Nearly 74 million Americans go boating every year, but a day at sea can become life-threatening if you’re not vigilant about boating safety. Each year, thousands of lives are lost as a result of preventable boat emergencies on U.S. waterways.

4,463
recreational boating accidents in 2016U.S. Coast Guard

As a boat operator or passenger, being well informed about boat safety can make all the difference. Taking a few simple steps can increase your own safety and better prepare you for any accidents that might occur.

Common Boating Safety Issues

A pleasant day out on the water can quickly turn tragic if something goes wrong. Accidents can include a person falling overboard, the boat capsizing or catching fire, the engine failing, the vessel colliding with an object or another boat, or running aground. While some accidents are unavoidable, many are the result of dangerous or negligent behavior that put everyone on the boat at risk.

Most Common Causes of Boating Accidents
  • Alcohol or drug use from the boat’s operator or passengers
  • Excessive speed
  • Failure to vent
  • Hazardous waters
  • Adverse weather conditions
  • Inexperienced or inattentive boat operator
  • Improper lookout (for other boats, buoys, swimmers, or debris in the water)
  • Inadequate or no navigation lights
  • Overloaded boat
  • Restricted vision
  • Sharp turns
  • Breaking navigation rules
  • Failure to wear life jackets

When operating a boat, it’s important to stay aware of your surroundings at all time. Pay attention to other water users, including swimmers and other boats, as they may not see you. Make sure all your passengers are aware of the proper safety passengers, especially if they’ve unfamiliar with traveling on boats.

Boating Safety Practices and Rules

Many boating accidents and emergencies can be avoided with the proper preparation and knowledge of boating safety practices. Here are some ways that you can stay safe while traveling by boat.

Wear a life jacket

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, more than 80% of boating fatalities could be prevented if life jackets are worn. You can protect yourself and those around you by ensuing that each person onboard is wearing a life jacket before the boat departs.

State Law Enforcement agencies and the Coast Guard require and/or recommend different life jackets for different applications. Find out your state’s requirements before choosing your life jacket.

Learn to swim

While life jackets provide buoyancy if you end up overboard, it’s best to know how to swim if you plan to go boating. Many local organizations, including the American Red Cross, offer swimming lessons for people of all ages and abilities.

Take a boating course

Novice boaters and experts alike should familiarize themselves with boating safety rules on a regular basis. Education requirements vary by state, but many require validated completion of at least one boat safety course, as well as other certifications. Regardless of your state’s regulations, it’s wise to stay informed and prepared for any situation that might arise. Keep up to date on boating safety rules by taking some community courses or online training.

Know the navigation rules

As a boat operator, it’s vital to know the rules of the water. You can prevent injury and costly damages by knowing exactly what to do when crossing, meeting, or overtaking another boat. You should also maintain a safe speed and proper lookout, keep a horn or whistle available, equip your boat with suitable navigation lights, stay to the right of oncoming vessels, obey wake warnings, and steer clear of tugs and large ships at all times. Avoid operating your boat in unauthorized waterways.

Ensure your boat is properly maintained

Properly maintaining your boat can prevent many problems from developing. Change your oil and clean your boat regularly, and look after the engine. Fix any problems that develop immediately.

Get a free vessel safety check

The Coast Guard offers complimentary boat examinations to verify the presence of all safety equipment required by federal and state regulations. Getting your boat examined is a quick and easy way to give yourself some peace of mind and ensure everything is in order before setting sail.

Create a pre-departure checklist

Before venturing out, write a pre-departure checklist with everything you need on your boat, and review it several times. Whether you’re going for a spin around the lake or making a long voyage, ensure you have enough fuel, a Person Floatation Device (PFD) for each person onboard, a throwable float cushion, a fire extinguisher, fully charged batteries, a first-aid kit, an anchor and line, a marine radio, and a working bilge pump, blower, horn and navigation lights.

Make a float plan

A family member, friend, or staff at your local marina should have your float plan, including information about where you’re going and for how long. Details should also include the name, address, and phone number of the trip leader, the names and phone numbers of all passengers, the boat type, registration information, and trip itinerary. Be sure to update your float plan if necessary before setting out.

Don’t overload the boat

Find out the maximum capacity of your boat and don’t exceed it. You can learn the capacity by looking at the manual, decals, or capacity plate. If you’re carrying a lot of heavy equipment or luggage, this will affect how many passengers you can safely carry.

Watch the weather

A bad storm can turn into a bad boating experience. If you feel a sudden drop in temperature, an increase in wind speed, or see storm clouds closing in, your best bet is to play it safe and get off the water. Always check the weather forecast before setting out.

Avoid alcohol and drugs

In all 50 states, it’s illegal to operate a boat of any size while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Your judgement, reaction time, and coordination are all impaired while under the influence, and studies show that impairment can be accelerated by the sun, wind, boat motion, engine noise, spray, and vibration. The likelihood of getting into a boating accident doubles when alcohol and drugs are involved, with a third of all recreational boating fatalities involving alcohol intoxication.

Operating a boat under the influence endangers your own life and the lives of those around you. It can also result in jail time, fines, and your operator privileges being revoked. Intoxicated passengers are also more likely to fall overboard, so ensure that everyone is sober before they step aboard.

Protect people from the propeller

A typical three-blade propeller can inflict 160 cuts from head to toe in less than one tenth of a second, making propeller safety incredibly important. Before starting the engine, walk around the boat and inspect the water to ensure nobody is nearby. Never enter swimming zones, and be especially vigilant when operating the boat in congested areas. Consider getting a propeller safety device or an engine cut-off switch, which can be worn around the neck on a lanyard.

Keep emergency radios turned on at all times

Sending a timely distress call can save lives. Make sure you’re familiar with the U.S. Coast Guard service’s guidelines for distress calls so that you can act fast in an emergency.

What to Do in a Boating Emergency

Most boating trips go ahead without a hitch. But if something does go wrong, it’s important to remain calm and properly assess the situation before taking action to ensure your own safety and that of your passengers.

When attempting to rescue someone, it is important to remember that you should never enter the water unless it is absolutely necessary (e.g., the person is unconscious or otherwise unable to participate in the rescue attempt).

Calling the Authorities

Federal law requires boat operators to submit an accident or casualty report to the state reporting authority within 48 hours if any of the following take place:

  • A death
  • A person disappears from the vessel
  • A person is injured and requires medical treatment beyond basic first aid
  • Damage to vessels and other property totals $2,000
  • The boat is destroyed

Here are some of the most common boating emergencies, and what to do if they arise.

Handling Boating Emergencies
If a person falls overboard:
  • Immediately reduce speed and throw flotation device as close to the person as possible without hitting them.
  • If there are other passengers, assign one to be the “pointer” who will maintain sight of the person and point at them.
  • Slowly approach the person alongside, being careful to keep a safe distance while monitoring wind and wave direction.
  • Cut engine and bring the person onboard using a rope.
If the boat catches fire:
  • Reduce wind by cutting the boat’s speed.
  • Shut off fuel and move any flammable away from the fire, if safe to do so.
  • Close all hatches as soon as possible.
  • Use a fire extinguisher rated for boat fires (B-1 marine fire extinguisher).
    • If a fire extinguisher is not available, use a wet towel to stifle the flames, but do not simply spray water onto the fire, as it can disperse any flammable liquids and cause the fire to spread.
  • Once the fire is out, use water to cool the engine or other areas that might be hot.
If the boat collides with an object or another boat:
  • Put the engine into neutral.
  • Throw a flotation device to anyone who has fallen overboard.
  • Attend to serious injuries right away.
  • Check for leaks – if you find any, do not move until you fix it.
  • If necessary, call the Coast Guard or local water patrol for assistance.
If the boat capsizes:
  • Stay on the boat if possible and try to stay out of the water.
  • Locate a flotation device or lifejacket if you’re not already wearing one.
  • Deploy a distress signal, such as Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) or flare.
  • Use your VHF marine radio to reach Channel 16, which is the calling and distress channel.

Boat Safety by the Numbers

In 2016, the Coast Guard reported that recreational boating led to 4,463 accidents. These accidents resulted in 701 deaths, 2,903 people injured, and roughly $49 million dollars in property damage. Compared to 2015, accidents increased by 7.3%, the number of fatalities increased 12%, and injuries increased by 11.%.

Many tragic boating accidents could have been prevented with the proper precautions. The cause of death in 80% of fatal accidents is drowning, and 83% involve a person not wearing a life jacket. Additionally, 15% of deaths are caused by alcohol use, and 77% occur on boats where the operator had no boating safety instruction.

You can avoid becoming a statistic by taking precautions to ensure the safety of yourself and your passengers, and by learning how to prevent and properly respond to a boating accident or emergency.