Boater Safety Tips

With the summer in full swing already (which you probably noticed with the temperatures rising to record highs), there are a lot of people ready to hit the water early. Of course, this includes getting you, your friends, and your family out onto the boat for some summer fun. Since it’s been about a year since many of us have been able to use a boat, there are some important things to remember, with safety being the top priority.

There are reportedly over 800,000 registered boats in Michigan (second by the state only to California) because of the many lakes and rivers, totaling more than 1,300 that are available to the public. In the state, during the year 2020 alone, however, there were nearly 160 boating accidents reported. Of these, more than 70 people were injured and more than 30 people died while creating over $2.2 million in property damage.

Before you take the boat out for the first time, here are some of the essential tips that you need to know about boating safety:


Skiing and Tubing Safety

Two of the biggest pastimes that we have in Michigan while out on the lake are water skiing and inner tubing. While they can be a lot of fun, they can also create some unsafe situations so it’s best to know what you’re getting into before starting. A lot of the people that you’ll see doing this on the water are doing it for the first time, so always have someone on your boat to keep an eye on boats with skiers and tubers traveling behind them.

If you plan to be the one with the boat that’s carrying skiers and tubers, having that extra person to keep an eye on your own will be vital. This person helps to notify the driver when a skier or tuber falls into the water so that they can slow down, turn the boat around and safely pick them up. When picking up speed, a boat can be very loud, so it will be important for this person to know good hand signals. Be prepared beforehand and you’ll be able to pull people along safely.

It should also go without saying that your rider should be wearing a life jacket, but there are other tips to know about. When you’re pulling someone that’s trying it out for the first time, don’t try to push their limits. The person could be very nervous, especially if it’s a child. Take it easy on them and don’t try to send them flying on a big wave and go slow around the turns (no matter what the rider’s experience level is).

Finally, the equipment itself is important. Know the capacity in terms of weight and amount of people for each tube beforehand. The tow line should also be secured very tightly, and try to avoid pulling more than one skier or tuber at a time. Many serious injuries have been caused by collisions between the two, so it’s best to just go one by one instead.


Always Have a Plan

Just like we all make plans for our trips in the car (especially during the winter), you should be doing the same for your boat on every trip. Always let someone that’s on land know what route you’re taking and how long you expect to be gone. This way, if your boat doesn’t come back in time, there will be someone that knows your approximate location in the event that something does go wrong such as a breakdown or an accident.

For that reason, as well, always make sure to carry a cell phone that is able to get a signal even while in the middle of the water. If your cell phone doesn’t have that type of signal, you may want to invest in a marine radio. Even if it’s not your boat that gets into an accident or breaks down, you’ll be able to call in for help and perhaps save somebody else’s life. Marine radios might not be the cheapest, but you should be able to get a handheld one for about $70 at stores such as Bass Pro Shops.

Every boat should have a first aid kit on hand, as you never know when you’re going to need it. When swimming in shallow waters, people’s feet will often touch the ground and there can be some sharp objects or rocks floating around. Getting the wound cleaned and bandaged quickly will go a long way in preventing an infection. A good first aid kit should also have a cold packs, scissors, and aspirin. It’s not just injuries that a first aid kit can help with, as a heart attack or heat exhaustion/stroke can be treated with some of these items.

In the event of a fire, whether it be small or large, you’ll want to keep an extinguisher on hand. Check to see if the fire extinguisher has expired before taking off, as your craft may be required to have an up-to-date one. The USCG-approved for marine craft label will appear on the right fire extinguisher, so you know what to look out for when purchasing one. While top-of-the-line extinguishers for larger boats can cost hundreds, you can pick up a few for a smaller vessel for around $20-30.

The other big thing that you’ll want to check before taking the boat out is the weather forecast. Ideally, it will be nice and sunny with a good breeze and water that isn’t so choppy. However, you know this is Michigan and things can change at a moment’s notice. If you head out while it’s nice and it suddenly looks like a storm is brewing, head back to shore as quickly as possible. With that in mind, make sure not to stray too far away from your dock when the weather is iffy.


Know Your Propellers

Among the more frequent injuries and causes of death when boating is due to a lack of propeller safety. While you as a boat owner and operator yourself may know what there is to know about propellers, those that are going on the water for the first time might not know. Because of this, you should alert every passenger on your boat of the propeller locations and let them know not to swim near them.

A propeller guard may be available depending on the type of boat you have, but there’s always a way to take it a step further. When the engine is on, nobody should be in the water near your boat. Make sure that the engine is completely turned off before allowing anyone into the water to swim. It’s easy to cut off the engine, so there should be no excuse for not doing this before swimming. Children are the most susceptible to propeller injuries, so make sure to instruct them on safety and that they understand what’s expected.


Follow Local Laws

There are going to be laws for any lake that you visit, but they might not all be the same.

Make sure that when going to a new lake for the first time you’re getting familiar with the local laws. This includes hours when boats must travel below no-wake speed and whether or not you can waterski. provides a list of the rules for every lake and river in the state, sorted by your individual county.

For instance, Klinger Lake designates that the speed limit for boats is 55 miles per hour and that you must be below no-wake speed for the first 100 feet from the docks. Again, this will vary by body of water, but the information is very easy to find online, even for private lakes.


Avoid Alcoholic Drinks While Driving

Summertime with a boat full of people is always a ton of fun. Naturally, there are going to be some drinks flowing on most boats, especially of the adult variety. That is all well and good under two circumstances. One, you must be of legal age (though you probably guessed that one already). Two, make sure you aren’t operating the boat or plan to operate the boat if you’ve been drinking alcohol.

More states are cracking down on people boating under the influence than ever, and for good reason. Around 20 percent of boating accidents were caused by someone that was operating under the influence. For a first-time offender in the state of Michigan, boating under the influence (BUI) carries a hefty penalty. This includes maximum penalties of a $500 fine, 93 days in jail and/or 45 hours of community service. So if you have already gotten in trouble once, you’ll want to avoid a second penalty at all costs because the punishments get more severe.


ALWAYS Bring Life Jackets

Now that you’ve decided that you’ll be staying sober while operating your boat, you have to ensure you have the proper equipment before going out on the water. The first thing that you should be checking is your life jacket inventory. You might have more people on your boat than expected, so it’s vital that there are enough life jackets for every passenger and that they’re of the correct size. This is most important for any children that will be on your boat, as law enforcement is likely to be watching for this above all else, and failure to provide life jackets for all passengers can carry fines of over $100.

Drowning is the leading cause of death in the water, and it’s not even close. More than three quarters of deaths are the result of drowning, and the amount of people not wearing a life jacket is staggering. Of those drowning deaths, nearly 85 percent were without a life jacket. It’s best to not skimp on a good life jacket, and they typically are very affordable with prices ranging from $7 to $40 for a standard one. You can be a Michael Phelps level style of swimmer, but if you become incapacitated due to an accident and can’t swim, a life jacket will still keep your head above water until help arrives.


Keep It Lit

Just like when you’re driving your car, you might not notice that you have a light out until you’ve already taken off. And just like when a headlight or taillight is out in your car, you can and will get fined if your boat lights aren’t operating properly. As soon as you turn the boat on, check to see if your lights are working and that you have them in the proper place. You may need more lights on your boat than you think depending on the size, too.

You may not think that you need proper boat lights during the day, but they will still help with visibility, especially when it’s hazy outside. At night, your lights will be essential. The deadliest boating accidents occur after the sun goes down due to the decreased visibility. Your boat won’t require disco-esque lights, but the more visibility you can create at night, the better.


Take Advantage of Coast Guard Services

The United States Coast Guard Auxiliary offers great services for any boater. For boaters of any level, you’re able to take a boater safety education course through them that will offer you all of the safety tips that you need. While not required in the state of Michigan for everyone, a boating safety certificate is required for anyone that was born after June 30, 1996 (and at a cost of $29.50). These are available online and are typically easy courses that, once you pass, allow you to print off your certificate.

On top of the boater safety course, the USCGA also offers a vessel safety check, which is imperative for even the best boaters out there. Not only is it completely free, it can be done online and might even save your life. For an added bonus, it allows local, state, and federal authorities to know that your boat was compliant. This can help you to avoid any fines in the case of an accident.

Don’t worry if your boat doesn’t pass the check upon first inspection, either. The USCGA provides you a checklist of what needs to be fixed on your boat so that you’re well prepared for the future (and you won’t be cited for the boat not being up to compliance). You can do one of these checks free of charge every year (they expire on December 31 of each year).


Carbon Monoxide Safety

One thing that a lot of boaters tend not to think about is carbon monoxide, but they should. That’s because each year, there are at least 30 people have been reported as suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning on a watercraft with a handful of deaths every year. While the number was only five deaths in 2019 (the most recent date from the USCG), you don’t want to take the chance of becoming the next one.

The larger the boat, the more likely it is that carbon monoxide buildup can become dangerous. However, any boat can be susceptible, especially if you plan on spending a lot of time idling. To avoid carbon monoxide buildup, ensure that all of the engines have been well maintained and never ever block the exhaust. You should also avoid swimming close to the engine while the boat is idling, and stay away from other boats as much as possible. A good rule of thumb is to stay at least 20 feet away from a boat that’s running its engine.



At the end of the day, what it really comes down to for being safe while on your boat is to exercise good judgment. Keep a checklist on hand to make sure that you’re well prepared for any situation and practice going over protocol with any passengers. Not everybody is going to be well versed in boat safety, and it’s the responsibility of the owner/operator to let new

passengers know what’s expected of them. Some people may be going on a boat for the first time in their lives, so there’s a lot of information that has to be passed along.

Most importantly, though, remember to have fun and enjoy your time on the water. After all, we don’t get many months out of the year here in Michigan where we can take the boat out, so make the best of your time by staying safe!


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