Back to Basics . . .
Boating Safety should be the business of everyone that plans to spend time on the water.
You might guess that someone who’s spent as many years as I have working for the S.C Department of Natural Resources would be an expert boater, but you’d be wrong. Growing up, my family didn’t own a boat, and when we got the chance to go out fishing or riding on the lake, it was generally with someone else — friends or extended family. Later in life, even though boating held some interest for me, there was always something else that was more of a priority to spend the time and money on. So, boating experiences were fairly few and far between, and almost always involved someone else at the controls. That’s actually the case for many adults who take up boating later in life, and for those folks in particular, a solid grounding in the basics of safe boating is key to enjoying their new hobby.
So count me in that group for sure. Now that I live in the beautiful Lowcountry, surrounded by as amazing a collection of rivers, creeks, estuaries and sounds as can be found anywhere, not to mention the open ocean, I’m determined to become a competent boater — beginning with kayaks — and working my way up to powerboats eventually. And at the risk of damaging my “macho” image (somewhere my wife is laughing) I’ll admit to you that this is, for me, a little bit daunting. Boating, especially in coastal waters where tide is a factor, is a challenging business. But everything can be learned, right?….a thousand mile journey begins with a single step, and all that stuff . . .
Plus which, my suspicion that I’m far from alone was immediately confirmed when I signed up for an SCDNR-sponsored boater safety class. My first step on the journey from landlubber to confident boat operator began one week ago in a classroom with SCDNR Sgt. Denetta Dawson and a group of about a dozen or so other folks, many of whom were in the same “boat” as me (ha!).
“I’ll try to be as basic as possible, this course is designed for novices,” said Dawson, right out of the gate, and she wasn’t kidding. This course is all about the fundamental aspects of safe operation. But, if you’ve “been driving a boat for years” and think taking this class would be a waste of your time, think again. Just like getting behind the wheel of a car, everyone needs to know the rules of the road, and even the most experienced can use a refresher in the fundamentals.
It's true, adult boaters aren’t required to take the 4-5-hour class offered for FREE by the SCDNR and other organizations. (Only those under the age of 16 must have completed an approved safety course to operate a motorized boat or personal watercraft with an engine of greater than 15 horsepower in South Carolina waters.) However, as we learned in class, everyone, even seasoned boaters, can learn something new (as well as potentially getting a break on their boater’s insurance) by taking this class. Ours was a diverse group, ranging in age from high-school-age students to inexperienced adults like myself, as well as several adult boaters with years of experience, and we were all able to gain something valuable from the class.
For instance, did you know that the “draft” of a vessel — the minimum amount of water they can operate in safely — averages around 18 inches for most small boats? An exception is small sailboats, which are more likely to have a draft of three 3 feet or more due to their keels. That may sound like a meaningless “factoid,” but in our class, that bit of information led to a very useful tip for coastal boaters. When operating a vessel in coastal waters at low tide, pay attention to moored sailboats — you’ll often see them listing to one side, an indication that their keel is touching bottom, i.e., the water is getting very shallow. Crab pots can also be an indicator of shallow water. If you can see the top of one of those large, square mesh crab traps peeking out of the water, be extra careful!
In fact, many of the tips shared in the safety class boil down to that one thing: It is extremely important for the operator of any vessel on the water — from a stand-up paddle board (yes, they are considered vessels by the U.S. Coast Guard) to the slickest inboard cabin cruiser — to keep a sharp lookout at all times. It simply can’t be repeated often enough. When entrusted with the responsibility of operating a vessel, you MUST keep a sharp lookout at all times for:
- Shoreline conditions and floating or submerged obstacles
- Your passengers (particularly if towing water skiers or tubes).
- Other vessels
Know the Rules of the Road:
In a boating situation where other vessels are approaching — either head-on, from behind or from your right or left, do you know which vessel is the “stand on” and which is the “give way” vessel in every scenario you might likely encounter?
Think fast! It’s night, you’re headed back to the dock with several passengers after a long day of cruising the lake and a vessel ahead of you is crossing from your left. Quick! What color lights should you be seeing and what should you do? Are you confident that you would remember the right choice when seconds count? If not, then taking this class as a refresher could literally save your life or someone else’s.
Just recently, a tragic accident that resulted in fatalities on one of South Carolina’s major lakes occurred when the operator of one vessel failed to “give way” to another vessel that was approaching from his right. The drivers of both vessels both had years of boating experience, but in that moment, when it was most critical, one of them failed to make the right decision.
If you guessed that you should be seeing a green and a white light, and that the other vessel should “give way” (by slowing down and crossing behind your craft) you answered correctly, but is that the only consideration? What if the other craft’s lights aren’t functioning properly? What if that vessel’s driver fails to slow down as he should?
In those cases, the “right” answer isn’t simply a matter of which craft must give way and which can “stand on” (continue on its same path). As Sgt. Dawson emphasized to the class, it’s imperative for BOTH operators to keep a good lookout. Even the operator of the stand on vessel should always be prepared to give way if for some reason the approaching “give way” vessel doesn’t react as expected. Again, the key lesson here is awareness. Lights and rules of navigation are good, but if something doesn’t go as intended, it’s “keeping a sharp lookout” that may prevent a collision.
If “maintain a sharp lookout” is the first rule of safe operation, then “maintain a safe speed” comes in a close second. Excessive speed – going faster than visibility or conditions should dictate -- is also a major factor in many boating accidents.
Here’s another tip that could save your life (or at the very least a ton of aggravation): Always file a float plan before going out on the water.
Where you are planning to go (and spot you are leaving from)? Who will be with you? What is your anticipated time of return? Write this information down and leave this with a spouse or friend with an agreed upon “call-in” time. If you haven’t made contact with them by the appointed time, call the SCDNR hotline; 1-800-922-5431.
Boating Accidents by the numbers:
Over the last five decades, South Carolina has made great progress in reducing boating-related fatalities. In 1973 there were sixty-four fatalities as a result of recreational boating accidents in the state, and at the time, only 128,000 power boats were registered statewide. Today, the number of boats operating on the same waterways has nearly tripled (more than 382,000 registered today), plus the growing popularity of SUPs and kayaks means that more people than ever before are sharing our coastal and inland waters. Despite that, annual fatalities have decreased dramatically. An increase in law enforcement personnel and better laws like the Boating Safety Act of 1996, can take some of the credit for that amazing decrease, but the SCDNR’s concentrated efforts on emphasizing boater safety, along with the widespread availability of FREE education classes statewide, has also played a major role in that reduction.
So whether you are new to boating like me, or an “old pro,” you should consider spending just one afternoon off the water and in the classroom with the SCDNR. It’s a decision that could save your life, or the life of someone you know.