I’ve been a boater for a long time and there is nothing like getting out on the water. When I was a teenager, I picked up canoeing and kayaking as a hobby that grew into a summer job for years. Later on, I took my powerboat license and spent a lot of time on the Connecticut shore on my family’s boat fishing and exploring different parts of the coastline. Even on vacation, I always found myself on ferries, rafts, and boat trips since they allowed me to see a new area from a different perspective. While there is a joke that “boat” ownership actually means “bring out another thousand”, boating experiences are worth far more than the occasional annoyance of storage, repair, and upgrades. It’s easy to get excited about boat trips but don’t let that excitement keep you from exercising good safety measures. In 2021, there were 658 boating fatalities and more injuries sustained from accidents most would agree are preventable. Here are some common safety measures to consider before you head out on the water.
Personal floatation devices have come a long way since the “Mae West” life jackets of yesteryear. If you don’t know the etymology of “Mae West”, you should look it up as the history of the term goes way back to the early 20th century. PFDs save lives but they have to be worn and they have to fit correctly. In general, a PFD should be snug so as to not lift over the face when pulled at the shoulder straps. This will simulate being in the water unconscious and having the floatation hold your body up but not your face out of the water. PFDs have evolved to include pockets and some are designed to be inflatable for space-saving. Make sure whatever you use, you know how to operate it and make sure it is operable. Adding additional gear to your PFD can hamper it from working as intended. There may be a law that allows you to keep a PFD in close proximity but if the water you are on is risky (rapids, additional boaters, cold water), don’t assume you’ll have time to put on your vest in an emergency. Just like a seatbelt, wear it before you need it. If you are on a larger vessel like a ferry, it doesn’t make sense to put one on unless there is an emergency. Imagine being the only one wearing one when hundreds are not. Just have the awareness of where to grab one in an emergency.
Until the water freezes over, you have a boating season. When I lived back east, we paddled our canoes in the Adirondacks until the late fall. We’d paddle in for the weekend on the water and broke through the ice on the way out. We knew the risks of capsizing and prepared for it with a good immersion kit. Fieldcraft Survival Instructor Gerry had an issue on one fateful trip where he had to fall back on his training to help out a friend’s kid who ended up in the drink. When you boat in cold water, prepare for going in and hope you don’t. Whether you are canoeing, sailing, or power boating, follow these steps. Get out of the water, remove wet clothing, put on dry clothing or wrap in blankets, introduce warm liquids, and monitor closely. If you wait until an emergency to experience cold water, you will not know how you will react to it. While not as fast-moving as immersion, getting wet and experiencing the wind will cool you off slowly and catch you off guard. Keep in mind, that sometimes cold water immersion isn’t the total body. Simply immersing your hands in cold water can limit their dexterity and capability. That can serve as a multiplier effect and compound the situation you’re in.
You may plan on boating only during the day but unforeseen circumstances may lead you to drive back to your vehicle or the boat ramp after hours in the dark. Boating in the dark isn’t difficult but it is different from daytime boating. You can’t travel as quickly or boldly as visibility is reduced. Most boats aren’t equipped with strong headlights and they don’t exist for paddle-powered canoes and kayaks. When it comes to night travel, it is best to use the moonlight and let your eyes adjust to the dark. White light use on the boat can bleach your vision and it is better to use color filters or the dash lights to help you see your instruments if you’re on a more substantial vessel. Remember, only travel as fast as you can see far. If the water is dark, move slowly and cautiously. Too many accidents happen when there isn’t enough time to avoid rocks, sand bars, and other boats. Even if you are in a canoe or kayak, always carry a white light to let others know where you are if they can’t see you. If you are in a watercraft with passengers, delegate the light-duty to a co-pilot and have them illuminate your path and help spot objects.
Right around the corner from Fieldcraft HQ is Deer Creek Reservoir. In the summertime, the waters are packed with boaters looking to fish, “put-put”, paddle around, water ski, and have a good time. It doesn’t take a lot of boats to make a body of water crowded. Each year, collisions between watercraft happen. Motorboat to motorboat happens when the fish on the line draws more attention than awareness of surroundings. Motorboat on paddle-powered boat collisions happen when canoes and kayaks aren’t easily seen. Collisions can be deadly and there really isn’t a good way to deal with them except to avoid them. You have to be extremely vigilant and do the awareness work for the other guy. One way to avoid collisions is to have a sound signal like a whistle or horn. Paddlers can put reflective tape on the back of their paddle blades to use as a reflective device. Being ready to move off the X is another good idea. Should you get into a collision, quickly assess your situation and look for injuries and damage. Take stock of all your supplies and the status of your boat. Treat what needs to be treated and get back to shore as quickly as you can safely.
We all know what a bug-out bag is, but do we all know what a bail-out bag is? The idea of abandoning ship is probably remote but there is always the possibility of ditching your boat for safety. Powerboats have fires, sailboats can capsize, and canoes and kayaks can swamp. Normally staying with your craft is the best bet but there are times when current, tides, and conditions may make your boat more of a liability than an asset. Where you are will determine what makes sense to put in your bail-out kit. Generally, this kit is contained in a water-resistant container that can be used as a float. It should have enough buoyancy to keep the bag or box above water with the contents inside. A bail-out bag will have signaling equipment, life-support equipment with what is needed to keep your body temperature stable, and med gear to address any medical needs. If you are rolling in the dough, you probably have a bail-out kit in a rubber raft attached to your luxury liner. For the average Joe, a basic bail-out kit can be a simple dry bag clipped to an area where you can access it before you abandon ship.
Boating safety concepts are universal even if the boat you are in varies from one situation to another. Regardless of being in a solo paddle-powered boat or a multi-passenger vessel, some safety considerations never change. Chances are, you will never encounter a boating accident and your day will more likely be ruined by something insignificant than national report worthy. Still, you never want to go out on the water without a good plan for the worst. Chances are, if you get out on the water, you’ll have a better day than those stuck on land.