How to Boat

What You Need to Know Before Going Out on the Water

People powerboating on Lago di Garda (Lake Garda)
Dennis Jones/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

These four disciplines are only the basics for beginning boaters, but if you master these, you are well on your way to becoming a knowledgeable and skilled powerboater.

Know Your Boat and Its Equipment

Part of the training program to become a Coast Guard certified coxswain (captain) was memorizing vessel and engine specification manuals hundreds of pages thick. The point was to know the boat and its equipment down to the last bolt so that you could confidently bring your crew and boat through dangerous situations safely. In the same way, knowing your powerboat will bring you equal confidence.

Read your boat’s manual if you have one. The manufacturer’s documentation will be your best guide to the ins and outs of your boat. Manuals contain important information for safe operation and maintenance of the vessel. Also, learn how to operate the boat’s electronics. At a minimum, you should have a VHF-FM marine radio to contact the Coast Guard in an emergency on channel 16.

Know the Area and How to Navigate Safely

Purchase navigational charts of the specific waterways you travel. Store them on your boat, wrapped in plastic for protection, and study them often. Memorize landmarks, hazards to navigation such as submerged objects, and safe channel markers. Know where shallow areas present a danger of running aground. Go on frequent outings with the sole purpose of exploring the area, using your charts to become familiar with waterways. Taking the time to know marinas, ports, channels, and navigable waterways is fun and rewarding. But it is only a beginning.

Knowing how to navigate using a compass, GPS, and a chart will allow you to pinpoint your location and chart a safe course to port. Set the goal to eventually become a skilled navigator. With that knowledge, there is no limit to where your boat can take you.

Know the “Rules of the Road”

Similar to rules that govern the safe flow of traffic for vehicles, there are rules that govern the safe maneuvering of boats. Called Coast Guard Navigation Rules, they are also known as “Nav Rules” or “Rules of the Road.” Although casual boaters aren’t required to know the Rules of the Road, it is highly recommended.

The Rules of the Road teach boaters safe boating protocol. Do you know who has the “right of way” when you approach a sailboat under sail power alone? He does. You must maneuver your boat to allow the sailboat safe passage. Boating becomes dangerous quickly when boaters don’t know the rules of the road and instead try to apply highway driving rules to navigation situations.

Know Local, State and Federal Safety Regulations

Both the U.S. Coast Guard and local agencies have the authority to board your boat to ensure your compliance with safety equipment rules and regulations.

Depending upon size, most vessels are required to have navigation lights, a sound signaling device, emergency flares, and life jackets. The larger the vessel, the greater the requirements.