Safety Guidelines Boaters Should Know

Stay up to date on safety guidelines.
If it is soon time for you to suit up into a bright orange life vest, slather on SPF 45 sunblock and feel the wind in your wet locks as you skip along the water, listen up.

While a day out on the water is a fun way to spend time with friends or family, it also can be dangerous if you aren't careful. And with Independence Day around the corner, local waterways will soon be clogged with boaters--many not properly prepared for safe boating.

"If you want to see something funny, go to the Hard Dock Cafe (on the Fourth)," said Riverwalk Marina operator Steve Conner, referring to the number of infrequent, inexperienced boaters who have trouble putting their boats in at the dock. "It's kind of like amateur night."

And that's just at the dock.

In 2005, there were nearly 5,000 boating accidents nationwide, according to U.S. Coast Guard statistics. Nearly 700 people died in those accidents.

So this holiday and for the rest of the boating season, keep the basics in mind--wear your life vest, don't drink and drive on the water and watch your children carefully.

Boating experts Conner, Ed Orton of Jays Landing Marina and Randy Jones of the Alabama Marine Police also offer lesser-known boating tips to help keep your trip safe, fun and hassle-free.

Listen to the weather before you head out. Getting caught in bad weather really kills a good time on the water and can be very dangerous. If you do get caught in a storm, tie your boat to a tree on shore and take refuge on shore.

Run the bilge blower. Before you start your boat's inboard engine, don't forget to run the bilge blower for at least four minutes to clear out any potentially explosive fumes that may have built up in the bilge. Conner has seen boats explode into flames because the operators did not check the bilge before they started the engine. Also, raise the hatch of the boat when you're fueling to ensure that connecting hoses aren't leaking gasoline into the bilge.

Don't pile on. Boats have a legal capacity for a reason. If you go over that set capacity, your watercraft may nosedive into the water. This is especially common on pontoon boats. "There's more room in them, so they (boaters) think the boats can handle more people," Conner said.

De-clutter the deck. If you are bringing children on board, always make sure they keep their life vests on and that the deck is uncluttered. It's easy to trip over items on the deck and go overboard, especially because boats are unsteady vessels that rock easily. Advise everyone to stay seated as much as possible.

Know the rules of the road. Many boaters, especially the ones who come out only for holidays like the Fourth of July, haven't taken the time to refresh themselves on standard boating guidelines. For example, few boaters sound their horns three times when backing out of a slip, though it is a standard rule, Orton said. Orton suggested that everyone read and keep onboard Chapman Navigation Rules--a small book with the latest boating rules and regulations and other boating safety tips. Boats 12 meters (or 39 feet) and longer are actually required to keep a copy onboard.

Give yourself some space. If you're going to water-ski or participate in other water sports, get at least five miles away from marinas, where traffic will be high. Try to find an out-of-the-way spot, and always have someone onboard watch the skier and be prepared to alert the driver to any problems.

Pay attention! Inattention is one of the top contributing causes in boating accidents. This is a common problem for operators of personal watercraft, who tend to look only in front of them. These craft often end up going directly into a larger craft's path because their operators are not paying attention to either side or behind them.

Know where you're drinking. If you plan to drink alcohol on your boat, make sure you know which county you're boating in, cautioned Randy Jones, marine theft investigator with the Alabama Marine Police. If you're found with alcohol on your boat in dry counties, you could be cited for the offense.

Wear the kill switch. It's a basic operating requirement, but many boaters don't wear the safety switch that will turn off the boat's engine in case the operator trips and falls or strays too far from the controls. A boat traveling at high speeds with no one controlling it could quickly lead to disaster.

Being on the dock doesn't make you Superman. When you're docking the boat, keep in mind its massive weight. Don't try to stop it if it's coming in too quickly, and don't get between the boat and the slip--you can easily be crushed, Conner warned, who has witnessed these accidents firsthand.

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