proliferation of cellphones makes that experience rare.

So why buy a VHF radio if you think nobody’s listening? Because when trouble comes, the rescuers will have one and will be able to talk to you — and they won’t need to know your phone number to call you. Even though they may not easily see you because your boat’s just a small speck in the sea or other large body of water, you’ll be able to see their chopper or rescue craft and talk them in with signals to turn right or left or north or south.

A waterproof, handheld VHF radio can be your best safety device. With it, you can continue to transmit mayday calls even if you’re in the water. When you see rescue boats or aircraft, you can hail them on the radio — they’ll be listening, trust me. In fact, handheld VHF radios are in retailer West Marine’s list of top ten popular gift items. I think keeping one in the boat is essential to peace of mind and safety.

Calling on your cellphone

Cellphones were once looked down upon as a primary communication device for boaters. But in areas where there’s adequate coverage, more boaters rely on them than on VHF radios. If your cellphone does work in an area, you can rely on 411 for information and often 911 for emergency response. However, not all response centers can get a position from your cellphone, so a GPS or a chart is necessary to give rescuers your position.

I don’t have to tell you that being stranded along a highway with no way to call a tow truck or ambulance is frustrating, if not scary. You bought a cellphone for that very reason, right? Well, your cellphone may not work on the lake, just like it may not work along a remote section of highway. And it sure won’t work more than a few miles offshore on the ocean. If your cellphone gets wet, it may not work, either. So, take care to keep it dry.

Taking navigation tools

The second most frequent cause for initiating search and rescue missions (boats dead in the water is the first) is grounding, according to a report by the U.S. Coast Guard. Accidents because of faulty navigation tactics are the easiest safety failure to correct.

It’s easier to navigate safely today than ever before because the entire world has been mapped and remapped. All that information is available on charts and Global Positioning Systems (GPS). A combination of charts and a GPS device makes boating safer. And don’t forget your trusty compass when the batteries in your GPS go dead.

Finding your way with GPS

Getting lost leads to running out of gas or running aground. Both strand you at inconvenient, often dangerous times and places. A GPS device is the ideal solution for keeping trouble at bay. You can buy a handheld version complete with basic maps for about the price of a toaster oven.

For boating in unfamiliar waters — all waters are unfamiliar for new boaters — the better the GPS device you can afford, the more likely it is to save you from trouble of both the mechanical and life-threatening sorts. In fact, I heard that one propeller repair shop manager, who worked on the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron, said that the GPS equipment that boaters are using is so accurate it’s killing his repair business. They simply aren’t running into the rocks as much. Seeing as the Coast Guard reports the number-one cause for initiating search and rescue missions is for boats dead in the water, saving a propeller could be saving a life.

Don’t think of a GPS as a handy substitute for a paper chart and strong local knowledge. Every GPS I’ve seen has a disclaimer on the power-up screen saying, “Don’t rely on this device as your sole source of navigation information.” I’ve been on the water many times when GPS has failed. Also, even if you’re boating with a GPS as your guide, look behind you frequently as you meander along. On your return trip, the landmarks will be familiar.

Paper or plastic? Charts or electronic GPS systems

At the modest entry cost of GPS/sonar combinations, I can’t imagine going boating without one. I’ve got three GPS devices on my 25-footer and a compass as well. On small boats, electronic charts on a GPS display are easier to manage than a 24- by 36-inch paper chart, and when I want to study navigable waters in the living room, I can do so on an electronic tablet or laptop.

Most GPS makers and electronic chart providers have free apps that allow you to study your GPS charts at home and then transfer waypoints or routes you’ve designed right onto your GPS via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

It’s still a great idea to have a paper chart of your area — nothing provides better perspective on the broad view than an unrolled chart. The U.S. Coast Guard has allowed the legal carriage of electronic charts only, in lieu of paper charts. Even so, I’ve been embedded as a member of the press on missions on two U.S. Coast Guard cutters and although they have the world’s most sophisticated electronic navigation systems, they still have one or two officers assigned to navigate using paper charts, dividers, a compass, and brain power.

Redundancy is the key to safety at sea. So, even if you have a spiffy new GPS, keep the chart open and note your progress along the way, penciling in landmarks you see. I’ve had to come home on a compass when my GPS failed, as mechanical things are bound to do, and my notes and landmarks ensured me that I was on the right path.

You may never need to rely on a GPS or compass on a 500-acre lake, but you should get in the habit of doing so anyway. Soon, you’ll want to adventure in other waters that may not be so tame.

Filing a float plan and checking insurance

The best way to make sure you’ll be missed if you become stranded is to tell people when and where you’re going and when you will be back! A float plan is the boater’s version of the flight plan that pilots file to indicate their departure times and locations, their destinations, and their estimated landing times. They do this so that if something goes wrong and they don’t show up, people have an idea of where to begin a search.

You can call reliable friends or relatives and verbalize your float plan, but keep in mind that they may all get it confused when trying to remember it later. It’s better to write your float plan on paper and give it to two or three friends or relatives or send them an email with the information. Make sure they receive it by following up with a phone call. Tell them you’ll contact them when you return. That way if you don’t, they can call the rescue authorities.

Double-check your boat insurance and make sure you have enough towing insurance to get you back from the farthest point at which you may break down. In ocean situations, a tow boat has to find you, hitch up, and pull you back. That can take hours and even a few thousand dollars. Make sure you’re covered so you can easily secure the help you need. Tow Boat US, Sea Tow, and Vessel Assist are three popular towing services you can join for a modest annual fee and, wherever you go in the United States, you’ll have unlimited towing, should you get into trouble.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Randy Vance is a lifelong boater who has made a career of writing about boating. As the operator of a small resort and marina in Missouri for more than 20 years, Vance hosted or appeared on many radio and television programs covering boating and fishing topics. During his tenure at Boating Life, the magazine and some of Vance's articles have won awards in many publishing circles.

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