There’s nothing like getting the whole family out on the water for a day of boating. After all, the thrill of tooling around on a lake, river, or ocean is an all-ages one, whether you’re beating the heat on a pleasantly bustling reservoir or embarking on a fishing voyage on remote waters.
Rigorous safety measures, however, must go hand-in-hand with your on-the-water fun. In the United States alone, hundreds die every year in boating accidents, and the risks are just as real for a pleasure boater on a familiar local waterway as a whitewater adventurer. Indeed, sometimes it’s those casual afternoon cruises that pose the most danger: People have a tendency to get blasé about them, and that’s when safety protocols start loosening up.
Here are a few fundamentals of family boating safety. Keep in mind that no such overview is a substitute for a proper boating education course.
Personal Flotation Devices
Lifejackets are the single most important safety item you and your family should have on board with you. The statistics starkly bear this out: Close to 85 percent of those who drown annually in the U.S. aren’t wearing lifejackets. And the old adage is ignored far too often: They don’t do much good if you’re not actually wearing them.
Many people neglect wearing a lifejacket because they don’t like the way they look or feel–a flimsy argument in any case, but even flimsier given lifejackets have come a long way from the bulky, uncomfortable orange vests of old. Others presume that because they’re strong swimmers, they don’t need a flotation device. That hubris goes out the window when you’re capsized in rough seas, struggling with waterlogged clothing, and/or awash in rock-studded or debris-strewn breakers.
Everyone on your vessel must have a lifejacket of U.S. Coast Guard-approved make, and they should be readily accessible at all times–or, best of all, worn at all times. All states, meanwhile, mandate that children of certain ages always have properly sized flotation devices on; check your state’s regulations for specifics.
Even diligent lifejacket-wearers sometimes neglect to inspect the jackets regularly; one in poor condition may do little good in an emergency situation.
Learn more about the U.S. Coast Guard’s lifejacket requirements and tips here.
Boating Know-how and Emergency Planning
Most states require some form of boating education for anyone using a personal watercraft. It’s a great idea, meanwhile, to extend this education beyond the skipper: Each and every family member can benefit from learning the ropes of proper boat operation and safety measures. And it needn’t be a chore: Kids’ll appreciate the responsibility (and the bragging rights) that comes with a bit of nautical savvy.
It’s also important to define a protocol for emergencies that your whole family’s familiar with: A sudden storm or a sprung leak is not the time to hash one out. A key component emphasized by the Coast Guard is completing a “float plan,” which allows essential information to be rapidly conveyed to search-and-rescue authorities in the event of a mishap.
Mitigating Onboard Dangers
Regular and thorough vessel inspections go a long way toward avoiding mechanical or structural failures out on the water. Keep your engine in good working order, inspect fittings and hoses, keep scuppers clear, and make sure ahead of every outing that your craft’s properly loaded and weighted.
As in a house, carbon monoxide can be a subtle but deadly factor on a boat. Even if your watercraft’s generator-free, CO from neighboring vessels can infiltrate it. That’s why it’s critical to have a marine-appropriate CO detector installed–and, just like back at home, to regularly test it and replace it at the recommended intervals.
It probably doesn’t come as much surprise that alcohol is responsible for the majority of boating accidents in the U.S. According to the Coast Guard, more than half of those who died in alcohol-related boating incidents fell overboard or swamped their vessels. And the agency emphasizes that the effects of alcohol can be even more pronounced on the water than on land, for a variety of reasons–the compounding sensory derangement of glinting sun and engine roar, for example, and the fact that most casual recreational boaters have far less practice at the wheel of a boat compared with a car.
Boating under the influence doesn’t just put your family in flagrant danger: It also comes with stiff penalties if you’re caught. The best tack (so to speak) is to keep the booze off the boat entirely.
Keeping a Level Head
Whether you’re going water skiing, sailing, fishing, or swimming, a family cruise is all about enjoying the aquatic environment and your time together. But don’t let the fun get in the way of common sense: Maintain safe speeds at all times, keep a sharp eye out for submerged rocks and logs as well as other watercraft, and ensure everyone’s staying hydrated and protected from the sun at all times.
And safety measures need to kick in before you even hit the boat launch. You’ll often be traveling to the lake or seashore on a weekend or holiday, which means you’re likely not going to be alone on the highway. Give yourself plenty of time to reach your destination and take extra precautions behind the wheel. (And if you do find yourself in an accident in New York City, call I-800-VICTIM2 to take advantage of the trusted services of Greenstein & Milbauer.)
A family boating adventure is priceless, but it must always be undertaken with caution, awareness, and preparation. Wear your lifejackets (and your sunscreen), familiarize everybody with the plan-of-action for contingencies, and ensure your vessel’s in good working order. You’ll have that much more peace of mind with which to enjoy the onboard pleasures together.
Robert J. Greenstein has been focusing on personal injury litigation since passing the New York and New Jersey Bar exams in 1994. With 90% of his case load focusing on litigation, this polished trial attorney and graduate of New York Law School (Cum Laude) handles personal injury cases that include: car accidents, motorcycle accidents and truck accidents, as well as bus, subway, commuter train and other forms of public transportation-related accidents. A member of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, his expertise also includes construction site accidents, medical malpractice accidents and cases involving nursing home neglect.