Recreational boating is a way of life in the Sunshine State, but what begins as a fun day out on the water can easily end in tragedy if boating safety guidelines aren’t followed.
May 20 through 26, 2017, has been designated National Safe Boating Week by the National Safe Boating Council, so now is a perfect time to brush up on some simple procedures and habits that will ensure your boating season is happy and healthy.
First and foremost: Wear a lifejacket.
“Each year hundreds of people lose their lives in boating incidences, and they may still be alive if they had been wearing a life jacket,” stated Rachel Johnson, executive director of the National Safe Boating Council, in a press release. “It’s not enough to just own a life jacket and store it on a boat; you must wear it.”
In Gulfport, we’re blessed with a relatively sheltered open body of water – Boca Ciega Bay – on which to enjoy the pleasures of boating, whether it’s in a sailboat or powerboat. We are also fortunate to have a prime kayaking and canoeing location – Clam Bayou – right in our backyard.
Weather can still be a factor, of course, but some 70 percent of all boating accidents are caused by human errors, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, so it’s on us to make sure we’re sufficiently knowledgeable and prepared before heading out on the water in a boat.
Let’s say worse comes to worst and you find yourself in a disabled vessel, adrift in Tampa Bay or Boca Ciega Bay. Speaking from experience, I would highly recommend calling the Eckerd College Search and Rescue (EC-SAR) team at 727-864-8256 or channels 16 or 68 on your VHF radio.
Founded in 1971, EC-SAR is a free service provided by the college to boaters in the vicinity of Tampa Bay and Boca Ciega Bay, as well as surrounding waters around southern Pinellas County, with a northern boundary of John’s Pass and southern boundary of Longboat Pass. EC-SAR, which is operated by highly trained student volunteers, will also respond to calls up to 10 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.
EC-SAR coordinator Ryan Dilkey would rather not have to rescue recreational boaters, however, so he offered a number of tips about how to enjoy a summer of safe boating.
“Even though a lot of our recreational boating occurs in what would be defined as inland waters, like Tampa Bay, Boca Ciega Bay, or up the ICW, weather is absolutely one of the primary causes of issues and accidents for recreational boaters,” said Dilkey, who, with exception of a stint in the Coast Guard, has been working at Eckerd since 1994 when he arrived as a student.
He said there’s much more to weather awareness than merely paying attention to the weather that you can see. “It’s one thing if, say, you’re out on an otherwise nice day and all of a sudden one of those afternoon Florida storms rolls through and becomes worse than expected, and so you come in … that’s different, to me, than doing no planning at all and going out in weather that you never should have been out in, in the first place.”
Local knowledge is also essential to being prepared to go out on the water.
“For example, there’s a ton of shallow water in Tampa Bay,” Dilkey said. “There are aids to navigation out there, but people often are not very well educated about those things. Buy a chart and know the area you’re boating in so you can keep your passengers and yourself safe.
“The common activity of anchoring and partying at a sandbars and such is all well and good,” he continued, “but when the tide goes out, you’re stuck. Or maybe you’re running along in a pass that’s not marked and you run aground and injure someone in the process. Mishaps like that are easily avoidable – you just have to know the area and plan accordingly.”
However, the two most significant contributing factors to boating accidents, by far, are alcohol abuse and improper lifejacket use. “When you mix those two things together, if you aren’t wearing a lifejacket and you’re inebriated, [and you have an accident], there’s a 90 percent chance of death,” Dilkey said.
Dilkey said the number one myth he’d like to dispel about boating safety is the mindset that as long as enough lifejackets are on board a vessel, then the people on board are safe, regardless of whether the lifejackets are worn.
“It’s the myth of, ‘If and when I need it, I’ll have time to grab it and put it on.’ That is absolutely not true, at all,” he said. “A myriad of case studies and survivors’ stories will tell you otherwise – that accidents happen in seconds and you will not have time to find your lifejacket, get it out and put it on. It’s too late – you’re probably in the water already and the boat is upside, maybe even gone, and the lifejacket went with it.”
Wearing a lifejacket, he emphasized, “is the easiest thing that any boater can do to increase survivability” in an accident. “Just wear the damn lifejacket.”
With the exception of its summer camp for kids ages 5 to 18, Eckerd College does not offer boating safety courses to the general public, but Dilkey recommends contacting your local Coast Guard Auxiliary or United States Power Squadron affiliate if you’d like to sign up for such a class. He also recommends BOATsmart!, a boating safety course approved by the state of Florida.
“That course can be taken online or via hard copy,” he said. “It gives you a boating safety card that is good for life and is required for some young people to legally operate a boat in the state of Florida. We are very supportive of that program. All of our internal trainings for our boat operators require that curriculum.”
For a complete list of boating safety courses approved by the state of Florida, visit myfwc.com/boating/safety-education/courses.