8 Tips for a Safer Boat Trip
As a veteran helicopter rescue swimmer and then an investigator for the United States Coast Guard, I’ve seen a lot of boating trips gone wrong. Accidents are accidents, but after twenty years on the job, I noticed that most of the things that get boaters into trouble are easy to avoid. With a little planning and preparation, you can dramatically decrease your chances of ever having to call for help. Consider the following before your family’s next day on the water to make sure the fun stays that way.
First of all, remember the difference between where you are going and what you are doing. “Fishing” is a “what” – if you prepare to go fishing and forget about the “where” you may find yourself in real trouble. So…
Weather checks first:
If you’re in an open boat, it doesn’t matter how warm it is, it only matters how cold it might get later. Warm days can turn into cold nights if you experience a breakdown so pack blankets and jackets along with the swimsuits – even on hot days. If the forecast calls for rain and you’re caught out overnight, warm clothes and rain gear can make the difference between uncomfortable and dangerously uncomfortable.
Consider the distance:
Besides shelter, boaters often forget to think about how far away they are from things they take for granted onshore, like medical care for instance. You should have a good first aid kit on board, of course, but consider just how long it will take you to get back (or how long it will take someone to get to you) if someone needs real help and plan accordingly. And don’t rely on your cell phone alone for communication. You should have (at least) a VHF marine radio aboard and an EPIRB (read more here) is never a bad idea.
Know your passengers:
Do they have any medical conditions you should know about? Are they adequate swimmers? What is their boating experience? The answers make a big difference, but you have to ask the questions first. Life-saving drugs like asthma, heart, allergy meds, and insulin come along for the ride, or those who need them don’t. The medical history and drug allergies of your friends may not seem like your business, but if there is a problem, the Coast Guard will be asking you for answers. You should know what they are.
Training – yes, training:
Ever run a man overboard drill with the boat driver as the person overboard? Did you teach your 10 year-old how to make a distress call? You should. The Coast Guard often responds to emergencies where the adult IS the emergency. Discuss safety procedures and equipment with everyone on board.
A Float Plan:
Someone on shore needs to know where you’re going (exactly if possible), who’s going with you, and when you’ll be back. The coast guard is very good at searching for lost or disabled boats, but they have to have an idea of where to look. Your float plan should include as much detail about your vessel, trip, and passengers as you can manage to write down. Decide on a “check-in” time and call in as soon as you are back on land. Then decide on when the Coast Guard should be called if you don’t check in.
A Bailout Plan:
If the weather does turn unexpectedly and the seas get too high to handle, remember the old adage, “any port in a storm.” The thing is, you have to know where those ports are. Identify all the places you might go if the need arises before you leave. Many boaters get into trouble trying to “make it back” to their dock while passing up other perfectly safe options.
Know when to ask for help:
Don’t wait for the water to be at your ankles to call for help. At the first sign of serious trouble, injury, or illness, contact the Coast Guard. You absolutely will not get into any trouble for calling because you “might” need help. Even if you are handling the problem and you are pretty sure everything will be fine, you should let someone else know what is happening. The official radio speak for this kind of event is a “Pan Pan” (pronounced “Pon Pon”). It is what you should say over the radio before things turn into a “Mayday.” Perhaps there are other boaters nearby who can help? Maybe a Coast Guard boat is very close to you and can some by “just in case.” If things do get worse or you can’t actually handle the problem alone, help will be that much closer and disaster can be avoided.
Check the required safety gear – every time:
It’s not enough just to have the required gear aboard, you want to know that it works and where it is. Make sure that before each trip you put your eyes on your flares and strobe lights, your fire extinguishers, (all your lifejackets of course), radios, distress signals, first aid kits, and any and all safety related gear aboard your boat. You are checking to see that it is in good condition, not expired, and that it is ready to work if you need it to.
Whether you are spending time on your vessel or someone else’s, you can use these tips to help ensure your family’s safety no matter where your off-time takes you.
Be safe out there!
Do you have any questions for Mario? Post a comment below!
Mario Vittone is a nationally recognized expert on water safety. His writing on aquatic risk and drowning prevention has appeared in magazines, websites, and newspapers around the world. Mario is a former Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer and instructor and has lectured on boating and water safety across the United States. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance and the Joshua Collingsworth Memorial Foundation.
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