Boating Safety: Getting it Right

News & Tips: Boating Safety: Getting it Right

 While there are numerous safety and regulatory rules governing boats that focus on keeping everyone aboard safe, there are also many misunderstandings and myths. If you deviate into one of the gray areas and are caught, the fine could be costly. So what are the areas, and what are the answers? Believe it or not, every time a boat pulls up to a dock or ramp, the situation on board can change.

Life jackets or Personal Floatation Devices are one of the areas that cause problems for many boat operators.

The reason is simple: an additional person might have boarded, or an important piece of gear might have been left behind. Some boat operators think that once they have been checked for compliance in the beginning of boating season, they are good to go for the year. Not so. If you are operating a motorboat, you are subject to be stopped. Game wardens and boating enforcement officers look for clues that often lead them to problems onboard.

The first indication is a large number of people — five or more — on board the vessel. This often signals a party and possible drinking. The next nearest signal would be a boat that leaves a party beach or on-shore bar where alcohol consumption is common. Then attention is also cast to boats that are speeding or operated in a careless manner. And once you are signaled to stop, the inspection begins. You need to be properly prepared for the safety of everyone.

Life Jackets or PFDs

When it comes to boating misunderstandings, the Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) rank at the top of the heap. The average boater thinks that PFDs only need to be on board, or that there should be one for each occupant. In fact, there should be one PFD that fits and works properly for each occupant.

"With life jackets, if you have children less than 7 years of age in South Dakota, they must wear a life jacket if the boat is going at anything greater than wake speed," said Wildlife Conservation Officer Jeremy Rakowicz with South Dakota's Game, Fish & Parks. "It must be a wearable life jacket that is the correct size. 

This is a violation if the jackets don't fit properly. Almost all PFD's have printed recommended weight guidelines inside." And don't expect a kid to wear an adult sized PFD, Officer Rakowicz cautions. In most cases a child in the water could easily slip out of the oversized PFD. It's important to note that some state regulations exceed the US Coast Guard Requirements. Do your research carefully.

And while on the subject of floatation devices, what about throwable devices?

"If your boat is less than 16 feet, it is not required by law, but it is recommended that you carry a throwable floatation device," stated Rakowicz. "Any boat 16 feet or longer needs a throwable device in addition to a PFD for everyone on board." You should also be certain that the PFDs are not ripped or damaged by exposure to the sun.

The Paperwork

Each boat is much like a car on the highway, and instead of tags, there are numbers affixed to the bow. Along with those numbers is a small piece of paper — the registration — that says the numbers belong with that boat. In most states you have about 30 or 60 days after moving or changing an address to reflect this on the boat registration. And since registrations can be set from 1 to 3 years in length, boat owners often forget when it's time to renew. The other news is that registration renewal cards issued by the agency in charge of boat registrations are often not forwarded through the postal system if you move. Where's the best place to keep your registration on the boat so it's dry but accessible?

Be certain you have the right gear whenever you launch your boat.

"What I've seen that works the best on most boats is to put the paper in a Zip-loc or dry bag, and then put it in a compartment on the boat or in a tackle box," said Officer Rakowicz. "A sealed tight lunch box will also work. On a jet ski, there is often a waterproof container on or by the seat on most models, and that also works to hold a wallet, fire extinguisher and registration." If you don't want that important piece of paper to become wet, find a system and storage container that works on your boat.

On the water, most boating enforcement officers can simply call in and check on the registration. There's, however, little grace period for an expired boat registration. One other problem is that after a long winter storage session, owners and operators simply forget to bring all the gear — including the registration papers — back on board the boat. Or it might be on board, but you don't remember where. The important point is to keep the registration dry and keep it readily available.


If you only operate during the day, then onboard navigation lights are generally not an issue. It's those early morning fishing jaunts and late evening pleasure trips and cookouts on remote beaches when most operators suddenly discover the boat lights don't work. Navigation lights help other boat operators determine that you are a boat, and which direction you are headed. Without them you place yourself and nearly everyone on the body of water in danger.

In addition to a maze of wiring and complex connections, most boat wiring systems have fuses. And like nearly everything that is on or near water, there are many opportunities for the onset of corrosion. Make it a point to check your boat's lights before you pull away from home or leave the dock or boat slip for the trip. It's much easier to work on things when the boat is stable, and at a location where you have more tools nearby. In most cases the wiring connection to the battery is the starting point to check for contact and corrosion. Next in line are fuses and switches, then light bulbs. It's a good idea to pack along a spare light bulb in case one burns out. And don't forget that rear — or stern — light that is often on a long pole so it's up high and visible from all directions. Often times this item is left behind when boating season begins or someone rushes to reach the lake. If it's not on board, you can't use it.

Whistles, Horns and Signals

GetItRight3Whistles, horns and other signaling devices are often used to send a message to other boats or persons on land should you have a problem. In most cases a wave of the arm by you could be viewed as a friendly gesture and not bring aid to your boat. So, do you need a whistle or horn to be legal?

"In most cases this is not required, but in some states it is. Required or not, it's highly recommended to have a whistle or horn on the boat," continued Officer Rakowicz. Again, research your state's requirements regarding horns, whistles and signaling devices.

A Paddle

If your boat breaks down, how are you going to reach shore or move the vessel about? In most cases, a paddle will help greatly. This is another item that is not legally needed in most states, but highly recommended.

Fire Extinguisher

Believe it or not, you'll need a fire extinguisher onboard that's US Coast Guard approved. Often times an unsuspecting boat owner buys a fire extinguisher that is designed for kitchen home fires, but does not meet the US Coast Guard standards for boats. Check the extinguisher rating, and take time to look at the gauge. Not only must the right type of fire extinguisher be onboard, it must be serviceable (charged). Most have gauges and dials or press pressure buttons on the top. You should check this important piece of equipment regularly.

When a fiberglass boat catches fire, the gas onboard and in the lines, and the resin in the fiberglass, burns fast and furious. In minutes the entire boat will possibly burn down to the waterline and you'll have a heap of limp fiberglass. And yes, in case you are wondering, you'll probably have to pay a tow and recovery fee because leaving the fiberglass on or in the water is littering.

Impaired Boat Operation

If you've ever seen a boating accident involving an impaired operator, the horrid scene is enough to convince most boat operators to never drink and drive. And unlike wrecks on the highway, when there's an accident on the water someone often goes overboard and then there is the possibly of drowning. The best rule is don't drink any alcoholic beverage and operate a boat --period. The laws and fines, and the legal limit, now closely follow those involving roadways and vehicles in most states.

Many boating safety laws are actually US Coast Guard laws that are enforced under cooperative agreements by state enforcement officers. And each state has many additional boating laws that help boaters and passengers have a safe trip. Sometimes, however, boat operators are confused by US Coast Guard Auxiliary courtesy checks. 

These courtesy checks are not for compliance of state regulations, but they are an aid to help you determine if you have all the necessary safety equipment.

Failure to play by the rules can be costly. "If you are charged with not having the correct number of PFDs, it will cost you around $100," commented Officer Rakowicz. Fines could be higher in other states. Learn the rules, and get it right.