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Gulf & Bay

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Boat safety

Text by Shar Fillingham & Teresanne Cossetta
Illustrations by Teresanne Cossetta

Labor Day weekend is the perfect holiday to celebrate owning a boat. Invitations to friends and family for a sunset cruise or anchoring up to your favorite barrier island to fish. Before this weekend starts, all boaters amateur or experienced should take the time to review a few basics in boating safety. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 80 percent of boating fatalities are due to persons not wearing life jackets. Don’t let you or your passengers become a statistic:

graphicBefore leaving the dock
Check the weather forecast.
Check all personal gear: UV sunglasses, sun screen, hat, cash and photo ID. Safety equipment: Life jackets, throwable cushion, ladder, first aid kit, flares, flashlight, cell phone and VHF radio. Vessel equipment: GPS, radar, lines, boat hook, anchor and batteries.
Check fluid and fuel levels.
Stock plenty of drinking water and food for the day.
File a trip plan with friends or family. Not with the USCG.
Make sure everyone on board is familiar with vessel and safety equipment.
Regular engine maintenance to lessen problems.

graphicEngine will not start,cold start
Check that the choke is pulled out and the throttle is open.
Ask yourself a few questions: Is the “kill switch” in place? Is the engine in neutral? Is the battery charged? Does the boat need fuel?
If the fuel tank is vented, check to make sure it is open.
Check to see if the fuel pump bulb is firm and if the arrow is pointing toward the engine.

Engine will not start, warm start
Smell gasoline fumes? Flooded engine. Let the fumes evaporate, close the choke and open the throttle.
Ask yourself a few questions: Is the “kill switch” in place? Is the engine in neutral? Is the battery charged? Does the boat need fuel?

graphicWatch for bad weather
Check local weather and tides.
Make sure you’re back to port by mid afternoon to avoid late afternoon storms.
Keep your VHF radio turned on, to listen for weather changes.
Lightning can strike from as far as 25 miles away, head to port at the first sign.
Watch skies all day for storm clouds and for water spouts.
At first sign of trouble all aboard should put on life jackets.
Lower anchor with 10:1 scope.

graphicCaught in a storm
Have all on boat put on life jackets. On a sailboat, fasten safety harnesses to a jackline.
Steer into each wave at a 45 degree angle. Use extreme caution if taking waves on your stern or broadside.
Secure hatches and ports. On a sailboat, reduce size of sails.
On a small boat, move passengers to the bottom and centerline of boat.
Check bilges to make sure the boat is not taking on water. Small boats may require hand bailing.
Anchor with a 10:1 scope if you cannot make it to port.
If water is too deep to anchor, create one: a bucket, cooler or tackle box on a line. This will keep the bow headed into waves.
During poor visibility turn on navigation lights, sound proper signals, post a low lookout on the bow and stern, then proceed slowly to port.

graphicAvoid running aground
Check local tides, printed weekly on Fridays in The Times Sports section and monthly in Gulf & Bay. Know if you are boating at high tide or low tide.
Do not try taking a short cut.
Familiarize yourself with navigational channel markers.
Watch that you are traveling in the channel, by checking in front of you and behind.
Watch the color of the water. The darker blue the deeper the water but brown usually means ground.

graphicTaking on water
Immediately turn off engine and check hull for damage.
Stay put, and have all on boat put on life jackets.
Use Channel 16 on the VHF radio to contact a tow company.

Not taking on water
After turning off engine and checking for damage, raise outboard engine.
During a rising tide, wait for higher water before starting engine. Falling tide, work quickly to free boat. Anyone pushing boat must wear a life jacket.
Place passengers and gear in the stern of the boat.
If available, carry an anchor to deeper water using a dinghy. Pull boat off the sandbar by pulling the boat to the anchor.
Sailboat, move passengers and heavy gear to low side of the boat. Wait for high tide.
Use Channel 16 on the VHF radio to contact a tow company.

graphicPrevent a man overboard situation
Wear life jackets during inclement weather.
Everyone on board should be wearing deck-gripping shoes. Do not let anyone go barefoot.
Keep your weight low and close to centerline.
Do not ride on bow, gunwales or transoms.
Children should wear life jackets at all times above cabin.
Practice man overboard recovery drills.
Stock proper equipment: life rings, throwable cushions, boat hooks.

graphicMan overboard!
Shout “MAN OVERBOARD” then identify which side of the boat the person fell over.
The “spotter’s” sole responsibility from this time on is to never lose sight of the person in the water and to keep pointing.
In a powerboat, immediately kill the engine to check that the prop will not injure the person.
Sailboats, turn into the wind.
Start engine and go back to pick up the person in the water.
Approach the person on the leeward side, the wind will blow the person in the water to you.
Kill engine again, as you approach. Use a ladder or bring up person over the stern.

Capsized boat
Always stay with the boat! Account for every person, check if they have life jackets.
Tie everyone together, hug to maintain body heat and make noise and whistle. If hull sinks hold on to any floating object.

graphicAvoid running on empty
Know fuel capacity and range limits of your boat with a full tank.
Always depart with a full tank.
Remember 1/3 tank to go out; 1/3 to return to port and 1/3 in reserve for emergencies.

Potential fire hazards
Keep your boat bilges clean.
Check electrical system, regularly.
Turn on blowers before starting engine.
Keep cabin doors and hatches closed while fueling boat.
Ground fuel nozzle against the fill pipe to eliminate potential sparks while fueling.
Sniff for fumes or vapors.
Store fuel containers topside.

Out of fuel
Everyone on boat should put on life jackets.
Put down anchor.
Determine position on GPS.
Use Channel 16 on the VHF radio to contact a tow company or service station.
Follow same procedures for prop and mechanical failures.

graphicFire on board
Notify all on board to the location of the fire and to put on life jackets.
Turn boat into the wind, then turn off all fuel sources.
Notify the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16 or 22.
Use fire extinguisher to put out fire, if available.
Oxygen increases fire, so do not open engine-room hatch if fire is in engine compartment.
Do not try to extinguish fire if there is any doubt to the possibility. Get everyone off and as far away as possible, in case of an explosion.

graphicPrevent a collision
Most collisions are caused by high speeds, boating under the influence, loss of concentration or driver becoming distracted.
Most occur under the operation of experienced operators, during the day, on weekends and in good weather.
Study the rules of navigation.
Take certified training classes.

Medical safety
Know passengers’ medical histories and identify potential concerns before departing.
Know how to perform CPR.
Maintain a first-aid kit on board.

graphicInvolved in a collision
Check on and account for all passengers on both boats.
Everyone on boat should put on life jackets.
Determine position on GPS.
Assess degree of damage to hulls and vessels. Will they stay afloat and can repairs be made?
File a collision report to the U.S. Coast Guard if damages are over $5,000.

Medical emergency
If a serious accident or if an emergency arises where no one is qualified to render medical assistance, send out a radio distress on VHF Channel 16.
Alert onshore personnel that a victim will be brought to the nearest port. Give estimated time of arrival, name of port, name of victim along with the symptoms, operator’s name and name of vessel.

graphicAnchoring challenges
Keep in mind these key factors: depth, type of bottom, weather patterns and location (do not obstruct channels).
Setting anchor
Put out enough scope (vertical distance from bow of vessel to bottom of seabed). 5:1 in calm conditions to 10:1 in severe conditions. Take consideration of the rise and fall of the tide.
Anchor against the wind or current, whichever is stronger.
Put engine in idle, lower anchor – NEVER throw it out. Let the line out slowly.
Do not use throttle of your engine, let the boat drift with the wind or current.
Fasten line by tying off on bow cleat. Wait to make sure the anchor is holding.
Retrieving anchor
Identify where the anchor rode is lying.
Slowing in idle, approach the anchor position.
If anchor is deeply embedded, it may be necessary to snub the rode around the bow cleat; move the boat forward.
Keep the rode away from props and rudders.
If anchor cannot be broken free, CUT THE LINE! Do not send someone down to free it.

VHF Marine Radio
“Very high frequency” electronic communication and direction finding system. Here are a few of the commonly used channels:
Channel 6: Intership safety communications.
Channel 9: In Florida, used to call bridges and hailing.
Channel 13: Navigational purposes.
Channel 16: Distress and safety calls and hailing.
Channel 22: U.S. Coast Guard and the maritime public.
Channel 24, 28: Public phone calls.
Channel 68, 69, 71, 72: Recreational vessel radio and ship to coast.
Channel 70: Alert channel.

Everyone 21 years old or younger is required to complete a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) boater education course to operate most boats. The FWC encourages all boaters to take a safe-boating course. Information is available at
For information on safe boating courses, call:
The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary at 1-800-336-2628
The U.S. Power Squadron at 1-888-367-8777.

graphicPersonal water craft
PWCs by definition are boats operated by someone sitting, standing or kneeling on a vessel, not inside one.
Safety gear
Personal Flotation Device, Type 3 (considered most comfortable) worn by operator and each passenger.
Goggles protect eyes from glare and spray, SPF lotion, booties or water socks to maintain footing, gloves to control grip and a wet suit to avoid hypothermia.
Required to have onboard: flashlight (it is illegal to operate at night, but required for emergencies), first-aid kit, and whistle.
Maintain fuel and oil levels, check for fuel leaks, ventilate engine compartment (leave open for a few minutes prior to start-up) and all PWCs should have a backfire flame arrestor to avoid engine fires.

Basic rules
Follow the nautical rules of the road, obey all markers and signs.
Be sure you are a competent swimmer, watch your distance from the shore.
Always keep a 360 degree perspective, don’t focus just on what is in front. Watch for water skiers, swimmers and vessels.
Avoid erratic turns, turn slowly.
High-speed operation in very shallow water can churn up debris causing damage to the engine and can hurt bystanders.
The higher the speed, the more distance needed between you and the other boaters. Give extra clearance to sailboats.
A lanyard cord must be connected to the terminal then to your wrist or life jacket. This device shuts down the engine if you fall off.
Bring a portable radio and keep it tuned in for local weather updates.
At the first sign of bad weather, head for the safest shore. Head into the waves at about a 45° angle. Stay with your PWC if trouble arises, rescuers will notice it before a swimmer’s head in the water.
Running aground can damage your PWC, get to know your waterways.
Respect the public, noise carries farther in water, avoid residential areas.