If you live in the Mid-Atlantic region, chances are you’ve been frustrated with the weather this past winter. Then it snowed … on the first day of spring! Now temperatures are beginning to reach the mid-60s, many boaters are ready to hit the water and shake off that cabin fever,
but before heading out, there are numerous factors to consider.
The Coast Guard consistently reminds boaters of the importance of wearing life jackets and filing a float plan, but many do not check the wiring on their boat. That’s one of the many tips from Clyde Rawls, the director of operations for the Frank S. Farley State Marina in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
“Regardless of the size of the boat everything should be checked,” said Rawls. “If the boat’s been stowed for any length of time you really need to go over everything with a fine-tooth comb, looking for loose wiring that could cause failure of a piece of equipment necessary to propel the boat.”
A boat can quickly become disabled if loose wiring causes the engine to malfunction, but a disabled boat can also sink if weather takes a turn for the worse before help arrives. That’s why proper communications devices are a solid investment.
“Having a VHF radio onboard is vitally important — it’s one of the most important pieces of safety equipment you can have,” said Rawls. “It’s a direct line to the Coast Guard. It’s a direct line to the all the boats anywhere in eyesight. If something’s going on you have a lot more eyes immediately looking around and spotting you rather than you trying to place a 911 call from a cell phone out in the middle of the ocean.”
Rawls also said cell phone batteries can die at the most inopportune time, so VHF radios are exponentially more reliable.
Additionally, cell phone signals are unreliable the farther boaters are from shore.
Another key item to check is the bilge pump system, if a boat is equipped with one. Rawls stressed the importance of inspecting the float switch, which activates the bilge pump if water is detected. Without a properly functioning float switch and bilge pump a boater could end up in a great deal of trouble if the boat starts to take on water. Rawls recommended having a manual dewatering pump aboard as a backup.
“You’ll wear yourself out, but they do work,” said Rawls. “I used one this winter on a dinghy that was taking on water. I couldn’t activate the bilge pump on the boat, so I ended up hand-pumping it out.”
Rawls discussed the importance of knowing the limitations of the boat, as well as personal limitations as a boater.
“People get out into seas — or seas will build around them — and they think it’s not that big of a deal, but they’re not paying attention that it’s getting worse and worse and worse,” said Rawls. “On a smaller boat, if the [sides of the boat] are low, chances are you could be swamped if you’re in really rough seas, so just know the limitations of your own skill as a captain and the physical limitations of the boat. Make sure the boat is not over-weighted by the number of people or gear. People forget a cooler of beverages weighs a lot.”
Rawls also said a person can get dehydrated when drinking alcohol, and those effects are intensified while out on the water in the sunshine. Staying hydrated with plenty of water should definitely be a priority for those looking to get the most out of an underway trip.
Taking a boating safety course can also enhance a boater’s skill level and confidence at the helm.
“It’s not only a good idea, it’s required,” said Rawls.
Boaters should master the basics before they buy a boat, but it’s never too late to take a boater’s safety course.
Rawls said sun protection is also a critical factor in safe boating. Wear appropriate attire, like polarized sunglasses, which greatly increases what can be seen on the water by eliminating glare.
“Boating should be a very enjoyable, relaxing activity — with proper preparation,” said Rawls. “Have sunscreen. No one wants to get fried three hours into their day and be miserable with a sunburn. Also, wear boat shoes! Flip-flops are for the beach.”
With so many tips on how to prepare for a safe boating season, it’s also important to take the same precautions for passengers.
“Look after your crew and your pets,” said Rawls. “Pets need life jackets, too.”
In fact, everyone needs a life jacket while boating. Children under 13 are required to wear a life jacket at all times while boating, but the Coast Guard urges all boaters to wear their life jacket while underway. Attempting to put on your life jacket during an emergency at sea is like trying to put on your seatbelt during a car accident —life-threatening situations escalate quickly, and every second counts.
As summer approaches and the weather conditions improve on the water, remember, boating safety starts on shore. Tragedies occur all too often on the water, and by taking the necessary precaution beforehand, boaters can ensure their survival if tragedy does strike.
By Petty Officer 1st Class Nick Ameen, PADET Atlantic City