by Kevin P. Weis

If you are fortunate enough to live near a navigable waterway, you have the opportunity to enrich your life with the charms of days spent on freshwater lakes and rivers. Beyond the obvious benefits of time spent in Mother Nature, the whole sub-culture of boating can expose you to many new friends, skills and experiences that will never happen but for being an owner of or having access to a boat.

Of course, with the good, the bad can potentially happen when spending the day on a lake. To quote a particular TV ad, indeed, “mayhem is everywhere”. A promising day on the water can be cut short or never occur due to the inherent risks and hazards of being on or around a boat. The goal of this article is that the reader will avoid the dangers associated with being a pleasure boater and benefit from the wisdom of the author’s hard-learned lessons. Of course, this article is not authoritative or exhaustive. Anyone considering buying a boat or simply spending a day on someone else’s boat should do their research and speak to other experienced boaters. 

Getting Started

Any prospective boat owner should start by spending time on someone else’s boat, watching and learning. You will gain invaluable insight this way. Of course, many if not all states provide official boating safety courses, as do private commercial interests. The internet is also a bottomless well of written and video information. Further, most well-traveled lakes and rivers have official web pages and social media pages specific to that body of water. These are great resources for up-to-date water, debris, lake height/flood and weather conditions. To emphasize, always check the weather conditions well before going out, especially precipitation and wind conditions. Further, checklists are a great way to make sure you have all the necessary equipment for a safe day on the water. One concept to keep in mind about boating gear is redundancy, i.e., it’s always a good idea to have at least two of every critical item of equipment. 

While space limitations preclude a comprehensive checklist, here’s a good start: life jackets of varying sizes and at least in a number equal to the boat’s listed rated occupant capacity; fire extinguisher; throwable floatation devices; sturdy ropes of varying lengths; fully operational navigation lights; a blast horn; a reasonably well-stocked toolbox; a telescopic pole/hook; a spare battery and or jump-start device; an oar; a manual water pump; a spare drain plug; sunglasses; sunscreen; first aid kit; plenty of water/fluids; GPS; depth finder. Many boaters fail to have (and which should come standard!) is a rear-view mirror for the boat – perhaps the best $30 you will ever spend from a safety perspective. The list goes on and on, so keep in mind another concept. Boating can be expensive. The old boater’s joke is “boat” stands for “Break Out Another Thousand”!

But boating safety begins long before you get to the ramp or dock. If you tow a boat, again learn from someone with experience. In fact, in some respects, getting your boat to the water is riskier than boating itself. An all-wheel or four-wheel drive vehicle is a must for any boat larger than a johnboat or personal watercraft/WaveRunner. Many vehicles come in “tow package” or “heavy-duty/HD” models specifically designed for towing. The weight you are regularly pulling, including gear, should be less than 70% of your vehicle’s maximum towing capacity. This rule is less critical for actual towing (although it will benefit your vehicle’s transmission) than it is for braking. You must be able to brake safely. Towing a boat weighing up to several tons means you allow for increased stopping distance. Know your driving route in advance, where you can get gas that you can access with a trailer, and where you will park the boat. Again, weather awareness is crucial. In particular, it is advised you avoid towing on days where you can expect the roads to be wet, even more so if you will be driving in any stop-and-go traffic. 

Vehicle and trailer tires must be in good condition and properly inflated. Brakes should be serviced regularly. Trailer lights and signals all need to work properly. Trailer wheel bearings deserve special mention. Nothing ruins an anticipated weekend at the lake like being stranded when a bearing fails, so service them at least once a year if you tow frequently. Check your trailer hitch every time. Always use the trailer auxiliary chains/hooks and attach the trailer’s emergency braking cable if there is one. Use transom straps to hold your boat securely on the rear of the trailer. Your front crank trailer strap needs to be in good condition—regularly check for dry rotting or stitching failure. Have a sturdy set of wheel chocks, an air compressor, a heavy-duty jack and a proper size tire tool stored in your vehicle.

The Boat Ramp and Driving on the Water

Now you’re at the ramp. Like everything with boating, be PATIENT! Remember, lake time is different from regular time. You need not be in a hurry. Check the ramp before you put the boat in the water to ensure there is no heavy debris on the ramp or in the water. Inspect where the edges and end of the ramp are located (especially if the water level is higher or lower than expected). Make sure your boat’s drain plug is in, the transom straps are off, and the boat has electric power. If you have an extra companion, have them act as a spotter behind you while backing the trailer. As you back the boat down the ramp, always have your head on a swivel and use your mirrors. Know how far you must back the boat in the water to get the boat off the trailer (use the trailer fenders as a guide) without putting your vehicle exhaust pipe underwater. Put your transmission in park and apply the emergency brake. Hold onto your vehicle as you walk down the ramp and step into the water—ramps can be extremely slippery. 

Ideally, you will have a companion who can back the boat in as you unhitch the boat from the trailer. If you can put a boat in by yourself, you probably don’t need this article! To ensure the boat has power, have the companion start the boat before you undo the trailer’s crank strap. Before the boat is placed in reverse gear off the trailer, make sure the area behind is free of other boats, swimmers and debris.

Finally, you are on the water heading out for a day of shredding glass, buzzing the dam, creeping the cove, tubing, wakeboarding, fishing, raft-ups, party coves or just chillaxing, but the hazards persist. Always have situational awareness, especially if you are the driver. Know your body of water in advance. They all have idiosyncrasies. Is it full of tree stick-ups? Unmarked sunken islands? Debris in the Spring after heavy rains? Shallows downstream from creek entrances? Keep safe distances from other boats and know the right of way rules that apply to overtaking other boats, approaching another boat front-to-front, and perpendicular from the left or the right. Know how the trim adjustment of your propeller affects the boat’s handling. Slow down when approaching large wake and waves. Know what the signal/hazard buoys mean and where they are. “No wake” zones mean just that. At night, know that the red light is always on the port side, green starboard light, and white on the back so that at a distance, you can tell if a boat is approaching or moving away.

Wear life jackets as much as possible (especially children), don’t drive or swim while intoxicated, and never dive into water that you cannot see clearly into and don’t know the depth, i.e., almost all lakes and rivers. Hydrate and eat throughout the day. Wear lots of sunscreens and use your boat’s Bimini top for shade when you’ve had too much sun. After stops, when moving from one place to another, be sure all ropes are in, anchors and ladders are up, and passengers are in the boat. Announce to everyone you are starting the boat. Turn the blower on for inboard boats to clear fumes. Check to be sure no person or object is near your prop before turning the key.

One final plea. Purchase liability, medical payments and uninsured/underinsured coverage for your boat. Many states have no mandatory boat insurance requirement, and others have fairly paltry minimal limits. Insure others from your and your guests’ negligence, and protect yourself and your guests from the negligence of others. Buy salvage insurance as a rider to the standard contract in the event your boat sinks. The Army Corps of Engineers will require removing a sunken boat, and the cost can be tens of thousands of dollars.

It’s All Worth It

While mayhem is everywhere on the water, so are the best of times. Further, after an epic day on the lake, you may have a lake house or campsite to hang out at for a big dinner, bonfire, s’mores, singalongs and then a well-deserved night of sleep before you hit it again the next day. Boating can provide a dozen or more mini-vacations with your favorite people in the world every season. It provides the ultimate in stress reduction and the drudgery of the everyday routine. In the depths of winter, you know that “aqua-salvation” is a mere 3-4 months away. 

Now find a lake near you and do some safe boating!