Becoming A Safer Boater

November 2010 Feature Wayne Spivak, United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

Safe boating is why Congress created the US Coast Guard Reserve in 1939. The Reserve later became the Auxiliary in 1941. And I believe this movie quote adapted from Frank L. Baum's classic book is all telling:

Bert Lahr (Cowardly Lion): Courage! What makes a king out of a slave? Courage! What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage! What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage! What makes the sphinx the seventh wonder? Courage! What makes the dawn come up like thunder? Courage! What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the "ape" in apricot? What have they got that I ain't got?

All: Courage!

Bert Lahr (Cowardly Lion): You can say that again! Huh?

If you haven't figure it out, the book/movie is the Wizard of Oz.

Becoming a safe boater takes courage. Not the same courage that it takes to become a member of the military, or to skydive or even to be in a houseboat during a nasty squall. It's the type of courage that is required to make a change in your lifestyle or mind set.

If you've been boating for 50 seasons or this is your first, you need the courage to say to yourself, "I need to (re-)learn good boating habits."

Good boating habits are synonymous with safe boating. Good habits start before you even go near your boat and end after you've tied up your boat, closed it up and left for the evening.

I know this has been said a thousand times, but take a safe boating course given by the Coast Guard Auxiliary or one of their partners. You can always learn something. But don't just stop at that one single introductory course. The Auxiliary and some of our partners give courses on basic and advanced seamanship, coastal navigation, weather, GPS usage, engine maintenance, and sailing to name a few. So you're thinking, "Why do I need these additional courses?"

The answer is simple-the more you know, the safer you are. You need to understand weather, because being in a small houseboat during a thunderstorm is not a pleasant or safe experience. You need to understand what to do should your engine stop. Most times, some simple troubleshooting can eliminate your problem and keep you out of trouble. Seamanship skills will teach you marlinespike, docking, more of the rules of the road (COLREGS), and radio procedures. Navigation will teach you how to plot your course from here to there, understanding tides and currents and how they will affect not only your course, but your gas usage.

Speaking of gas usage, you'll learn the rules of threes, computing gas consumption and getting the most out of your boat.

You will also gain a full understanding of how you are supposed to use your GPS (in the navigational sense, maybe not in an absolute sense on how you use your specific make and model of GPS). I had a friend once who was new to boating and he bought a GPS. He said, "I put in where I want to go, and I just follow the heading that it tells me. I don't need anything else!"

I was never quite able to talk him into understanding that the GPS doesn't know that between you and your destination there could be islands, underwater obstructions, no water, etc. Our friendship didn't last long. nor did his boating career after he grounded one too many times.

When any member of Coast Guard forces is on a small vessel, they are required to wear a life jacket. We used to call them Personal Flotation Devices (PFD's), but the public just didn't like the term, so we're back to "life jackets." Whether its 95 degrees with 100 percent humidity or five degrees and a gale wind a blow'n, we all don our life jackets or a survival suit which is a life jacket itself. As a recreational boater you too should always don your life jacket.

Today, with the advent of inflatable life jackets, you can wear one and be comfortable, cool and show others that you are a safe boater. You could have checked the weather before you left the house to make sure the winds, seas and expected changes were in your comfort zone. All during your time on the water you are constantly surveying the sky for tell-tale signs of impending weather changes. You're also listening to VHF Channel 16 for emergency traffic, which includes MayDay's, Pan Pan's, Securite's, Urgent Marine Information Broadcasts, Marine Assistance Request Broadcasts  and weather alerts.

You filed a Float Pan ( with a friend, neighbor or marina letting you know where you intend to go and when you believe you'll be there. It also lists other information about your boat, your equipment, and the passengers and crew. Having a float plan is part of safe boating.

Knowing when you are participating in high-risk boating also takes courage. We're not just talking about jumping waves, boating during small craft advisories or other such foolish behavior. We're talking about knowing when you are part of the group of boaters most likely to have an accident. Who are these people? Boaters in their 40's to 60's, boating for a long time, mostly fishermen and who go boating solo. Statistically you're more prone to an accident than anyone else. Why?

Well, your age group is in the prime territory for a heart attack and/or other medical emergency. If that's not bad enough, you're overly confident in your boating skills because you've been boating so long; you get sloppy! Boating solo means there is no one to help you if you get incapacitated and even recreational fishing can be dangerous (see latter part of the sentence).

Safe boating consists of lots of small details that require conscious thought to prioritize and act upon. Did you get a Vessel Safety Check from the Auxiliary to make sure you have all the required equipment onboard? Do you periodically check the expiration dates on your flares? Did you check the bilge to make sure it was dry and clean? Are your sea-cocks secured? Does your radio work (not just to receive, but also to transmit)? Do you have enough fuel, an up-to-date chart, enough life jackets and are they properly serviced? Is your anchor the correct type for the bottom where you will be boating? Do your navigation lights work and do you have extra bulbs?

There are a thousand and one little questions that need to be answered. Some each and every time you go out, others monthly, seasonally or on another recurring schedule.

It takes courage to re-think your boating experiences and take those steps to truly understanding what it takes to make boating safe, and more importantly, you a safe boater.

So why not start today, on the road to being a safe boater, with that first boating course? Contact your local Coast Guard Auxiliary unit that can be found at Or find if a safe boating course is being given locally by checking our class finder: And it is never too late to get a Vessel Safety Check

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