Staying Safe While Boating

For many people boating is a favorite summer pastime, but every year many people are needlessly killed or injured on our waterways. Following a few simple rules will help create a safe and enjoyable boating experience for the whole family.

Wear a personal flotation device. The U.S. Coast Guard estimates that life jackets could have saved the lives of over 80 percent of boating fatality victims. Most people who are killed while boating drown because they are not wearing a life jacket or personal flotation device (PFD). As a boat operator, you're in command of the safety of your passengers. But accidents can, and do happen with terrifying speed on the water. There's rarely time to reach stowed life jackets. Make it a practice for all family members to wear life jackets while on the water. It is required that all children under the age of 14 must wear an approved life vest aboard a vessel measuring 19 feet or less, including canoes and kayaks.

Stay sober around water. Drinking and driving is a well recognized risk but on the water the risks are even greater. Someone with a blood alcohol level above 0.10 (the equivalent of just 1–3 beers) is ten times more likely to die from an accident than someone who has not consumed alcohol. Alcohol can affect your balance and judgment; accidents such as falling overboard or slipping off a dock are more likely to occur. Drinking and operating a boat under the influence of alcohol is illegal in all states and by Federal Boating Law. BWI (Boating While Intoxicated) is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents. BWI is strictly enforced and carries penalties similar to driving while intoxicated penalties, including possible Driver’s License suspension.

Take a Boating Safety course. Many accidents happen to new, inexperienced or unknowledgeable boaters. Failing to pay attention, not recognizing dangerous situations, carelessness, excessive speed and failure to watch out for other boaters contribute to these accidents. Beginner and experienced boaters alike need to be familiar with boating safety rules of operation. Boater education requirements vary by state- some require validated completion of at least one boating safety course. Regardless of your individual state's requirements, it's important to be educated, aware and prepared for every circumstance that might arise.

Carry safety equipment on your boat. Every watercraft should be equipped with safety equipment recommended by the Coast Guard. These items include life jackets or PFDs, fire extinguishers for motor boats, distress signals, and sound-producing devices.
Consider a Free Vessel Safety Check. The U.S. Coast Guard offers free boat safety checks to verify the presence and condition of certain safety equipment required by state and the federal regulations. A volunteer examiner will check to make sure your boat meets federal safety standards and that in an emergency you will have the necessary equipment to save lives and summon help. Items checked include life jackets, navigation lights, ventilation, fire extinguishers and distress signals.

Following these simple safety rules will help you and your family have an enjoyable and safe boating experience. And be sure to visit our Facebook page for a checklist to help you make sure you’re ready for a safe boating trip.


Dr. Frederick Loy is a board certified General Surgeon with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Putnam Physicians and provides care for patients in Southwestern Vermont Medical Center's general surgery department and enjoys sailing. To learn more about how SVMC and Dartmouth-Hitchcock are working together for a healthier community, visit “Health Matters” is a weekly column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public matters and public policy as it affects health care.