Helpful hints can make boating safer, more enjoyable

By Keith Sutton Published April 27, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Courtesy of BoatUS

Always check the weather forecast before boating, and avoid dangerous weather conditions, such as thunderstorms.

Spring is upon us, and for many Arkansans, there’s no better way to relax and have a good time than to head for the nearest lake or river, launch a boat and enjoy some time on the water. We all go boating with the intention of having a safe, pleasant experience, and typically, that’s what we get, but it doesn’t always happen that way.

Sometimes something goes wrong, and the whole day is ruined. It might be nothing more than a bad experience at a crowded boat ramp, or something as minor as a flat tire on the boat trailer or a bad trolling-motor battery.

Occasionally, however, it’s something worse, something that could put us and our fellow passengers in danger. We get caught out after dark with boat lights that are inoperable. A storm is coming, and the motor conks out. We run out of fuel and get stranded. That kind of stuff.

The good news is that most of these mishaps can be avoided if we review the fundamentals of boating safety each time we head to the water. And there are many helpful hints we can learn that will help us stay out of harm’s way, including those that follow.

Before you leave home

Safe boating begins at home. Before each trip, here are some things you should do:

Go over your boat and trailer from stem to stern. Check lights, tires, hitches, motors, steering cables and fuel lines. Be sure everything is in good working order.

All boats should be equipped with a fire extinguisher, a horn and paddles. Tools and spare parts (light bulbs, shear pins, etc.) are a must in case of emergency equipment repair. Be sure everything is in its place.

Never overload your boat with equipment and/or people. Find and read the capacity plate on the boat’s transom, memorize

it, and stay within that limit on the water.

Check the weather forecast, and when on a lake or river, watch for signs of change. Don’t get caught out in inclement weather.

Tell someone at home where you’re going and when you plan to return.

From home to water

Your tow vehicle may have ample power to pull a loaded boat and trailer down the road, but that doesn’t mean it has the guts to haul the same piece of equipment up steep hills or launching ramps, or that the brakes can hold everything safely on a steep incline. Follow manufacturer’s towing guidelines, and never exceed tow limits. Too much trailer weight can cause an accident or pull the tow vehicle into the lake on a steep ramp.

When loading the boat with gear, balance the rig with 60 percent of the cargo weight near the front. If you anticipate a long trip, don’t fill boat gas tanks until you are near the lake. Gasoline adds several pounds and will affect the fuel mileage of your tow vehicle.

Each time you stop when pulling a boat, walk around it and check to be sure everything is safe and secure. Check the trailer hitch, lights and tie-downs, and double-check tire pressure. Also, lightly place your hand on the trailer’s wheel hubs. If the hubs are cool or slightly warm to the touch, the bearings are all right. If the hubs are hot, the bearings need to be replaced or repacked.

At the ramp

When waiting to launch your boat, load all gear, disconnect boat straps, take off your motor-tote and be ready to launch when it’s your turn. The line will move much quicker if everyone does this.

If your boat has a drain plug, you definitely shouldn’t forget to put it in before launching. Here’s a tip to help you remember. Attach the plug to a tie-down strap with heavy fishing line. When you remove the strap, you’ll be reminded to insert the plug.

If you don’t have a helper when launching your boat, here’s another helpful hint. Try tying the craft to your trailer (around the winch works well) with about 20 to 25 feet of rope. Back up until the boat starts to float, and tap the vehicle brakes. Drive forward a few feet. The boat should then float off the trailer, but not away. Untie it and walk it back to the shore or dock. This way you can launch fast and stay dry.

Not too good at backing a trailer? The easiest way to remember which way the boat trailer turns when you turn your steering wheel is to place your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel. Now, wherever you want the trailer to go, just move your hand in that direction.

On the water

The most important precaution boaters can take is to wear a personal flotation device, or life jacket, at all times when on the water. This includes all passengers, but especially children. Hundreds of lives could be saved each year if boaters wore life jackets more often.

Besides this measure, you should also follow these basic, yet critical, safety tips each time you go boating:

Watch for other boats, swimmers, fishermen, divers and obstacles in the water. Keep your eyes on the water ahead.

Never boat at speeds exceeding safe limits. Slow down when making sharp turns. Don’t create a hazardous wake when approaching or passing other boats, and use caution when crossing wakes.

Never boat at night unless your craft is equipped with proper lighting. Carry a flashlight or spotlight for signaling other boats and watching for obstacles.

Monitor your fuel supply. Remember the one-third rule: one-third of your fuel for going, one-third for returning, one-third for an emergency.

Don’t boat in dangerous or off-limits waters. Be especially careful above and below dams and around bridges. Use caution in all unfamiliar waters.

When the motor is running, wear a kill switch to stop the engine should you fall or get thrown overboard.

Finally, enroll in a boating safety course. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and U.S. Coast Guard offer free classes, and the things you learn, even if you’re already an experienced boater, could save your life or the lives of others. For information on classes in your area, contact the AGFC at (877) 493-6424.

None Keith Sutton can be reached at .