boat safety

It’s boating season. Are you prepared to take the water?

According a November 2020 U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) report, 84.5 million Americans  went boating in 2018. But nearly 75 percent of those boaters had never taken a boating safety course. That's more than 71 million people who are on the water without basic safety education.

Before your first boat launch

Take a boater education course

The CDC cites operator error as the culprit behind seven out of 10 boating accidents. Whether you’re a novice boater or someone who’s skilled on the water, it’s a great idea to take boating education classes, even if it’s just to refresh your memory. In fact, depending on your age or state laws, a boater education course may be required.

You could save a life — even your own.

Boat safety equipment

Boat safety required items

No matter what boat you launch, your boat must meet certain requirements:

  • Personal floatation devices (PFDs): To meet USCG requirements for PFDs, a boat must have a USCG-approved life jacket for each person aboard. All states have regulations regarding life jackets for children. Make sure any pint-sized sailors understand the importance of keeping them on. Lastly, check that the life jackets on board are easily accessible — don’t lock them away or have geared stored on top of them.
  • Throwable flotation device: Often a ring, horseshoe, or cushion, these can be thrown to a person in the water. 
  • Visual signaling device (VSD): If you’re going to be on a body of water more than two nautical miles wide, you will need to have USCG-approved visual distress signal on board. Depending on the size of your boat — and whether it’s day or night — accepted VSDs can include strobe lights, flashlights, a signal mirror, or red or orange flags.
  • Sound signaling device: A boat must carry a sound-producing device such as a whistle, horn, or siren capable of a 4-second blast audible for half a mile.
  • Fire extinguishers: Fire extinguishers are required for motorboats.
  • Engine cut-off switch (ECOS) link: As of April 1, 2021, boats with an installed ECOS require the operator to use an ECOS link — usually a coiled bungee cord lanyard clipped to the cut-off switch and worn by the operator.

Depending on your vessel and where you launch your boat, there may be additional federal, state, and local regulations.

Boat safety recommended items

  • First aid/emergency kit (see our recommendations for an emergency kit)
  • Something that can be used to bail water out of your boat (e.g., a bucket)
  • Anchor with line
  • Secondary propulsion, such as oars or paddles (if the boat’s engine quits)
  • Cellphone (to call for help and to get weather updates)
  • Marine radio (to call for help and to get weather updates)
  • Heavy duty flashlight
  • Skier or diver down flag

You may also find it helpful to keep items such as a knife, snorkel mask, flashlight, and compass to aid you when the unexpected happens on the water.

Get a vessel safety check

Even experienced boaters can benefit from a second pair of eyes. Getting an official vessel safety check takes 15­–30 minutes and can be done in your driveway. It’s free, easy, and gives you the peace of mind that will make taking to the water more enjoyable. 

Read more from the USCG Auxiliary about the benefits of a vessel safety check. You can also sign up for a vessel safety check at your boat on the USCG Auxiliary site.

Before each boat launch

Plan your trip

Are those gray clouds you see overhead? Are the waters choppy and unpredictable today? Do you have everything onboard that you need? Unlike driving, taking the boat out for a spin requires more preparation than just having a full tank of gas (though you do need that, too). Discover Boating has a safe boating checklist available that will get you in tip-top shape for happy and safe aquatic adventures.

Boat sober 

You may think that you’re safer behind the wheel of a boat than you are a car after a few beers, but there’s no difference between driving a car intoxicated and captaining a boat intoxicated. In fact, alcohol was the leading known contributing factor in fatal boat accidents in 2019, according to data compiled by USCG (the most recent data available).

Don’t drink and boat.

Breathe easy

Carbon monoxide (CO) — an odorless, poisonous gas — is emitted by all boat engines and onboard motor generators. Even though boating is an outdoor activity, CO poisoning accumulate in and around your boat. It can easily be mistaken for seasickness and kill quickly.

Be aware of the risk, make sure your watercraft has sufficient ventilation, properly install and maintain equipment, and use CO detectors if your boat has living and sleeping areas.

Wear a life jacket

Of drowning incidents where life-jacket usage is known, 82 percent were not wearing a life jacket, according to USCG. This rule holds true even if you don’t plan to get in the water. Being on a boat puts you at risk no matter how safe it may seem.

For more information

Also, ask your independent Grinnell Mutual agent about comprehensive watercraft coverage from Grinnell Mutual. Set sail and Trust in Tomorrow.®

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