2021 could see record number of first-time boaters: Here’s how to have a safe, fun outing

2021 could see record number of first-time boaters: Here’s how to have a safe, fun outing

05/31/2021

After more than a year of COVID-19 safety precautions and a long winter in many parts of the country, a day on the water may be just what the doctor ordered. The only problem: Lots of other people have the same idea.

This summer is expected to bring record boat traffic. The marine industry reports a 35% increase in first-time boat ownership from last year with 350,000 people nationally purchasing their first powerboat and another 65,000 buying their first personal watercraft, according to figures from Info-Link Technologies and the Coast Guard. 

“2020 was a different year in the course of the boating industry and sales,” Water Sports Foundation Executive Director Jim Emmons said. “With social distancing and summer trips being canceled because of the coronavirus, people turned to boating in a big way.”

“It’s all about nautical distancing,” said Gavan Hunt, the vice president of sales for Chris-Craft Boats based in Sarasota, Florida. “Truly, it was a freedom people needed and wanted during the pandemic. It’s one of the few places you could be with family and not be worried.”

There are 35% more first-time boaters hitting the waters this summer after the COVID-19 pandemic spurred more people to buy one as a means to enjoy the outdoors while remaining socially distant. (Photo: skynesher/Getty Images)

The National Marine Manufacturers Association reports $47 billion in sales of boats, marine products and related services nationally in 2020. It’s the highest total in 13 years.

“What we found in our research was that for a lot of people thinking about buying a boat for years that timeline was sped up due to the pandemic,” Emmons said. “People want to recreate in a safe way where they can follow social distancing.”

Along with the influx of new boat owners, you’ll see first-timers out in rental boats. In addition to the traditional rental services you find at marinas, these days, you can also book through peer-to-peer services like Boatsetter. You tell them the when and where, and the site shows you what’s available in your area.

If you’re ready to get out on the water, here are tips that may help if you’re considering renting a boat.

Make sure you’re legal

Check with your rental company and state guidelines to learn the minimum age requirements for renting and operating a boat. 

Many states actually require would-be boaters to pass a course before operating a boat. Regardless of whether or not they’re required, classes are still a good idea for inexperienced boaters.

Speaking of rules, look into whether you need a license to fish where you’re going. But Many states offer these services online as well as temporary licenses good for 24 hours, seven days or 15 days.

Find the right boat  

While it’s important to choose a boat that’s appropriate for your skill level and the number of people on the trip, it’s even more crucial to pick the right boat for the water conditions you’ll be in. Flatwater lakes and open oceans call for very different watercraft.

You can also do a little pre-rental reconnaissance by visiting the water you plan to boat on. Which types and lengths of boats seem most common? If you can’t go in person, try asking a local boating group on Facebook or Reddit what is most suitable for a particular body of water.

Decide how long you need the boat

In some ways, boat rentals are a lot like car rentals. Generally speaking, the bigger and more powerful the boat, the more you’ll pay. You’ll need to put down a security deposit. 

Rentals are typically available by the hour, half day, full day or even a week. Paying by the hour is often the most expensive option, so consider whether one of the longer options might save you money.

Get educated

Newer boats often come with an engine cut-off switch (an onboard safety device that is connected to the boat’s captain, usually, by a coiled bracelet). Should the driver fall out of the boat, the cut-off switch will immediately stop the boat’s engine. (Photo: WCIT)

For those of us who may occasionally take the helm but don’t plan to become full-fledged boaters, the BoatUS Foundation offers free online boating safety courses that are tailored to each state; the courses are recognized by the U.S. Coast Guard and approved by state boat licensing agencies.Topics covered in the courses include the marine environment, boating equipment, trip preparation, safe operation, emergency preparation and boating activities. 

Once you settle on a boat and know its make and model, have the designated driver Google its owner’s manual and get familiar with the controls and features ahead of time. Find out if your boat is equipped with an engine cut-off switch. It’s an onboard safety device that is connected to the boat’s captain. Should the driver fall out of the boat, the cut-off switch will immediately stop the boat’s engine.

Consider who will be captain

Your safety on the water rests in the hands of the person you designate as the driver. (Photo: Courtesy of Susan B. Barnes/Special to USA TODAY)

Think about the people who will be on the boat and who among them has the most boating experience – or, at the very least, can be counted on to take a boating safety course and obtain a license before your trip.

If you don’t trust yourself or your companions to drive, consider hiring a captain to operate the boat. You can arrange for one through a boat rental company; their expertise on the water and knowledge of the best places to go can make for a fantastic outing. Opting for a captain can be more relaxing for the entire group so no one in the rental party has to “work” while on the water. 

If anyone in your group plans to water ski or wakeboard behind the boat, consider delegating people to watch them and keep an eye out for oncoming traffic and report to the driver.

Observe COVID-19 and boat capacity rules

Be aware that COVID-19 protocols may still be in place in some states and counties, as well as at local businesses. For instance, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in most situations, you may still need one to enter the rental office.

Social-distancing rules may still dictate the number of people who can be on your boat. See if your state, county or city has any capacity limits before you invite too many people.

Regardless of COVID-19, it’s important to observe your boat’s weight and occupancy limits, which are stated on its capacity plate, usually mounted near the helm or steering wheel.

Wear a life jacket and file a float plan

"The most important thing is to have people prepared before something happens. That's why it's so important to wear a life jacket," says the Coast Guard's Ellen DeLeo. "Once something happens, you don't understand how hard it is to get a life jacket on." (Photo: jjshaw14/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Ellen DeLeo, a Coast Guard Auxiliary commander based in Florida, hopes wearing a life jacket at all times is top of mind for boaters and passengers.

“The most important thing is to have people prepared before something happens. That’s why it’s so important to wear a life jacket,” says DeLeo. “Once something happens, you don’t understand how hard it is to get a life jacket on.” 

The Coast Guard says that of all the fatal boating incidents in 2019, 79% of victims drowned. Of those deaths, 86% were not wearing a life jacket.

The Coast Guard's app lets you file a float plan detailing where you're headed, what kind of boat you're on and whom to contact if you don't come back on time. (Photo: USA TODAY)

She also emphasizes the need to file a float plan that includes a description of the vessel, number of people on board, destination and the route being taken to the destination. 

You can file your own float plan through the Coast Guard’s mobile app or website and send the information to friends and family who won’t be on the boat with you.

“If you’re overdue for arrival, you want someone looking for you right away,” DeLeo said.

Speaking of life jackets, consider getting one for your phone. Cellphone dry sacks are watertight, transparent cases that allow you to operate the screen without opening the bag. They also come on lanyards that you can hang around your neck. That feature reduces the risk of your phone flying out of your hand when the boat speeds up after leaving a no-wake zone. You can find them for under $20 at Amazon or outdoor outfitters like REI.

Ease back on the throttle

Think of no-wake zones like school zones: You need to slow way down before you enter one and keep your speed low until you exit. (Photo: nicolamargaret/Getty Images)

Bear in mind that America’s waterways are usually especially crowded on summer holiday weekends, beginning with Memorial Day.

If you’re new to boating with limited experience, don’t choose the busiest boating days of the year to travel to the most populated hot spot for boaters in the area. The ability to safely navigate, drop and set anchors and lines in confined spaces is exacerbated in close quarters.

Always complete all prep work first in the staging area – out of the way of a ramp where other boaters are launching. When it's your turn, get the boat in and your vehicle out as soon as possible. (Photo: jameslee999/Getty Images)

Also, watch your speed. You’ll often encounter no-wake zones around docks, bridges and other spots where speed could cause accidents. Think of these as aquatic school zones. You need to slow down well before entering one and as long as you’re in it, you can’t go fast enough to create a wake behind your boat. You must remain at idle speed (around 5 mph) until you see the “End no wake zone” sign. Breaking the rules is a sure way to get stopped by the Coast Guard or local authorities.

Discover Boating, which caters to newcomers, offers a primer on no-wake zones, along with a guide to boat ramp etiquette, as well as tips for avoiding running aground and collisions.

Keep an eye on the sky

Stay ahead of storms by downloading a marine weather app to your phone. (Photo: slavasam777/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Storms, lightning, changing tides, currents, winds and other inclement weather conditions can endanger the safety of boaters. Download a marine weather app to your phone before you head out for the day and check it throughout the trip. Should you be on a boat when Mother Nature unleashes her fury, find shelter as soon as possible.

Don’t forget to bring the essentials

Finally, pack a cooler with food and drinks. And don’t forget to bring a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen. It only takes one serious sunburn incident to realize how much light the water reflects. 

No drinking on duty

This should go without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: If you’re piloting the boat, abstain from booze. The Coast Guard reported that alcohol was the leading contributing factor in fatal boat accidents in 2019, accounting for over 100 deaths, or 23% of total fatalities.

“We want everybody to come home safe and have a great time,” DeLeo says.

Contributing: Adam Regan, Naples Daily News; Susan B. Barnes

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