The golden rules of boating safety

1st March 2021

The ocean, lakes and rivers welcome anyone in. That sense of freedom and adventure we feel when out on the water on a warm, sunny day is unique. Boating can be a lot of fun, as long as you know the main principles behind boating safety.

The water can be dangerous. Wind, waves and currents can stop you from returning to safety, or worse: drown you. Collisions and accidents can happen when the stand-on, or give-way craft doesn’t behave correctly. Prevention is the key.

Having an understanding of how to stay safe on a boat and knowing the right of way rules of boating will help you enjoy the experience even more. You will feel confident you can get out of a sticky situation unscathed, without endangering yourself or others.

We have compiled a list with our safe boating top tips to help you prepare. So, how do you stay safe while boating?

1) Know your limits

Whether it’s your first time going out on the water or the 100th, it’s essential you know your limits. Not every sailor or kayaker has the same level of experience, and that’s fine. Everyone has a right to enjoy the sea and we all start from zero. But we need to recognise our limitations.

Make all your boating decisions based on the level of your knowledge, confidence and experience. If you notice that there’s a current, or the wind seems a little strong, remember that you can always change your plan. When in doubt, it’s best to pull out. You can always opt to paddle or play in the water near the beach, in safety.

2) Bring a buddy as an assistant skipper

Having a friend with you while boating is not just more fun, but also safer. If you feel unwell or get hurt, it’s important that someone on board can take you and the boat to safety. Briefing your buddy on how to start and helm the vessel before going out is essential, as you may be incapacitated and won’t be able to help them. 

It’s tempting to take family and friends out without worrying about emergencies. But these things happen when you least expect them. Having a plan B will make a huge difference.

3) Bring a life jacket, or a non-inflating PFD, approved by your local maritime safety organisation

Depending on the kind of boat you’re taking out, you’ll need to bring a life jacket or non-inflating PFD for all crew members. Make sure all floatation devices fit you and your crew properly before setting off. And don’t forget to test inflating life jackets once a year.

4) Always check the weather beforehand

Being weather-wise is very important for boaters. For the holidaymaker renting a surfboard or sit-on-top kayak for a couple of hours, it can be as simple as asking the lifeguard if it’s safe to go out.  

For boaters who are planning a longer dinghy or kayak session, it’s best to learn how the weather affects the sea. Wind, currents and tides influence the ocean on rainy and sunny days alike. Things can turn unexpectedly and, before you know it, you could be blown out to sea. Check out our guide to interpreting marine weather forecasts. This is an essential skill for all boaters and it’s easier to learn than you may think.

5) Have a boat safety kit on board 

Having the right gear aboard in an emergency is crucial. The kit you need will vary, depending on the type of boat you’re sailing. 

What are the required safety items for a boat? Here are some essential objects all boaters should carry while out at sea:

  1. A first aid kit

  2. A dry bag with sunscreen, a mobile phone, water and food

  3. A sharp knife

  4. A marine whistle or air horn

  5. A life jacket or PFD

  6. A bailer or bucket

  7. Some spares, such as an extra paddle or a toolbox

  8. A flashlight

If you’re looking for more comprehensive safety checklists for PWC, SUP and kayaks, check out our blog.

6) Have a float plan

Whether you’re heading out solo or with a buddy, develop a float plan and share it with family, or a member of staff at the local marina. This ensures that someone will be checking on you. So if the search and rescue service is needed, they will be alerted promptly.

In your float plan, include:

  • Name, address and phone number of all crew

  • Boat type and registration number

  • Your itinerary

  • The types of communication devices and signalling equipment you have on board 

7) Stay sober, avoid alcohol

Whenever you plan to be on or around the water, it’s best to stay sober. This may seem like a big ask, but accidents are more likely to happen to tipsy or drunk people. Every year, intoxicated boaters fall in the water in their local marina. This is extremely dangerous and can lead to drowning. 

If this is not enough to put you off, remember that alcohol can make some people seasick. Think about how miserable it would be to feel sick while you’re meant to be having fun on the water.

8) Check your boat and gear before going out to sea

Every time you go boating, you should go through a pre-departure checklist. This will give you confidence in your craft while you’re out. 

Here's a standard boat safety checklist:

  1. Inspect the hull or board for damage

  2. If the craft has an engine, check that it works fine and there’s cooling water circulation

  3. Check the fuel and oil levels

  4. If there is a bilge on board, make sure it’s reasonably dry

  5. Make sure the safety gear is in good order

  6. Inspect the life jackets to make sure they work correctly

More complicated craft, such as a cruising sailboat, will need a more extensive checklist.

9) Have a man overboard (MOB) plan

Whatever watercraft you’re on, you’ll need to have a plan for a man overboard situation. On an engineless craft, it can be as simple as being able to swim towards the boat or board, and climbing back on. If you’re out with a friend, you’ll both need to know what to do in this situation. 

For a boat with an engine, you’ll need to wear a kill cord, so the engine dies as you hit the water. Once the engine is off, you can approach the craft and climb back on board.

On bigger vessels, where it’s not possible to climb back on board by yourself, or use a kill cord, the procedure is a little more complicated. 

A standard MOB drill involves the following steps:

  1. Shout “man overboard”

  2. Press the MOB button on the chart plotter

  3. Throw a lifebuoy and dan buoy towards the MOB

  4. Mark the MOB with a buoyant smoke flare

  5. Have a crew member keep an eye on the MOB at all times

  6. Send a DSC distress alert and a Mayday on the VHF

  7. Get the throwing line ready

  8. Bring the boat alongside the MOB, pointing into the wind and with the engine in neutral

  9. Get a line around the MOB and help them to get back on board

10) Follow the correct anchoring and docking procedures

Anchoring and docking can be stressful manoeuvres, especially for beginner boaters. Learning best practices for both situations will keep you and other boaters safe. 

A dragging vessel can crash into another boat, while a craft out of control in a marina can damage a dock. And of course there could be people on the boat or dock, trying to help you, who could get injured.

If you hang out in a marina long enough on a weekend, you’ll see many of these situations. Make sure you learn how to anchor and dock your boat properly during your first few trips. If you’re unsure on how to do this, check out our guide to anchoring.

11) Know the nautical rules of the road

The rules of the road are different on the sea. If you just plan to paddle on an engineless watercraft near a beach, all you need to know is to stay well clear of swimmers, the beach and rocks.

However, if you want to venture further, you’ll need to learn the nautical rules of the road. If you come across a boat, you’ll need to know what’s expected of you. Otherwise, you will confuse the captain of the other vessel. The rules change based on whether you are motoring, paddling or sailing. 

Common boating safety questions 

What side do you pass a boat on?

When overtaking, you can pass to the port (left) or starboard (right). However, if you can, you should pass the boat on the starboard side. When in a channel or tight space, you must keep to starboard.

Above all, you need to stay well clear of other boats and always give way to ships. The bigger the craft, the less maneuverable it is. So give them plenty of space. Rules for passing sailboats change, based on whether they are under sail or not. For motorboats, the vessel approaching from starboard has right of way.

How dangerous is boating?

Boating can be dangerous, as it can lead to drowning or being blown out to sea. However, if you follow our boat safety tips and act responsibly, you vastly reduce these risks. The biggest mistake you can make is to underestimate the ocean and oversee safety protocols. Always follow the local regulations - they are designed to keep you safe.

What is the best boat to buy for a beginner?

If you’re a beginner boater, the best boat you can get is the one you can afford to buy and maintain to a high standard. That said, if you want to purchase a vessel with an engine, it’s best to start small, while you build experience. A smaller craft will be less stressful to dock and anchor and a smaller engine will give you more time to think things through. Plus, it’s cheaper to purchase and run.

Boating safety resources

Remember: safe boating requirements change based on where you are. This affects the gear you need to have on board, as well as the licensing and documents you need to sail. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to check your country or state’s safe boating resources. These will reflect the local regulations.

Here’s some helpful resources for safe boating:

Boat safety course: Should you take it?

If you’re planning on going out boating regularly, it might be a good idea to take a boating safety course. These are offered by the BoatUS Foundation in America, BoatEd in Canada, and the RYA in the UK. In Australia, the same concepts are covered on boat license courses. 

Taking a boating safety course will make you feel more confident while out on the water, especially if you plan on taking your kids with you.

Please make sure you research the regulations for mandatory equipment and maintenance of the watercraft you intend to use where you are. These vary in each state and country.