Safe Boating To-Do List Before Getting Underway


Owning watercraft comes with many responsibilities. As a recreational boat operator, you are accountable for your passengers, the vessel, and all actions taken on the water. These duties continue until your boat is securely stored and your passengers are safely ashore.

Here are some tips to prepare and complete a successful outing on the water.

Loading Your Boat When Getting Underway

  • Load Your Vessel Properly 

Before getting underway, it’s important to evenly distribute weight throughout the vessel. You never want to load your vessel in a way that will risk the stability of the craft. Load your equipment and belongings evenly throughout the boat, in a way that will not impair handling or overall operation.

  • Overloading 

It’s also very important to never exceed the vessel’s capacity limits and possibly overload the boat. Overloading will decrease stability and performance. The manufacturer of your boat should recommend a capacity limit, telling you just how much weight and/or people the boat can safely carry. You must follow those guidelines and never exceed the maximum weight limit. Remember that gear and equipment also count against the boat’s capacity. Take that into consideration when loading the watercraft. 

» MORE: How to Prevent Overloading Your Boat

  • Overpowering

The manufacturer will also make a recommendation for engine size. Operators should follow this strictly. While a larger engine may make the boat run faster, it can be extremely dangerous. Every boat is designed to handle a specific amount of weight and corresponding stress. A larger engine will not only add weight and risk overloading the craft, but it will add strain to the steering mechanism. The boat may not be designed to support a larger engine. This can lead to reduced control or loss of control entirely; both of which could cause extremely dangerous circumstances, especially when operating at higher speeds. 

Operator Responsibilities 

Here are some of the duties that fall on the vessel’s operator:

  • Check the local weather broadcasts when getting underway. Watch for any changing conditions and be prepared to head to a safe location if the weather suddenly becomes unfavorable. 
  • Require everyone onboard to wear a life jacket, especially children and non-swimmers. 
  • Don’t allow passengers to sit on the bow or seatbacks when operating at higher speeds. Riding in these areas will increase the risk of falling overboard. This could be cited as reckless operation. 
  • Always abide by the rules of the waterways. 
  • Avoid any unnecessary risks that may harm passengers or property. 
  • Be cognizant of your boat’s position and navigate safely at all times. 
  • Remain aware of the amount of fuel on reserve. 
  • Be comfortable handling the vessel, knowing your turn radius, stopping distance, and optimal cruising speed. 

» MORE: How to Be More Cognizant When Operating Watercraft

Appropriate Fueling Practices 

When you don’t practice proper fueling practices, you risk causing a fire aboard the boat. The fuel vapor is heavier than air, meaning it winds up in the lowest location on the boat (the bilge). This area typically runs through the engine space, making for ongoing risk of explosion.  

However, this risk can be greatly avoided when the right precautions are taken. The following steps outline the accurate way to fuel a boat:

  1. Secure the boat at the dock.
  2. Have all passengers deboard. 
  3. Shut off the engine and all electrical equipment.
  4. Close all ports and hatches. 
  5. Keep the fuel nozzle in direct contact with the fill opening. 
  6. Do not overfill your tank.
  7. Wind the fuel fill cap tightly. 
  8. Wipe away any split fuel.
  9. Check bilges for any leaks.
  10. Open hatches and run the blower for a few minutes to rid any stray vapors. 
  11. If you need to fill portable tanks, do so on the dock, not in the boat. Afterward, secure any portable tanks in an open space. 

It’s important to note that most recreational vessels have fuel tanks that are not easily accessible. Operators should consistently check for any leaks that may have developed. Aluminum fuel tanks are more likely to crack, corrode, and leak. If you suspect any damage to the fuel tank, have it checked by a marine professional. Leakage within the fuel tank is a dangerous accident waiting to happen. 

Marine Radio Communications 

Many recreational boaters rely on cell phones as their primary method of communication on the water. While a cell phone can be helpful in some situations, every pleasure boater should have a dedicated marine communication device onboard at all times.

» MORE: Marine VHF Radio Overview

A marine VHF radio is a wise investment when venturing any distance from shore or to a remote location where a prompt rescue is unlikely. When calling 911 on your cell phone, you could be directed to police or fire departments located on-land, which would delay rescue. Plus, our phones do not have quick-access to rescue boats and aircraft contacts. A marine radio allows you to easily and quickly request assistance or towing services in both emergency and non-emergency situations on the water. It also gives you a direct line of contact to the coast guard and marine police. Your cell phone can supplement a VHF radio but it should not replace it.  

If you frequently venture out to offshore waters beyond the more populated recreational boating areas, the U.S. Coast Guard recommends a digitally selective calling (DSC) marine radio and an Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon (EPIRB) as the main sources of communication. During an immediate emergency and when the safety of those on board is threatened, a distress or mayday call should be used. 

» MORE: Pleasure Boat Registration and Equipment

Coldwater Immersion

For boaters and fishermen that venture out either early or late in the season, water temperatures may be much colder than anticipated. In such cases, boaters should dress for both the water and air temperatures. 

Anyone who is accidentally exposed to those cold temperatures is immediately put in a threatening situation. Coldwater immersion can lead to hyperventilation, involuntary gasping, panic, and possibly even cardiac arrest. As muscles and nerves quickly cool, motor control and swimming abilities will be much harder. 

That’s why it’s extremely important to wear a life jacket when boating in colder temperatures and less populated waters. You should also leave a float plan with a trusted family member or friend, so they can call rescue services if you don’t return when expected. 

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