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7 Ways To Avoid Boating Accidents

The GEICO | BoatUS Marine Insurance claims files are full of incidents that likely could have been avoided by spending a little time upgrading ... the skipper!

On-the-water training

On-water training courses are a great way to learn or refresh skills. (Photo: Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore)

Our decades of experience as a recreational boat insurer means that here at GEICO | BoatUS Marine Insurance, our in-house experts know that things like leaking thru-hulls and sloppy electrical work are what often lead to insurance claims. But we also see too many claims that could have been avoided by improving the skills of the operator. To see what we mean, try answering these quick quiz questions:

1. What is the safest thing to do for someone suspected of having hypothermia?
a. Give them a warm alcoholic beverage
b. Massage the body to circulate blood
c. Get immediate medical attention
d. Apply hot towels to the head to thin the blood

2. How does alcohol use affect boat operators or passengers?
a. Physical reactions become slower
b. Depth perception becomes sharper
c. Reasoning ability becomes quicker
d. Balance and sense of direction improve

3. Which of the following is considered a safe refueling practice?
a. Closing all hatches and doors while ­refueling
b. Turning your key on to operate the fuel gauge
c. Sending all passengers below while ­refueling
d. Using the hands-free automatic shutoff to avoid spills

4. U.S. Coast Guard regulations require that a 14-foot powerboat carry which of the following items between sunset and sunrise?
a. Power horn and bell
b. Garbage placards
c. Navigation lights
d. Navigation handbook

5. Which of the following is a requirement for life jackets?
a. They must be properly sized for the intended wearer
b. They must be stored safely in a watertight bag
c. They must provide miles-per-hour impact
d. They must be orange or other highly ­visible color

6. Which of the following is recommended when docking with wind and the current?
a. Whenever possible, approach the dock with the wind and the current
b. Have your fenders and docklines ready before you approach the dock
c. Have crew positioned to physically fend off the dock
d. Prepare two docklines; any more than that will get tangled

How'd you do? (See answers at the end of this article.) Those were based on some simple sample questions asked in our BoatUS Foundation Safety Course, most based on real-life situations that resulted in real accidents found in our claims files. This winter, as you're thinking of projects for next year, consider adding the following simple items to improve your skills. You'll reduce your risk of accidents and become a better and safer boater.

Challenge Your Knowledge

Last spring, an inexperienced boater took eight fishing buddies out in his new boat on Pamlico Sound. Unfortunately, the boat was only rated to carry six and, in what was described as fairly calm waters, the boat capsized, throwing the men in the water. Worse, there were only life jackets for four. The men survived by clinging to the upturned boat until rescued. If the water had been a little colder, the story could have had a tragic ending.

U.S. Coast Guard statistics show that in accidents that involve injuries or fatalities, the majority of operators had no formal boating education. By contrast, only 6% of fatalities involved operators who had taken a state-approved online boating safety course. Do the math and you'll see why taking a course can make you a safer boater. Free online boating safety courses that meet requirements for most states are available from our BoatUS Foundation. Take it a step further and check out the Foundation's other courses, including Weather for Boaters, AIS for Boaters, Propane Systems on your Boat, and even Learn to Sail. In all, there are 14 more courses in addition to the state approved training.

Other organizations offering training include the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, which includes courses for children, knot-tying, and more. America's Boating Club (formerly U.S. Power Squadrons) offers classroom instruction on subjects such as piloting as well as engine maintenance and electrical-system courses. If you really want to dig deep into the systems on your boat, the American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC) offers advanced courses like outboard and sterndrive corrosion and propeller selection and sizing.

Hone Your On-The-Water Skills

Last time we looked at our top 10 insurance claims, collisions came in at No. 3. While many collisions are serious, such as a few high-profile ones in the 2019 season that ended in fatalities, most are low-speed encounters with a dock or another boat while maneuvering, often caused by inexperience at the helm. Most of us took driver's ed to learn to drive a car and hopefully not hit things in a parking lot, but there's been no such thing for boaters.

Until now. Here's an easy way to get some hands-on training with experts in order to fine-tune your maneuvering skills. BoatUS offers on-water powerboat training courses at locations around the country. Courses include Intro to Boating (for both single-engine and twin-screw vessels), Women Making Waves (same as Intro to Boating, but for female students only), and Precision Docking and Boat Handling. Courses are typically three hours long and affordably priced around $149 per person. Boats and safety gear are included in the cost of all courses.

The Precision Docking and Boat Handling course covers 180-degree turnarounds, docking on both port and starboard sides, departing from a dock, and how to use the SCAN (Search, Concentrate, Analyze, and Negotiate) method to anticipate and avoid potential collision situations. Class sizes are limited to four students per vessel, ensuring students gets sufficient time at the helm under the watchful eye of a U.S. Coast Guard-certified instructor.

Kick Back And Watch Videos

A recent insurance claim came from the new owner of a 34-foot single-engine trawler who turned down a long, narrow fairway in an unfamiliar marina, looking for a transient slip. At the end, the skipper realized he was in the wrong part of the marina and needed to turn around. Never having done it before, he tried spinning the boat around with a flurry of wheel and too much throttle. Before he'd gotten out of the fairway, five boats had received varying amounts of damage.

BoatUS YouTube videos

BoatUS offers more than 100 free videos.

If you can't take a hands-on course, you can still visit our YouTube channel or our YouTube playlist for our (free) comprehensive library of more than 100 BoatUS videos on nearly every boating subject — including exactly how to make a pivot turn in a marina. They're concise and educational, and presented by our own experts — BoatUS editors and instructors who are knowledgeable, clear teachers.

Stay Out Of Hot Water

If you're like most of us, you've got dozens of boating books in your library. When was the last time you opened one? With the winter wind blowing, now is a good time to take one out and expand your knowledge. Chapman Piloting and Seamanship is one of the best reference books a boater can have, but until you read, for example, Chapter 6 on anchoring, or Chapter 11 on rough weather, this engrossing book is not helping you.

While the title might sound dry, the Amalgamated International and U.S. Inland Navigation Rules (commonly known as the "Rules of the Road" for boating) covers regulations and requirements for boaters, with topics such as sound signals, passing and overtaking other boats, and required safety equipment. (Pop quiz: Does two horn blasts from another boat mean they want to pass to starboard or port?) In fact, if your boat is more than 39 feet long, you're required to have a copy of the rules onboard, something that a skipper cruising with his family last year in Puget Sound on their 45-foot sailboat learned after being boarded and fined for not having one (among other things). It's a fantastic reference if you want to review such things as when to have a lookout (Rule 5), regulations for sailing vessels (Rule 12), and even the lights used when a boat is minesweeping (Rule 27). (Answer: Two short blasts means "I intend to leave you on my starboard side." Part of Rule 34)

Crack Open Your Manuals

Chapmans Piloting and Seamanship cover

A couple of years ago, our BoatUS Consumer Affairs department received a call from a member wanting to know where to buy a manual for his new-to-him Mercruiser sterndrive. The reason? The winter after he bought the boat, he winterized it the way he always had on his last boat, also a Mercruiser sterndrive. But the new engine had two additional drains that he overlooked, which caused the block to crack over the winter as the trapped water froze. That problem could have been avoided by reading the manual.

Most of us see the pile of manuals that come with our boats and gear, read the quick-start summaries, and never give it another thought until something goes very expensively wrong and it's too late. Well, winter is a great time to pull out the manuals for your engine, VHF, chartplotter, and more. Learn how to use all the features on your radio, radar, GPS, and other gear. At best, you'll learn something that saves the day next season; at the least, you'll make sure your boat and gear are serviced in accordance with manufacturer recommendations and remain under warranty.

Learn Some Knots

While they might not save your life, knowing how to tie a few knots and hitches might save you a lot of grief. Every year, GEICO | BoatUS Marine Insurance gets several claims for dinghies that went missing while being towed, for boats that were banged up by dock rash when a dockline came off, and for boats blown ashore when a mooring pendant let loose. What do these claims have in common? Incorrect or inadequate knot-tying.

Over the years, riggers and seamen devised hundreds of knots, bends, hitches, and splices, all for good reason. Because docklines as well as most of the sail-control lines on sailboats are made of rope, you still need to master a few basic but versatile knots to take care of your crew and your boat. Making sure a dockline stays on the piling with the right hitch can help you sleep better at night. Being able to tie the right knot, bend, or hitch in the dark, quickly, can save your bacon time and again. This winter, practice the square knot, bowline, clove hitch, sheet bend, and reef knot — until you can do them at speed with your eyes closed.

Take A First-Aid Course

If one of your guests falls and hits his or her head on your boat, would you know what to do? How about if one of your crew develops heat exhaustion? Or has chest pains? Unfortunately, panic during these frightening situations, and an understandable focus on the injured individual, often lead to a cascade of other problems. According to our files, claims for damage (and sometimes liability claims for injuries that weren't properly addressed) result. The more you and your crew know about how to treat someone who's hurt, the better.

Read this article to learn what items you should have in your boat's first-aid kit.

Dreaming of summer cruises doesn't usually include fishhook-impaled fingers, sunburn, or sprained ankles, but we all know stuff happens on the water. Having a first-aid kit is great, but you need to know how to use what's in it, and how to respond if there's a medical emergency onboard. Having a course under your belt will take away much of the stress of an emergency as well as make it more likely your crew (or you) will quickly recover.

The Red Cross offers first-aid and CPR courses around the country, and you can also find American Heart Association courses specifically for boaters that cover extras like carbon monoxide exposure, hypothermia, electric shock drowning (ESD) and seasickness.

Answers: 1: C, 2: A, 3: A, 4: C, 5: A, 6: B

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Charles Fort

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

Charles Fort is BoatUS Magazine's West Coast Editor. He often writes local news items for BoatUS Magazine's Waypoints column and contributes to Reports, in-depth tech features in every issue written to help readers avoid accidental damage to their boats. He is a member of the National Association of Marine Surveyors, he's on ABYC tech committees, and has a 100-ton U.S. Coast Guard license. He lives in California.