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Stay in Ship Shape with These Simple Boating Tips

Recreational boating can be fun, but like any activity involving large machinery or vehicles, it can be dangerous if you’re not prepared. In 2011, the US Coast Guard (USCG) reported 4,588 accidents that resulted in 758 deaths and 3,081 injuries.

While your odds aren’t terrible—one accident per 2,653 of the 12.2 million registered vessels—the injuries and damages from a serious accident could be staggering. Damaged property in 2011 boating accidents was estimated at $52 million, according to the Recreational Boating Statistics 2011 report from the USCG. The kicker is, by taking simple steps and planning, as well as exercising safe judgement, accidents can be avoided.

The Importance of Training

Unlike a vehicle license, boat licenses are often given after a written exam only, without an operation test. And in some state, the written exam is not required. Just because you have a license doesn’t mean you know how to operate a boat. Fortunately, that’s an easy fix. Depending on how close you are to water, it may be as simple as going to a boat school. If that’s too much of a hassle, there are online courses, as well. Of course, it’s a good idea to check with you local regulatory agency to ensure you are in compliance with all licensing requirements.

Did you go through a boat safety education program? According to the report, 89 percent of deaths occurred on a boat driven by someone with no instruction. Of the remainder, about five deaths (under 0.01%) happened when the operator had been through a National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) approved course. There is a list of approved courses and organizations here.

Plan: Where Are You Going and When Will You Be Back?

You’ve probably heard of a float plan if you’re a boat owner. If you haven’t, read up. A float plan can expedite rescue in the event that you’re unable to send out a distress signal or if you’re in a small vessel without means of communication. The USCG’s website even has a helpful form you can leave ashore to make sure no detail is forgotten.

And, if you’re thinking a float plan is unnecessary if you’re going on a lake or other enclosed body of water, think again: Forty-eight percent of accidents (and 46 percent of fatalities) happened in lakes, ponds, reservoirs, dams and gravel pits.

Weather

It’s common sense to check the weather conditions before heading out on the water. “Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning,” right?

Contrary to what you might think, more deaths happened in calm and choppy waters (at most, 2-foot waves) than rougher waves. And according to the USCG’s 2011 report, nearly 74 percent of all accidents happened during the day with good visibility; the peak time for accidents is 2:30-4:30 p.m.

Regardless of your plans, keep an eye on wind, water and visibility conditions before casting off.

Situational Awareness is Key

The No. 1 contributor to accidents was a distracted operator, followed by poor lookout. Nearly 24 percent of accidents in 2011 could have been avoided by people paying attention. To give you a little more perspective, 22 percent of accidents were boat collisions. Think there might be a connection there?

So, while you’re enjoying the day on the water, remember that your inattention could ruin someone else’s day—and yours.

When an Accident Happens, Safety First

We get it. Everyone looks a little ridiculous in a life jacket. Put one on anyway. In 2011, 54.7 percent of people who died drowned without a lifejacket, compared to just 11 percent who drowned with a lifejacket.

“But I’m a strong swimmer,” you may say. Well, strong swimmer, if you’re a mile from shore, you would have to swim the equivalent distance of nearly 53 lengths in a 25-meter pool…with a current and waves. “Impossible,” you say. “I’ll wait it out.” You may have to stay afloat for hours until rescue teams arrive. Swallow your pride and pop on a life jacket.

The key to your safety on the water is how much effort you put into it. Take a class and get informed. Make a plan and leave a copy with a family member, friend or neighbor. Exercise common sense. Drinking and operating a boat? Bad idea. Speeding? Bad idea. Having a good time while being safe? Great idea.

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