Welcome to the good captain's annual springtime safe boating review guide. At all times, you are the captain of your vessel, with complete responsibility for those onboard and the safe operation of your vessel—even when you are away from the helm. All good captains practice situational awareness, meaning they know what is going on around their boat at all times, always on the lookout for danger. Finally, captains never drink and take the helm.

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At all times, you are the captain of your vessel with complete responsibility for those onboard and the safe operation of your vessel. Photo courtesy of the National Safe Boating Council

Wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) improves your odds of surviving a serious boating mishap by over 95 percent. Find a PFD that suits you, set it up right, and wear it—same for your guests and passengers. It is also advisable to have a young child’s PFD aboard. 

Review the rules of the road and the accompanying sound signals which are to be used as you travel along America’s waterways. Give special attention to how they apply to give-way vessels, stand-on vessels, and the accompanying maneuvers and horn signals that are required, especially when there is a significant risk of collision. 

Having a personal location beacon (PLB) on your PFD or onboard your boat is cheap insurance in case of a serious mishap. The Coast Guard will quickly know of your need for assistance. PLBs are extremely easy to activate, even in an emergency. 

Always check the weather before heading out and keep an eye on it while you are on the water. There are a number of weather apps that now provide very close to real time weather radar data. 

Early spring boating is fabulous when the weather finally turns warm; however, it is important to remember that the water can remain very cold. When the water temperature is below 65 degrees, it can be deadly, meriting additional caution and respect. Hypothermia can and will suck the life out of you. 

Know how to get someone out of the water and into your boat should you come upon someone in the water, or if someone were to fall overboard from your vessel. Know how to execute a man overboard drill. Practice these maneuvers at least a couple of times a year.

Practice deploying your anchor, set it fast to the bottom, and wait a while to ensure that you are not dragging. Should you ever lose power, the ability to correctly deploy the anchor and prevent uncontrolled drifting is critical. The anchor is your emergency brake; know how to use it. 

The majority of powerboats and personal watercrafts come equipped from the manufacturer with an emergency ignition safety shut-off switch. Always attach the safety switch lanyard to your wrist or PFD. This is especially critical if you boat alone.

Having a good VHF Radio onboard is very important. Cell phones may be useful for an emergency call but they will not alert nearby boaters to your distress, and the Coast Guard can locate you more effectively by tracking a radio signal versus a cell phone signal. Additionally, most fixed mount radios are now equipped with digital selective calling, even many hand held models now have this feature. The DSC technology allows you to register your radio with the FCC and receive a Maritime Mobile Service Identity number; corresponding to this number will be information about your boat and who to contact in the event of an emergency. DSC equipped radios also feature an emergency button which when pressed will alert nearby boaters and the Coast Guard to your location and that you are in distress. Setting up DSC capability on your radio is easily handled through BoatUS and is free for members, while a minimal fee is charged for non-members. Setting up your marine radio to have active DSC capabilities is super cheap, on-the-water life insurance; get some.

Many captains cruise with a significant other the majority of time underway; therefore it pays to practice the situation know as, “Suddenly in Command.” Does your mate have the ability to properly communicate your vessel’s location in an emergency? Can your mate perform basic maneuvers with your vessel? Early in the boating season, role play a “Suddenly in Command” incident and see what you learn.  

Always file a float plan with a responsible friend or family member. You may also use the float plan feature on the new Coast Guard App before heading out.

Equip your boat with a marine/outdoor first aid kit. Then take a first aid course in order to learn the basics and be prepared to render assistance. 

Thoroughly prep your vessel for the new season. Are your rescue signals and fire extinguishers current? Are the anchor and rode in good shape? Are the batteries charged up and anchored down properly? Are the bilges clean of fuel and oil? Are the electronics booting up properly? Take care of any deferred maintenance issues remaining from the end of last season. Try not to rush the springtime commissioning process. A little patience along with a sharp eye to detail, and a smooth start to the season will be your reward.

Practice docking and tying up your boat, know when and how to use a walking fender or a boat pole, and become reacquainted with how your boat handles in close quarters. 

Review and bring aboard a marine chart of the local area where you go boating. What are the significant physical features on land and water? What are the general Latitude and Longitude coordinates? Good captains know where they are at all times.

It’s a good idea to have on-the-water towing insurance. It is readily available from several commercial tow companies. Be aware that the Coast Guard will only engage in towing for serious emergencies. 

This boating review guide is not designed to take the place of your state’s safe boating courses, but rather it is a general refresher summary. For further brush up, visit your state’s Department of Natural Resources website. Even if you have your state’s required boating license, review the materials once again. It will do you good.

Think about and honestly evaluate where you may need additional boat handling/operational instruction. A half day spent on the water with a commercial instructor may lead to a vast improvement in your abilities and confidence while underway. 

Schedule a free 2023 vessel safety exam with the Coast Guard Auxiliary or your local Power Squadron. This exam can be performed with your vessel on a trailer or dockside. Chat with the examiner regarding the benefits of joining either organization.  

The more you know, the more you prepare, the better your boating season will be… guaranteed! 

safe boating
Capt. Mace Coleman

About the Author: Capt. Mace Coleman lives in Edgewater, MD, and hails out of the South River. He has a captain’s license for up to 50 tons, is a USCG Auxiliary Cox’n with Flotilla 23-03 out of Station Annapolis, teaches boating safety classes for the State of Maryland DNR and the Auxiliary, performs Auxiliary vessel safety exams, and has advanced first aid training.