Boating 101: A Beginner's Guide

Some simple guidelines to help keep you safe on the water

Boating is a fun, educational, and stress-reducing activity that most people can participate in and enjoy. From sailing to water-skiing and fishing, boating can provide hours of enjoyment away from home. As with any water-related activity, however, there are precautions and rules that pertain to boating. These laws and guidelines are necessary to ensure the safety of all passengers and, in some cases, the environment. To ensure an enjoyable experience on the water and reduce the risk of dangerous situations arising, it is essential that newcomers educate themselves about some of the important aspects associated with riding or operating a boat.

Prior to taking a ride on a water vessel, prospective passengers and navigators should first become familiar with some of the terminology that is related to boating. For instance:

  • knots refer to the speed of the boat. The definition of one knot is one nautical mile per hour, which is 6,076 feet.
  • A fathom is a unit of length equivalent to six feet, and a log is a record kept regarding the operation of the boat.
  • The bow is the front section of the boat, and the aft or stern is the rear.
  • The port side of a boat is the left side, while starboard refers to the right side of it.

Other important terms include the helm, which refers to the steering system, the hull means the structure or body of the boat, and a chart is the term for a map that a navigator might use.

Two of the most important terms that pertain to navigation are latitude and longitude. Latitude refers to coordinates running to the north or south of the equator, while longitude refers to coordinates to the east or west of the global meridian which is in Greenwich, England.

Propulsion related terms include the rudder for steering and the screw, which is another word for the boat’s propeller.

Safety related terms include the PFD, or personal floatation device, that is used to help keep people in the water afloat, and founder, meaning to sink.

Another important term regarding safety is the lifeline. This is a line or series of lines along the deck that a person can grab to avoid falling out of the boat, or going overboard. SOS is a globally recognized term for a signal sent out by ships in distress, and VDS means “visual distress signals” which is another way for a boat to signal for help.

When it comes to boating safety, the US Coast Guard rules require that PFD’s, or life jackets, are available for everyone on a boat that is younger than the age of 13. In addition, they must be worn at any time that the boat is in motion. This rule applies in states that do not have child life jacket laws. Life jacket laws in Alabama, for instance, state that children under the age of 8 years old are required to wear PFD’s at all times while aboard any boat except when inside an enclosed cabin. For boaters in Alabama, the state law takes precedence over the U.S. Coast Guard rules.

Boat operators boating while intoxicated are subject to a minimum federal fine of $1,000, and may also face time in jail. The US Coast Guard also requires that boats have their registration number displayed on the port and starboard sides of the bow. Registration papers must always be carried on board and available for inspection. Boats 16 feet or longer must have visual distress signal devices, such as flares or non-pyrotechnic SOS lights. Fire extinguishers are required for boats with inboard engines, as well as boats longer than 26 feet. Powered ventilation systems are required by the US Coast Guard for boats with enclosed gasoline engines, as are navigation lights for boats 16 feet or longer. For environmental and health safety, the US Coast Guard also forbids the dumping of plastic related garbage into the water, as well as other potential pollutants such as oil. State governments also have additional rules regarding boating that owners and operators must become familiar with. These include more or less stringent regulations than the US Coast Guard provides, and also varying laws regarding activities that contribute to water pollution.

In addition to laws, there are also suggestions and guidelines that can improve the safety of boating enthusiasts. Carbon monoxide detectors are recommended for large boats with cabins and other enclosed spaces, especially those with gasoline motors. Flashlights, paddles, anchors, VHF radios, cell phones, and shark repellent, are all examples of equipment that may be necessary depending on where a boat is going. To help boaters learn how to stay in compliance with the law, and to get familiar with other guidelines that will ensure a safe and enjoyable experience on the water, classes for boating exist around the country. Opportunities for enrolling into educational courses are available not only at colleges, but also at boating clubs and via websites online.

For more educational information about information and regulations related to boating, please visit the following links:

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