Statistically speaking, boating is an amazingly safe sport. But those new to life on the water must, of course, become familiar with some safety basics. These seven points are easy, mostly inexpensive, sure-fire ways to enhance your boating safety.

Some safety gear is mandated and other gear is not. Here, the USCG checks a recreational boat to be sure the minimum requirements are met. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Bobby Nash, courtesy of USCG.

Some safety gear is mandated and other gear is not. Here, the USCG checks a recreational boat to be sure the minimum requirements are met. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Bobby Nash, courtesy of USCG.

1. Take a boating safety course

Being prepared is the key to avoiding problems. If you understand your vessel, your environment, your responsibilities and a few basics like the rules of the road, you’ll be ahead of the crowd. Boating safety courses are easy to find and affordable. Try the Coast Guard Auxiliary or your local boating club.

2. File a float plan

Commercial towing associations keep formal float plans that you can submit for free. If you’re overdue at your destination, authorities know where to get started in their search. Even an informal plan with a friend or relative will help locate you faster if your boat breaks down. Recently, a boater was tracked down quickly when an organ transplant became available to him while he was boating in a remote location. Due to his float plan he was found in plenty of time to get the transplant, so a float plan can be important for more than just search and rescue.

3. Understand the VHF radio

Cell phones are great, until you're out of the service network. And coverage on the water can be iffy, so don’t rely on your smartphone for critical communications. Make sure everyone aboard understands how to use the VHF radio, because the person injured or overboard could be you. Need a VHF how-to tutorial? Watch our video, How to Use a VHF Radio.

4. Learn the basics of navigation

A local area paper chart or chart kit should be aboard every vessel. Charts mark important areas to avoid such as reefs, rocks, sandbars and restricted areas. In case of an emergency, having and knowing how to use a GPS can decrease response time by allowing rescue vessels to pinpoint your location from the coordinates. But don’t just rely on your charplotter, which is dependent on your battery bank—even with the best electronics aboard, paper charts are still a must-have. To learn more, read How to Navigate a Boat.

5. Don’t skimp on essential equipment

Make sure you have at least the minimum number of fire extinguishers, flares and personal flotation devices (PFDs) aboard, and then add some just to be safe. Make sure you have appropriately sized PFDs if you’ll be boating with kids. Check your fire extinguishers annually to ensure they’re fully charged and check the dates on your flares at the same time to keep them fresh. A basic first aid kit with bandages, burn cream, tape, sunscreen, and seasickness medication should be aboard and its contents refreshed annually. And even small boats should carry some kind of ground tackle so they can deploy an anchor and stay put while waiting for assistance. For more, check out Three Safety Items You Should Have Aboard (But Probably Don't) and Boat Safety Gear You Need Aboard to Avoid a Ticket.

6. Keep in mind that panic is the enemy

Safety is a matter of process just as much as quick reactions. The best way to avoid panic is to be educated and prepared. Everyone aboard the vessel should be able to locate and use a fire extinguisher, the VHF radio, PFDs and signal flares. Talk through the proposed itinerary with family and friends before leaving the dock and make sure everyone knows what to do in case of an emergency.

7. Know the difference between an emergency and a non-emergency

When determining whom to contact for assistance, consider the following question: are you or anyone onboard in any immediate danger? If the answer is yes, contact the US Coast Guard. If the answer is no, consider it a manageable inconvenience that can be handled by the local commercial towing company.

For more tips on safety afloat, read 10 Tips to Make Sure Your Safety Gear is in Order.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in September 2015 and was updated January 2018.

Written by: Zuzana Prochazka
Zuzana Prochazka is a writer and photographer who freelances for a dozen boating magazines and websites. A USCG 100 Ton Master, Zuzana has cruised, chartered and skippered flotillas in many parts of the world and serves as a presenter on charter destinations and topics. She is the Chair of the New Product Awards committee, judging innovative boats and gear at NMMA and NMEA shows, and currently serves as immediate past president of Boating Writers International. She contributes to and, and also blogs regularly on her boat review site,