Tracker Safety Series
Chapter 5 – Safe Boat Operation
The Captain is responsible for every aspect of onboard safety, so take this as seriously as your other duties. Operating a boat safely is just like anything else worth doing well and properly: Whether it’s going fishing or driving a car, those who are successful take their time, pay attention to the details, and follow a procedure every time.
Preparing to Get Underway
Preparing to get underway for everyone on the boat means getting on board and going boating, but it means something entirely different for the captain, who must focus on preparing and running the boat.
Loading and Boarding the Boat
While lifejackets are not always required by law on the dock, it’s a good idea for kids (and in fact, everyone) to wear them. Plus it’s one less thing to carry separately. If the boat is wet, the captain should dry off all surfaces with a towel or chamois. This will prevent the crew from slipping during boarding while also making sure bags and gear that are set down stay dry.
Getting underway always begins with loading the boat properly.
If the boat is wet from dew or rain, be sure to dry all walking surfaces before the crew boards to prevent slippage.
You’ll also have a better day if your crew doesn’t sit on wet seats.
Loading gear should be managed with care, since most people will not want anything they brought to be dropped in the drink. But stepping on board with gear in hand can be dangerous: With arms loaded, a person weighs more than normal, and the boat may react differently to the weight than usual. Also, the bearer of the load may not be able to see his or her feet. If alone, place the gear on the dock, then step aboard, and take each item off the dock to be stowed. If there’s a whole crew, it’s easy to just hand everything to the person on the boat.
Whenever possible, hand the gear to someone in the boat.
Trying to board with your hands full can cause you to lose your balance.
When crew comes aboard, the captain should have an idea of who is capable (and experienced on a boat) and who is not. It’s best to assume a lack of experience of all crew and err on the side of caution. Offer a hand and advice on foot placement, particularly on smaller boats, where it’s best to step onto the deck as near to the center of the boat as possible.
When it’s time to come aboard, make sure the crew steps in carefully, one at a time, with a helper standing by to lend a hand to anyone who needs it.
On small boats, step onto the cockpit deck as near to the center of the boat as possible.
Stepping on the gunwale may cause the boat to tip, and the person boarding could lose his or her balance.
Never allow anyone, kids included, to jump from the dock into the boat.
When Boarding Be Aware of the Conditions. If the wake of a passing boat or waves cause the boat to rock, take extra care while loading and boarding because of uncertain footing. It also makes sense to wear boat shoes. Hard soles have no grip on slippery surfaces and can damage your upholstery. Some shoes designed for boating have soles with a “siped” tread pattern that help grip wet or slippery decks.
Always wear soft soled or boating shoes. The thin, wavy lines are called “siping.”
Local PFD Regulations. It cannot be stressed enough, check all state and local regulations regarding life jacket and safety-gear requirements before launching. The rules will vary from state to state, county to county, and even from one body of water to the next. Regardless of the regulations, it’s a good idea to wear a life jacket. Be prepared and be safe.
Whether you choose to wear life jackets or not, they have to be in the boat and readily accessible. Children are frequently required by law to wear them. Often, it’s just a good idea. Check local regulations, and be smart about it.
You can easily access this information by searching the internet for boating regulations specific to your area.
Create a Float Plan
This could be as simple as letting a family member or friend know where you are going and when you expect to return. This is especially important on large bodies of water where it may be easy to get lost or stranded. Let them know where you’re headed and what time you plan to get back, then don’t forget to inform them when you return. If you’re not back by a certain time, they can alert authorities to begin a search. It’s a simple measure to help prevent you from spending an uncomfortable night on the lake if something goes wrong.
Boaters should let someone – like a friend or relative – know what their plans are.
For an extended voyage, we recommend you use the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary’s Float Plan Form, which can be downloaded at www.FloatPlanCentral.org.
Consult your owner’s manual for more information on proper seating. Refer to the seating diagram in your boat or owner’s manual if it has one. Read and follow all seating instructions, warning labels and placards to ensure the safety of your passengers. Also pay attention to the load on board, and make sure it’s evenly distributed, particularly on smaller boats.
Everyone should be in an approved seat.
Some boats are equipped with raised seats for fishing. These seats are great for fishing, but they are not approved for or safe for seating when running. This is extremely important.
Fishing seats should never be used when the boat is under way or powered by anything other than the electric trolling motor.
Sitting anywhere other than an approved seat could cause the person to be thrown overboard and be injured or drown. This cannot be overemphasized, everyone MUST be in an approved seat before leaving the dock.
Raised gunwales, decks, or platforms are not approved seating when underway.
For safety and the best handling performance, distribute the weight on the boat evenly.
The goal is to have a wonderful day on the water, and of course that includes being safe. Once everyone has a safe seat, and the weight has been evenly distributed around the boat, it’s safe to leave the dock. Evenly distributed means the boat should not be too heavy on one side or have too much weight in the bow or stern that could cause handling problems later.
Leaving the Dock
When you’re ready to leave the dock, check for other traffic, make sure the path is clear and ease away at idle speed. Never put the boat in gear if there are swimmers nearby.
Take care when leaving the dock, and make sure everyone knows the boat is about to move.
Depending on the wind and current, it may be easier to back away from the dock.
Backing Away from the Dock. Angle the engine away from the dock and then put it in reverse. Continue in reverse until you have sufficient room to maneuver.
Remember that, when in forward, the boat will pivot around the bow so allow lots of room for a turn.
Truly inexperienced boaters should take someone knowledgeable along to help with the basics of docking and maneuvering.
Wind and Currents. A boat operates very differently from a car and is affected by wind and currents as well. Learning different techniques to address the different conditions a boat encounters is important for safe and trouble-free boating.
If you are unfamiliar with a body of water you’ll be on, always refer to a chart.
Studying a chart can help you avoid any submerged obstacles, such as rocks or pilings hidden just under the surface of the water.
Many safe channels are marked with channel markers, showing you the safe way to go.
Boating Safety Course. Taking a boating safety course you will have a better understanding of channel markers, which usually point you in the right direction or away from hazards.
Global Positioning System (GPS). A GPS is a very useful tool, but it should never replace a current navigational chart. A boat dealer or electronics installer can help a boater figure out if a GPS chartplotter is needed, and which unit will be suitable.
You can also equip your boat with a Global Positioning System or GPS.
While on the water, you should observe and obey all warning and caution signs.
No Wake Zones. The wake your boat creates can cause physical damage to the shoreline, docks, and other boats as well as causing injury to people or pets. You are responsible for your wake and any damage caused by it. Stay at an idle speed until you clear all no wake zones. Even when clear of official no wake zones, a bit of courtesy is always welcome when it comes to your wake.
Whether they are official or homemade, take No Wake signs seriously. It is always best to be courteous on the water.
Use slow to idle speed around boats that are rafted together, especially in situations similar to the one shown here.
If you are new to boating, it’s best to go slow at first. Get a feel of how the boat handles. Some models will tend to wander at idle and low speeds. This is inherent in some designs so don’t be alarmed.
While underway, keep one hand on the wheel and one on the throttle. This allows you to react quickly to any situation that may arise unexpectedly.
Make sure your trim is all the way down before increasing speed. This will allow the boat to get on plane more quickly.
Practice Trimming the Boat. It may take a little practice, but if you slowly increase the trim when you are on the plane you’ll feel what we call the “sweet spot.” That’s where the trim is just right, and it’s also the point when the steering becomes easier and no longer pulls to one side.
At higher speeds, too little up trim can cause the boat to plow, making steering more difficult and negatively effecting fuel efficiency.
If the trim is too high when you first increase speed, the bow will rise more, making it harder to see ahead.
If you are uneasy about the trim and how to use it, ask a knowledgeable friend to give you a lesson, or you can consult your Tracker dealer. It’s really not too hard to master, but it can be confusing at first.
Poor trim also contributes to a huge wake.
If the trim is way too high, you’ll cause the propeller to cavitate or blow out. If you don’t cavitate or blow out you may get into a “porpoising” situation where the boat bounces, sometimes violently.
Boaters should get comfortable handling their boats at every speed, because safe operation may require use of a variety of speeds as conditions dictate. The best way to do that is through experience.
When you’re comfortable, with the trim all the way down, slowly increase your speed, always looking around for other traffic that could be on an intercepting course.
When you’re comfortable, increase to a planing speed by applying full throttle until the boat planes, then reduce the throttle to a comfortable speed.
The comfortable cruising range for most boats will be between 3000 and 4000 RPMs.
Cruising speed is a perfect time to get comfortable with the trim switch. Adjust the trim and feel the effect it has on the hull.
There’s a sweet spot for every hull at different trim and speed combinations. You’ll know it when you find it.
The Right Speed
Run too slow, and the bow will ride too high. The boat will be making a large wake and burning more gas. Operating at full throttle can be dangerous and burns a lot more fuel than running in the mid-range. The captain has to use his or her judgment as to when you are ready for advanced speed and maneuvering. Use common sense. Captains have everyone’s safety in their hands. Look around occasionally to make sure everyone is remaining in their seats. No one should be standing, leaning over the side, or dangling hands or feet over the side.
Remember: A boat has no brakes. Practice stopping a few times so you have a feel of how much distance it takes to actually stop.
To stop the boat, bring the throttle all the way back to idle speed and trim the motor completely down.
Put the shifter into neutral and allow the boat to slow to a walking speed. Shift to reverse to completely stop the forward motion.
Shifting from Forward to Reverse.
Never shift from forward to reverse until the boat has completely slowed. This could result in serious damage to the engine and the lower unit and possibly injure a passenger with a sudden stop.
Operating in Rough Water
Rough water can present a few challenges for safe and comfortable boating. If the conditions get rough due to high winds and seas, everyone on board should put on their life jacket. No one who ever fell overboard or otherwise ended up in the water by accident knew they were going to – that’s why it’s called an accident, and it’s smart to be prepared.
Most boats provide the best ride when they meet waves bow first, or on one of the bow quarters.
You must always be aware of the conditions that could affect your passengers. When you encounter rough water, warn the passengers and slow the boat to a comfortable crossing speed.
Waves can often surprise boaters, so always keep a sharp eye out. If a large boat crosses somewhere ahead, there’s likely a big wake coming. Don’t be caught off guard.
Keep a sharp eye out for other obstacles too, such as floating debris including logs, trees, or water skis.
Never run too close to shore at high speed – rocks may be hiding in the waves.
All kinds of hidden dangers are just waiting to damage a boat or injure a passenger. Use common sense.
Learn to read the water: Look at the shoreline to get an indication of the depth of the water. A gradual sloping edge will generally indicate shallow water.
A steep bank or a cliff will generally indicate deeper water.
Most major waterways have a system of channels designated with navigational markers. Learn the system for the waters where you boat, and you’ll find it helpful for staying in deep water.
The markers are usually numbered, and these numbers show on nautical charts and on GPS navigational screens, helping you keep track of your location.
Markers are color-coded red or green to designate the channel. It can be a little confusing, particularly around the confluences of waterways, so check an updated chart to be sure.
Tow sports such as waterskiing, tubing, and wakeboarding can add to everyone’s enjoyment of the boat, but it’s best to be careful and safe. The boat needs to have the proper equipment, including an approved tow hook or pylon and a proper tow line. The captain is responsible for the safety of the waterskier or tow-sports athlete, and so needs to understand how to drive the boat correctly for the sport at hand. Also, the captain should assign the duty of observer to someone and make certain both the skier and observer know the hand signals for communicating about the boat speed. The skier should know to enter the water and then move away from the boat. Always keep the tow line clear from the area around the engine.
Tubing, wakeboarding, and waterskiing adds lots of family fun to a day on the water, but it takes added care to make sure these activities remain safe.
Always use a proper towing hook or pylon, or a harness designed to properly attach the ski line to the boat.
Have an experienced driver handle the wheel while towing, and also assign a responsible observer to keep his or her eyes on those being towed at all times.
Review with the skier the basic hand signals for towing. You can find these in your owner’s manual. Make sure the skier, driver, and observer all know and understand these signals.
Skiers are required by law to wear approved floatation devices designed for watersports.
When and Where. Choose an area for skiing where there’s minimal boat traffic, and stay well clear of swimming beaches, docks, or underwater obstructions. Keep the skier at least 100’ (30 m) away from other boats, navigational aids, and shorelines. Never ski in low light conditions, rain or fog – other boaters may not be able to see.
Upon entering the water, the skier should move a short distance away from the boat.
Make sure the trim is down, the wheel is straight, and the area ahead is clear. Once the line is tight, wait for the skier’s universal “hit it” command, then slowly but firmly add throttle.
Once the boat is on plane, reduce throttle to achieve the speed most comfortable for the skier.
Be aware that the force exerted on the tow line may affect the steering somewhat, particularly on smaller boats. Keep skiers at least 100’ (30 m) away from other boats, shorelines or obstructions at all times.
In some states, any time a skier is in the water, the tow boat is required to raise a ski flag, cautioning other boats in the area to look out for a skier in the water. Be sure to check local regulations.
Should boat traffic pass near a fallen skier in the water, the skier should raise a ski high out of the water and wave it to alert the driver of his location.
With the observer keeping an eye on the skier, the driver should make a smooth but quick return for the pickup. Approach the skier in the water at idle speed, always on the driver’s side, going to neutral and turning the engine off as you get close.
Never back up to a skier or swimmer in the water. Also keep an eye on the ski line to make sure it stays clear of the prop and does not wrap around the skier.
We all hate to see a good day on the water to come to an end, but at some point we need to head for home. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind: A boater should never approach the dock faster than he or she wants to hit it.
It Takes Practice. Docking, particularly with added variables, such as wind and currents, is no easy feat. If handled improperly, it can injure the crew, and damage the boat and equipment. Practice maneuvering the boat in open water, away from obstructions, and by all means, with a more experienced captain to learn the finer points. The idea is to get comfortable in a wide range of conditions.
The boater should slow the approach to the dock to allow time to understand the conditions at hand.
Slow down to idle speed while still well clear of the dock. This prevents the wake from causing problems for other boaters already tied up. It also reduces the boat’s momentum, making it easier to maneuver for a soft landing.
In preparation for docking, have a crewmen ready with dock lines attached to cleats on the bow and stern. Take note of traffic, as well as wind and current. Adjust the approach and throttle setting accordingly.
Slow down well in advance to minimize the wake and achieve a more manageable speed. Caution your passengers to keep hands and feet inside the boat while approaching the dock to avoid injury.
To dock side-to, approach the dock into the wind or current, whichever is stronger, at a 45-degree angle to the dock at idle speed.
When the bow is within a few feet of the dock, turn the wheel away from the dock to bring the stern in close.
As soon as the boat is parallel to the dock, put the motor in neutral, then turn the motor straight ahead and drop it into reverse. Use a little throttle to stop the boat, then back to neutral.
The crewman should tie the bow first since it’s headed into the wind and could blow away from the dock.
Then tie the stern. Don’t turn the engine off until the boat is secured.
While much of what is contained in this video and Captain’s Report is suited to novice boaters, those with experience may wish to use it as a refresher. Safe boating should be the goal every time we take to the water.