May is Safe Boating Month, likely owing this mid-Spring honor to the start of boating season in northern climates. Unlike South Florida where we boat year round, places like Michigan and Wisconsin have a more limited boating season from mid-Spring to early Fall, allowing only 4-5 months for the typical boater to enjoy time in the water. As a Miami native and life-long boater, I consistently find myself on the water in shorts or a bathing suit the week between Christmas and New Year’s.
Unfortunately, Safe Boating Month started with the wrong kind of a “bang” when two small boats collided off Key Biscayne, Florida. Why they collided and who was at fault is unclear, as is the extent of the injuries sustained by those onboard. This likely preventable accident serves as a reminder of the need not to be dismissive of the risks and dangers of boating and to recognize and account for them. As we return to the “New Normal” in South Florida, including for many of us who keep or launch boats in public marinas and were unable to go out the past few months, it is time to review a few safe boating tips.
Watch Where You Are Going
In boating parlance this is often referred to as keeping a close lookout. It’s no different than what we must do when walking, riding a bike, or driving a car: pay attention to what’s ahead and around you. Some boaters seem to think there are no rules on the water. They operate as though they are the only boat, disregarding the “rules of the road”. This past weekend I had the dubious “pleasure” of leaving my marina twice within the span of just over an hour, following a quick return to the dock for an unanticipated repair. On both occasions while idling out the channel with my boat all the way over to the right side as required, I encountered an approaching boat, heading straight toward me. In each instance the driver was not paying attention, the first looking all around in his boat, and the second looking at his cell phone. As each boat got dangerously closer to colliding head-on, I sounded the horn, and each driver looked up, startled and immediately adjusted course – one shaking his fist at me to express his displeasure. Just as there is no excuse for inattentive and distracted automobile driving, there is no excuse for inattentive and distracted boating, especially in a constrained, often crowded waterway such as a channel or canal where maneuverability is limited.
Know the Rules
You can’t boat safely unless you know the rules. There really aren’t that many and most make common sense (we post basic safe boat handling rules on our website, and you can review them by clicking here). For example, the United States Coast Guard sets minimum standards for recreational vessels and safety equipment onboard. One of the mandatory equipment requirements is to have one (1) wearable life jacket available for each person on board. Their requirement is backed up by substantial evidence. According to the 2018 Recreational Boating Statistics released by the U.S. Coast Guard, where cause of death was known, 77% of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims 84% were not wearing a life jacket. The simple act of wearing a properly fitting life jacket would drop the number of boating fatalities precipitously.
Another example is the rule on crossing boats in a waterway. Just like a car driving on a roadway, a boat should stay to the right as if there were an imaginary line dividing lanes between boats heading toward one another. A crossing boat (also known as the stand-on vessel) is one traveling a perpendicular path from the right (i.e. crossing the bow from the right side of the boat to the left). The stand-on vessel has the right of way. An overtaking boat (also known as the give-way vessel) should advise the stand-on vessel that it is going to overtake it, and pass the vessel with due regard for its course and speed, yielding as necessary for safety.
Not to be outdone, one of the most important rules for boaters is the Last Clear Chance Doctrine. The doctrine imposes on all boaters an obligation to try to avoid collision whether they have right of way or not.
Familiarize Yourself With Your Vessel
Whether you are a life-time boater or a beginner, one of the most critical safe boating tips to follow is to be familiar with the operation of your type of boat. Not all boats are the same. Understanding how it operates is an important first step towards safety. Smaller, lighter boats and personal watercraft handle very differently than larger, heavier craft. Jet propulsion and outboards handle differently than inboards. Single engine vessels operate differently than twin, triple or quad configurations. Safety equipment varies in type and location by boat, and being familiar with yours and knowing how to use it in an emergency is essential. The stress of an emergency is the wrong time to try and “figure out” where safety equipment is and how it works.
We are a South Florida based trial law firm, specializing in maritime and admiralty law, including boating accidents and injuries. Over almost 35 years of law practice, and over 50 years of boating, I have seen first-hand the benefits of adhering to these safe boating tips (amongst others) and the catastrophic consequences of ignoring them. Don’t become a victim. Take the time to review your boat and how to stay safe before leaving the dock.