Boating Safety Tips and Checklist

Updated on March 26, 2020
Natashalh profile image

I am Red Cross first aid certified. I've also personally experienced dehydration and heat exhaustion twice.

Beached boat - don't end up like this!
Beached boat - don't end up like this! | Source

About Boating Safety

What if you'd never even ridden in a car, but you could walk on a car lot, purchase a new vehicle, get in, and drive away? It would be pretty dangerous, wouldn't it?

Unfortunately, while there are many experienced boaters in the world, there are lots of folks who basically do as described above. They decide boating looks cool, buy a boat, and get out on the water. Many of them have only a basic understanding of boats and boating safety.

Very few people want to be unsafe, but they lack the knowledge and training to boat safely. In fact, the vast majority of boaters have never taken a basic boating safety course. Whether you own a boat or just ride on someone else's, knowing basic boating safety could save your life.

Compass | Source

When planning your trip, allow 1/3 of your fuel for going out, 1/3 of your fuel for the trip back in, and hold 1/3 of your fuel in reserve "just in case."

You Don't Want This to Be You!

Swamped sailboat
Swamped sailboat | Source
Wrecked houseboat
Wrecked houseboat | Source
Beached boat
Beached boat | Source

Pre-Departure Boating Safety Checklist

No matter what type of boat you operate, there are basic safety precautions you must take. Your safety checks and preparations need to begin before you even launch your boat. In fact, you should start your boating preparations before you even arrive at the marina or hitch your trailer.

  • Check the weather forecast for where you intend to boat. Don't just check the regular weather channel - find the marine forecast to learn about the sea state at your destination. This report tells you about the weather, wind speeds, and wave height. The best place to look is the NOAA site.
  • File a float plan. This does not actually need to be a formal, written plan, nor do you need to file it with authorities. If you operate a private boat, you should not call and bother the Coast Guard with this information. You simply need to make sure someone responsible knows roughly where you intend to boat and how long you plan to be gone. If you are gone far longer than intended, this person can alert the authorities. If you're leaving from a marina, you can leave your itinerary with marina personnel. If you decide to change your plans, call the responsible party and let them know so they don't send out an unnecessary search party.
  • Make certain you have needed safety equipment. It may seem excessive, but there are many things you should carry with you on a boat, even a small one. Required and optional safety gear and other documentation are discussed in detail below.
  • You should always create a pre-departure checklist and go over it as you prepare and launch to ensure you don't forget anything. By creating a pre-underway checklist and following the same procedure each time, you minimize the chances of forgetting an important step. You can create your own, customized checklist, or you can print the checklist provided below.
  • Make sure your navigational lights are operational and flares are up to date. Flares have a shelf life of about three years, so make sure yours are fresh. Out of order navigational lights is a leading cause of boating accidents.
  • Before launching your boat, if it isn't already in the water, make sure you replace the hull/drainage plug. If you fail to secure the hull plug, your boat will sink.

Pre-Departure Checklist

Pre-departure boating safety checklist - feel free to print and use it!
Pre-departure boating safety checklist - feel free to print and use it! | Source

There are many different types of life vest, or PDF. A Type I PFD is the stereotypical big and bulky day-glow vest. It keeps your head above water, even if you are unconscious, and is best for oceangoing trips. A Type III is the vest-style flotation device usually worn by recreational boaters. To stay safe while eliminating the bulk, weight, and warmth of wearing a traditional PFD, purchase an inflatable vest or belt pack. Self-inflating vests deploy automatically when you hit the water, and feel like wearing a belt or pair of suspenders. They are the best way to balance safety and comfort.

Required Boating Safety Equipment and Documentation

Carrying the bare-bones legal requirements does not ensure your safety. Legally-required boating documentation and safety equipment includes:

  • Proper display of registration numbers on the boat's hull.
  • Registration documentation.
  • Pollution placard and MARPOL trash placard, on boats over 26' in length.
  • A navigation rule handbook is required for all boats 39.4' and longer.
  • A personal flotation device, or PFD, for each person on board. These PFDs need to be in good repair and without any fraying. DNR will ticket you for any worn-out or visible damaged PFDs, even if you have adequate PFDs in good repair.
  • You must have at least one fire extinguisher if your boat has any of the following: an inboard engine; a double-bottom hull that is not completely sealed; an enclosed living space; a closed stowage compartment that holds flammable materials; or permanently installed fuel tanks. Boats under 26' in length without outboard motors are not required to have a fire extinguisher.
  • Visual distress signals are required on all boats over 16' long being used on coastal waters or the Great Lakes. These boats must carry a minimum of either three day and three night pyrotechnic signal devices (flares), one day non-pyrotechnic device (flag) and one night non-pyrotechnic device, or some combination of the these devices. For example, you could carry one day-use flag and three pyrotechnic night use devices. Boats on inland waters, and craft under 16', operating between sunset and sunrise must carry night distress signals.
  • Ventilation. All boats constructed in the US after 1 August, 1980 must have a powered ventilation system to remove carbon monoxide gas from the bottom of the boat. If you have an older boat, check its manufacture date and specific ventilation compliance laws.
  • Navigation Lights. All boats 16' or longer must have working navigation lights and an all-around white running light. All craft out between sundown and sunrise must use these lights, and craft, such as PWCs (items like JetSkis and Sea-Doos), that do not have navigational lights are not allowed to operate in the dark.

All of that is just to meet the legal minimum requirements! Your state may have additional laws, so make sure you are in compliance with all local, state, and Federal regulations. As soon as you launch a boat, you have given consent for all law enforcement on the water to stop your boat and conduct a safety check. These marine law enforcement officials do not need probably cause to stop you - they can stop and board you at any time.

If you own a boat longer than 16', I highly recommend you study this more in-depth list of Coast Guard requirements for recreational boaters and penalties for failing to follow the laws.

Does this boat look ready to go?
Does this boat look ready to go? | Source

Recommended Boating Safety Equipment

Chances are good you've heard of Murphy's Law - if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. The boating community has more to say on the matter: when it comes to boating, Murphy was an optimist. When things go wrong on a boat, they usually go wrong dramatically and quickly. The following items can help ensure your safety on the water.

  • Current local charts. While charts are not legally required, if you get in a boating accident and call your insurance company, they will ask if you had charts on board. If you didn't, they will refuse to cover your boat repairs.
  • A first aid kit.
  • A compass.
  • A dewatering device and a backup. Your boat should already have a working bilge pump, but you need an additional dewatering device. This can be a hand pump or a simple bailer. Cut the top off a milk jug to make a convenient, free bailer with a handle, or bring along anything else that can hold water. You can even use a non-mesh ball cap as a dewatering device, in an emergency.
  • Anchor and anchor line. That's right - you are not legally required to have an anchor! A Danforth-type anchor, available at boating stores and big box stores everywhere, is the best all-purpose anchor for most people. You should also carry enough anchor chain and line. The chain and line attached to an anchor is called the rode, and the length of rode is called the scope. You want a 1:7 scope, under normal conditions. This mean that, in 10 feet of water, you would want 70 feet of rode. This may seem like a lot, but the added weight of the rode and it catching along the bottom are crucial to keeping the boat anchored.
  • A marine radio. A cell phone lets you get in touch with one person, and no one else can hear. A marine radio lets you broadcast distress to everyone else with a radio. Marine radios are fairly inexpensive and do not require a special license. Not only do they allow you to communicate with other boaters, shore stations, marinas, and the Coast Guard, but they also allow you to listen for weather alerts.
  • A heaving line. A heaving line is a line that is weighted on one end to make it easier to throw to a man overboard. This weight can be a knot or something else. You can easily make a heaving line from any long line, or you can purchase specialty heaving lines.
  • Signal flares have a shelf life. They generally only last 3-4 years - check yours for an expiration date.

Signal flares have a shelf life. They generally only last 3-4 years - check yours for an expiration date.

Have Fun Boating, but Be Safe!

Boating is tremendous fun, but it is also potentially lethal. 2011 was the deadliest year on the water since 1998 and saw a 14% increase in boating fatalities, compared to 2010. The vast majority of boating fatalities are due to operator/passenger error, and many could have been prevented by better education and preparation. The water seems wide, but boat on boat collisions are the most frequent boating accident. Drownings are the most common cause of boater death, and most drowning victims were not wearing a PFD. For all the stats on all accidental drownings, visit the CDC website.

If any of the terms in this hub are unfamiliar, or you if you want to know more about boating safety for any reason, check for a local Coast Guard Auxiliary flotilla. This volunteer branch of the Coast Guard assists with boater safety and teaches classes on everything from basic boating safety to navigation and PWC operation. If you are passionate about recreational boating safety, consider talking to your local flotilla about membership. Each year, the CGAux saves hundreds of lives and prevents countless accidents through boater education.

An old saying goes "There are bold sailors and old sailors." The two are mutually exclusive. The bold sailors don't live to be old, and the old sailors are well-prepared, well-educated, and cautious. The choice is yours: which would you rather be?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


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    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Hawaii

      I'd guess most of them. By making sure you have an use a life vest, alone, you could prevent most boating-related deaths!

    • Tom Schumacher profile image

      Tom Schumacher 

      6 years ago from Huntington Beach, CA

      Excellent hub and I totally agree, too often people venture out into the water on their boats - rivers, lakes and oceans - completely unaware of the myriad of potential dangers that lie ahead. I found your “Pre-Departure Safety Checklist” very useful. Just as pilots perform pre-flight inspection check lists to ensure their aircraft is functioning at acceptable standards, the same approach to safe boating applies to captains manning their vessels. This procedure is simple and takes merely a matter of minutes to process. I wonder how many boating accidents, injuries and deaths could have been averted had a pre-departure safety checklist been performed?

    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks, mjkearn. When things go wrong on the water, they go wrong in a major way and, sadly, many of these accidents are totally preventable.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Hi Natasha

      Great advice for boaters. Stressing water safety is so important and too many don't see the dangers.

      Great layout and fab engaging writing style. Voted up and ticked.


    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hawaii

      I wish I owned a boat big enough to look impressive if it wrecked!

      Thanks for stopping by and voting.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      7 years ago

      I hope you didn't purposely wreck you boat for this article. If you did, then I have to give you credit for being dedicated and creative! Great list on the preparation for boaters. Voted up.

    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hawaii

      As you know, you usually can't really talk your way out of a ticket on the water, and the fines are a whole lot bigger!

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment!

    • LauraGSpeaks profile image


      7 years ago from Raleigh, NC

      Good information for boat owners. Excellent idea to check the lights before leaving the dock. We got a ticket one July 4th because we had a bulb that had burned out. We won't make that mistake again. Now we have extra bulbs stored on the boat.

    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hawaii

      A non-functioning bilge pump is why a backup dewatering device is always a must! Anything, even a paper cup, can work it you're determined and desperate enough.

      Thanks for stopping by and for sharing.

    • jellygator profile image


      7 years ago from USA

      Very nice. We went out on the lake recently and the boat started taking on water. Worse, the bilge pump wouldn't run. Fortunately, we'd JUST gotten on the water and the guys knew what to do, because I had no idea.

      Voted up and sharing. (Hope they'll read your checklist, too.)

    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hawaii

      Thank you! Yes, I noticed one of yours on sailing. I love sailing, but ever since I quit the racing crew I was on a few years ago due to a general lack of time, I haven't been able to do much. It's amazing how people seem to think anything goes on the water. Unfortunately, a lot of these people damage themselves, others, or property. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Robert Erich profile image

      Robert Erich 

      7 years ago from California

      This is a phenomenal hub. I do a bit of sailing and have seen the value of knowing what to do before sailing away. A lot of stupidity happens when people go out without any experience. I have several articles on sailing and will definitely be linking to this one. Great article and I like your writing in general!

    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hawaii

      Ahahaha. Because boating is fun?

      Canoes and kayaks have to be particularly careful because they are so unstable and difficult for other craft to see. I've capsized in my kayak in a lake. It was November and I wasn't wearing a life jacket (I was also 18 and 18 year olds do dumb things!). I guess I'm lucky to still be around!

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 

      7 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      I own a canoe for sport competition and go training now and then. Always wanted to have smth bigger to ride a wife with me :) Can you tell me why your hub reveales our hidden desires:) ?

    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hawaii

      Hahaha. Right there with you. I work on a boat, but the largest craft I own is a kayak! But this information is really helpful even if you're just a passenger. Mane particularly if you're a passenger, since most know nothing about boating, which elevates their risk.

      Thanks for the comments and votes, amanthkro1.

    • amanthkr01 profile image

      Aman Thakur 

      7 years ago from India

      Very informative hub and must for those who love boating. Voting up and useful!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Radcliff profile image

      Liz Davis 

      7 years ago from Hudson, FL

      Nice organized, informative hub! Now, all I need is a boat.


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