Swimming and Boating Safety Tips
Should you get on a boat if you can't swim? It’s a very common and valid boating safety concern having people who can’t swim onboard a boat.
With that said, anyone who gets on a boat should know how to swim. However, that doesn’t mean people who can’t swim can’t enjoy boating trips. As with pretty much any other boating safety tips article out there, it all comes down to common sense and preparation, but nevertheless accidents still happen. With that in mind, here are our tips for swimming safely while boating.
Use Personal Flotation Devices
Let’s get the most obvious thing out of the way first. We’ve mentioned the use of life jackets and personal flotation devices ad nauseum in our boating safety articles, but it can never be overstated.
No matter how good a swimmer is, everyone should have a life jacket or PFD. Strong swimmers could probably get away with not wearing a life jacket or vest while swimming in the water off a boat. However, weaker swimmers and especially children should always wear a life jacket or vest while swimming in deep water.
If you think wearing a life jacket takes the fun out of underwater swimming and snorkeling, make sure there are plenty of life rings and other flotation devices tied to and near the boat that swimmers can reach out to. Even simple flotation devices like pool noodles and tubes are helpful if say, a swimmer gets tired or has a cramp while nobody’s looking and needs something to grab onto. A spare inflatable boat that serves as a dinghy attached to a line is also a great additional platform for swimmers to have access to.
The law requires at least one U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket to be available for each individual passenger on board, regardless of their age and/or swimming abilities. Any passengers who can’t swim should have a life jacket on for the entire trip. And life jackets are not one-size-fits-all, so make sure you have the right size jacket for each person onboard before you head out.
Shut the Engines Off
Before anybody jumps into the water, make sure all of the boat’s engines are turned off and the ignition is disabled. Keeping the engines off eliminates the hazards of swimmers getting injured by propellers, of breathing in carbon monoxide fumes and of getting sucked underneath the boat.
Pick Safe Swimming Spots
Be aware of where you anchor your boat for swimming. Never pick areas with strong currents or hazardous obstacles like dock pilings and rocky underwater surfaces. Keep an eye out for choppy water, or areas with a lot of debris like garbage or seaweed, which can tangle up a swimmer. Keep an eye out for signage that indicates safe (and unsafe) places for swimming, including those that warn of dangerous wildlife like sharks or alligators.
Avoid swimming in marinas, docks and areas with channel markers, as these indicate high boat traffic. Not only do these areas pose the risk of getting hit by boats, but they may also expose you to nasty chemicals in the water and possible electric shock from shore power. Also, never allow anyone to swim under the boat, as trying to surface with a shifting boat overhead presents the risk of head injuries and drowning.
Check the Depth of the Water
Speaking of head injuries, never dive head-first into unknown water, no matter how deep and clear it might appear. The water may not be as deep as it looks, and something like rocks or even a broken underwater sign post can go unnoticed when diving in. Make sure the depth of the water has been tested and confirmed to be safe before jumping in. Use the depth charts on your marine instruments for guidance, and check all sides of the boat to confirm the depth.
Provide Safe Swim Ladders and Platforms
Make sure swimmers can easily get back on the boat by having sturdy grab rails reachable to anyone in the water. Provide multiple entry points if possible, and have a grab rope available near the swim ladders. To prevent falls while coming back onboard, keep the swim platform dry and the area free of obstacles like coolers, ropes and sharp objects.
Always Have a Designated Lookout
While the captain is responsible for everyone on board and in the water, it’s always a good idea to designate an extra lookout for when the captain is undisposed. So when the captain has to take his/her eyes off the water to go to the bathroom, for example, someone should always be available to take their place on supervision duties.
The designated lookout should monitor all the swimmers and watch for any oncoming boats or personal watercraft, along with anything else that may pose a threat. If you can bring along a lifeguard or somebody else who knows CPR, even better. The lookout should always be alert and sober enough to spot any danger. Supervision shouldn’t be left to just the captain or the designated lookout either. And nobody, especially children, should swim alone. Always use the buddy system so that nobody goes missing.
Post Flags Up
Always put up flags when you have swimmers in the water, even if they’re not diving. Flags let other boaters know there are people in the water, so they should proceed with caution when passing through. If you’re snorkeling or scuba diving, diver-down flags are required by law.
Avoid Swimming in Bad Weather
Finally, avoid boating and swimming in bad weather conditions. Poor weather conditions can create rough, choppy waters and reduced visibility. And don’t forget about lightning and water spouts, which are also dangerous to swimmers and boaters alike.