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Basics for Boating Safely

Basic gear and habits that will boost your confidence—and may well save a life

Don't tell folks it's "too hot" to wear a PFD (inflatable model shown). And that red killswitch lanyard? Clip it! Good to go.

Our state offers unparalleled activities to enjoy on the waterways. Boasting nearly one million (950,740 in 2018) registered watercraft, it's not merely a coincidence that Florida also leads the nation in boating accidents and boating-related fatalities. A quick look at statistics from recent years reveals sobering realities—but also sheds light on simple things we can do to make our days safer.

Based on 2018 statistics (2019 currently available), there were 59 boating fatalities in our state, down from the previous year's total of 66. Some of the related statistics surrounding these incidents might surprise you and definitely support the safe boating recommendations offered by our Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).


In 2018 fatality accidents reported, 56 percent of victims were ejected from the boat with nearly half of all fatalities in total due to drowning. Numbers also reveal that 80 percent of victims were not wearing a life jacket (PFD) at the time. Clearly the likelihood of an incident occurring involving a person unexpectedly ending up in the water is a real concern. A situation that renders you incapacitated upon entry to the water would almost inevitably lead to a drowning death without the aid of a PFD on your person at the point of entry. For this reason, FWC recommends wearing a PFD at all times while boating. The popular suspender style models that you see worn by law enforcement, especially with hydrostatic automatic inflation, are easy to become accustomed to wearing and may offer an extra measure of protection should you become partially immobilized in the water. Belt-type PFDs are also convenient.

In 2018 fatality accidents reported, 56 percent of victims were ejected from the boat with nearly half of all fatalities in total due to drowning.

These should be used in conjunction with a longer term Type 1 PFD for maximum security. This is the type of jacket that, although uncomfortable to wear all day, will in the event of a planned water entry make your long-term survival rate much higher. The Type 1 has more flotation and by design will turn most unconscious wearers face-up.

Although the law requires a single Type 1, 2 or 3 PFD for each passenger, the extra comfort and effectiveness of a costlier Type 1 in any situation involving an extended duration in the water will certainly justify the extra expense. Always be sure that you have appropriate sized PFDs for each passenger (adults vs. children) as well as a throwable Type 4 cushion or ring with a line attached. All of these jackets should be easily accessible. Point them out to all guests on board so everyone is aware of their location in an emergency.


In addition to the required and suggested PFD equipment, other mandatory safety gear must be on hand and maintained. Fire extinguishers, flares, horns or other sound-making devices (whistles etc.) should all be easily accessible as well as up to date and in perfect working order. Although not required by law for recreational boaters, a smart and relatively inexpensive addition to your PFD collection is a whistle and a signal strobe for each PFD. Think that's excessive? What would you pay to have them if you were adrift in the dark listening to a helicopter or rescue boat searching for you?

The same can be said about carrying extra fire extinguishers or flares. Depending on the size of your vessel, the law might only require one extinguisher and three flares. However, I've been in more than one situation requiring the use of both of these tools and never felt bad about having extras.

Another item that often goes unmaintained if you don't do a lot of nighttime boating is your navigation lights. Without proper maintenance these commonly fail to function whether due to a burned bulb or loose wire. Should you find yourself unexpectedly on the water after dark whether disabled or underway, this is not the time to discover you have no running lights. Periodically check your lights, as well as other critical systems such as bilge pumps and ignition killswitch (you do wear your lanyard, yes?).


The FWC encourages everyone to participate in an approved Boating Safety Course. In fact, it's the law if you were born after January 1, 1988. In order to operate a boat with ten horsepower or greater you must have completed an approved course and obtained a Boater Safety Education ID Card issued by FWC.

If you've spent much time on the local waterways on any given weekend you might wonder if anyone has ever taken this course. A look at weekend traffic often suggests lots of inexperienced boaters are among us and the knowledge one gains by participating in this educational opportunity would benefit all of us. This is an excellent activity to participate in as a family. The 2018 statistics show us that 77 percent of operators involved in fatality accidents had no formal boater education.

The FWC has great resources for boating safety online:

Published Florida Sportsman Magazine May 2020

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