Boat Safety for All Ages

Keep your passengers safe with these boat safety recommendations and guidelines

Alcohol and Boating

Drinking alcohol while operating a boat is a decision that can have legal and life-threatening consequences. Depending on the specific state, the legal limit for blood alcohol content, or BAC, is often the same as the limit for driving a car. That means anyone operating a boat with BAC of 0.08 percent or higher is committing a crime in most states. In other states, the BAC limit may even be lower. Regardless of how the state determines whether the driver of the boat is intoxicated, it can result in incarceration, expensive fines, and a potential loss of one’s license and boat. Operating a boat while intoxicated is particularly dangerous because the effects of alcohol, when added to the vibrations from the boat, the motion of the waves, glare, and the sun, are often more pronounced. As a result, a person’s judgment, reaction time, balance, and depth perception are reduced, increasing the risk of collisions and falls overboard. Passengers who are intoxicated are also at risk not only from the actions of an inebriated driver, but they may also suffer from a lack of balance and other classic traits of intoxication that can result in drowning or other injury.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide is a dangerous threat to private boats, luxury yacht charters, and any other type of engine-propelled vessel on the water. It is a gas that can make people sick and even kill without any warning scent, color, or taste. It comes from the running engine but may also come from the use of generators on the boat. The gas is problematic when it is in an area that has poor or no ventilation, as it has nowhere to go. For this reason, it is important to have a carbon monoxide detector that is designed for marine use installed on board. Boats should be kept well-ventilated at all times, particularly when the engine is running or the stove or other appliances are in use. Children and other passengers should not be allowed to swim where exhaust is vented. Passengers and the operator of the boat should also be aware of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, which include nausea, headaches, dizziness, vomiting, pain in the chest, and feelings of confusion. If not treated, it can cause the affected individual to pass out, and it may even result in death.

Crew Overboard

Crew overboard refers to any passenger on a boat, crew member or otherwise, falling over the side and into the water. When this happens, it is an alarming and frightening experience for everyone. It is important that every person on the boat knows how to avoid accidental falls and that they know what to do if it should happen to someone else. To avoid falling, people should strive to keep both feet planted firmly on the boat and hold on with at least one hand. People should also try to avoid sudden, lurching movements. If a person falls overboard, call out to alert other crew members and passengers. A flotation device should be tossed to the victim, regardless of whether the individual is wearing a life vest. Someone on the boat must keep an eye on the person at all times during the rescue process. Use caution with the handling of the boat until the victim is safely back on board again. Retrieval can be made several ways, depending on the circumstances; this includes using a boarding ladder, a Lifesling, or, in the event of an unconscious victim, someone may need to attach a line to themselves and jump in after them.

Life Jackets

When it comes to safety on the water, personal flotation devices or life jackets are one of the most effective and simplest ways to save lives. These jackets are designed to keep the wearer from drowning should they fall or otherwise end up in the water. On every boat, there must be an available U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket for every person on the vessel. The life jackets must be appropriately sized for each individual. They come in four major types: a Type I off-shore jacket, a Type II near-shore buoyant vest, a Type III flotation aid, or a Type V special-use device. Although the maximum age may vary according to state law, children up to the age of 13 years old are generally required by law to wear their jacket. Each state also has laws that dictate when life jackets are mandatory, such as while water-skiing. Everyone should know the location of the life jackets, which should be in a place that is easily accessible.

Fire Extinguishers

All marine vessels, whether they are private crewed charters or otherwise, are required to have one or more marine fire extinguishers. The size of the boat determines how many extinguishers are necessary. Fire extinguishers should be either a B-I or a B-II classification and must be Coast Guard-approved for marine use. For example, according to the Coast Guard, one extinguisher is required for boats that are 26 feet long or less. A minimum of two fire extinguishers are required for vessels up to 40 feet long. Boats larger than 40 feet should have at least one B-I and one B-II or three B-I extinguishers on board. For safety, they should be inspected for damage on a monthly basis and replaced if necessary.

Flares and Distress Signals

Flares and distress signals are crucial in the event of an emergency. Their purpose is to serve as a signal for other boats or even airplanes that are within a certain range. Although there are different types of distress signals, it is important to check them all to ensure that they are approved for use by the U.S. Coast Guard. Flares and other signals may be pyrotechnic or non-pyrotechnic, and for use in daytime, nighttime, or both. Pyrotechnic flares should be checked for an expiration date and have the instructions read completely prior to use. Boaters also have the non-pyrotechnic option, which includes basic hand gestures, orange flags, and digital distress lights and flares.

Marine Communication

While on the water, the ability to talk to people on land is crucial, particularly if the boat is in a state of distress. While most people carry a cell phone with them, it can have limited use, as they are typically not waterproof and depending on how far out the boat is, it may not be able to receive a signal. Additionally, in an emergency situation, boaters need the ability to broadcast to multiple vessels. Instead of relying on a cell phone, boats should be equipped with VHF radios. These are monitored by the U.S. Coast Guard when traveling within their jurisdiction, and if necessary, they may track the signal for the location of boats in distress.

Navigation and Waterway Rules

When boating, there are navigational waterway rules that people who are operating the vessel should understand. Although they govern traveling on water, these are often considered “the rules of the road.” These rules are set by the U.S. Coast Guard. They are intended to instruct boaters on the proper steps to take under various circumstances, including what to do in a head-on situation, when overtaking another boat, or when crossing the path of one, for example. Navigational rules also include specific boating aids such as lighted beacons, which are called aids to navigation, or ATONs.

Additional Boating Safety Information

While boating is a fun activity that is intensely popular and relaxing, safety should always be the number one priority. This is especially important when boating with young children who may not recognize the dangers of being on the water. Familiarizing yourself with the boat and safety procedures can help accomplish this. Additionally, there are numerous tips available both on the Internet and offline that will make it easier to avoid injuries and potential fatalities while on the boat or in the surrounding waters. Ultimately, it’s important to learn local safety requirements; on-board regulations for a yacht charter in France will vary greatly from requirements in the U.S. or Thailand.

  • Safety on the Water: Boating Safety (PDF): Read this page for information on water safety with a focus on boating. Although the page is intended for residents of Arkansas, a majority of the provided information is universal.
  • Boating Safety: The Loyola University Health website offers visitors a list of water and boat safety tips.
  • Safe Boating: Review boating statistics and safety advice by clicking on this link to the John Hopkins website.
  • Water Safety 101: Basic Guidelines: On this page of water safety guidelines, visitors will find a bulleted list of boating safety tips.
  • Boaters’ Pre-Departure Checklist (PDF): Open this link to review a pre-departure boating checklist that will help ensure that all necessary safety items are aboard.
  • Boating Safety Tips (PDF): This document offers two pages of boating safety tips that are meant to help keep kids safe.
  • Safe Boating Tips: Read ten detailed tips on how to stay safe while boating, which are featured on this page on the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s Discover Boating website.
  • Boating Safety Tips From the Coast Guard: On this Popular Mechanics page, readers are given Coast Guard safety tips that include staying afloat, alert, in touch, and informed.
  • Safe Boating Is No Accident: Click this link to view a CBS News video and article that discusses risks associated with boating. Visitors to the page are also given tips on how to avoid boating accidents.

Written by Katja Kukovic

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