Be safe on the water during boating season

By: 

Steven Sullivan, Special to the Leader

While growing up near the Wolf River and many lakes in Waupaca and surrounding counties, I’ve been involved in boating activities on these and many other waterways in and outside of Wisconsin. As with many of you, powerboating, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, rafting, water skiing and tubing have always been a part of my life. To go along with these activities comes maintenance and a lot of responsibility.

I’ve had the experience of using various boats and trailers for over 45 years. While working in a law enforcement capacity, I’ve been involved in educating boaters, enforcement of boating laws, and search and rescue for 30 years. I’ve instructed Wisconsin boater safety courses for 20 years, certifying more than 900 safe boaters.

Boater safety course

Boater safety courses teach individuals navigation rules, laws, ethics, personal safety and the proper use of boats and equipment to help them become safe and courteous boaters. Just like driving a car, anyone who is going to utilize any boat or recreational vehicle should take a safety course to learn the safety rules, equipment and laws associated with them. This is a good idea no matter how old we are or how experienced we might think we are.

Individuals born on or after Jan. 1, 1989, and at least 16 years of age must successfully complete a boater safety course in order to legally operate a motorboat of any type on Wisconsin’s waterways. No one under the age of 10 may operate a motorboat. People ages 10-12 must be accompanied by a parent, legal guardian or a person 18 years of age or older who is designated by the parent or guardian.

No one under 12 may operate a personal watercraft (PWC). Parental supervision does not apply on PWCs. People 12 years of age or older who have successfully completed a boater safety course are allowed to operate a motorboat including PWC without parental supervision.

Boating checklist

Know before you go the state, federal and local boating regulations/ordinances (rules of the road for boaters). Most jurisdictions have their rules posted at boat landings and available on websites. Rules change with the times. Reading the regulations is something we should all do each year before heading out on the water. This will keep us in tune with any changes to current rules, new rules and any equipment required to be carried on our boats.

To help to ensure you and your passengers have a safe and enjoyable time on the water, the items listed below are important to check before you go.

• Personal Flotation Devices: There must be one wearable PFD on board your boat for every person on board or being towed. It must be the proper size for the intended wearer. An infant- or child-sized PFD is not made for a 200-pound person and vice versa.

Check PFDs for any holes, tears, mold or thinning/deteriorating material. Be sure all straps and buckles are in serviceable condition. Inflatables also need to be checked to be certain the activation equipment and CO2 cartridges are in proper working condition. (See your owners’ manual.) If a PFD is not in serviceable condition, do not use it aboard your boat.

Boats 16 feet in length or longer must also have a type IV throwable device on board. It’s a good idea to have one aboard any boat. Type IV devices are heavier so they can be thrown a greater distance than a wearable PFD. It is a good idea to tie a rope onto the type IV device.

Always wear your PFD. Nationwide, most boating fatalities are the result of drowning. Statistics show most people who drown while boating were not wearing a PFD but had one available in the boat. Many people who have drowned were good swimmers. Federal law requires children under the age of 13 to wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved PFD while underway in an open vessel on Federally Controlled Waters. This includes a large portion of the Wolf River and the Fox River, as well as the lakes in and along these rivers.

• Learn to swim: Swimming is a fun activity and a great form of exercise. If you’re going boating, learning to swim is one more tool you would have in case something bad happened. Most deaths that occur in or around water happen because of drowning. Most boating fatalities are the result of drowning.

Wearing your PFD and knowing how to swim are important when doing any activity on or around water. By doing both of these, you could cut your chances of being a statistic by a very large amount.

• Navigation lights: Check bulbs, switches, fuses and wires to be sure lights are working properly. Check the bow lights and side lights, red on port (left) and green on starboard (right). Be sure they’re not faded and are able to be seen up to 1 mile on a clear, dark night. The stern light (white) is not faded, and can be seen 360 degrees for up to 2 miles on a clear, dark night. Stern lights must never be obstructed by anything, including people on board. If you have hard-wired lights, always carry extra bulbs and fuses. It’s also a good idea to carry an extra set of battery-operated lights in case the hard-wired ones don’t work. If you’re using battery-operated lights, always carry extra bulbs and batteries. Check your lights before dark while on the water.

• Fire extinguisher: Check the gauge to be certain there is a proper charge. Check hoses for cracks. Check the spray port to be sure nothing is clogging it. (Insects love to make nests in there.) Check the pin to be certain it is intact. Once an extinguisher has the pin removed, it should always be recharged (metal top) or disposed of (plastic top) because the charge can leak out and not be noticed.

Check the manufacture date. If an extinguisher is over 5 years old, it is suggested it be inspected or re-charged (metal top) or discarded (plastic top) because gauges sometimes become stuck in the green over time from the pounding the extinguisher takes on the water.

The contents could also become packed very hard in the bottom of the extinguisher, not allowing proper distribution if needed. It is a good idea to give the extinguisher a few vigorous shakes a few times throughout the year to be sure the material is loose.

• Visual distress signals: Must be in serviceable condition. Check expiration dates and be sure they are stored in a waterproof container and out of sunlight. Not required on all waters, but it’s a good idea to have them wherever you go boating.

• Trailer: Always check the following items on your trailer before you go boating. A couple of times a year, the wheel bearings should be checked for wear and/or the need for grease. If there is any water in the hub or any milky-looking grease, the grease should be replaced. Bearings can become rusty and pitted and can cause bearings to wear out, which could lead to other issues and could cost much more to repair if not caught early.

Tail, signal and stop lights should be checked before you leave home and before you leave the landing area. Tires should be checked at the beginning of the season and periodically for wear and proper inflation. Check the ball and hitch for rust. This could cause bad grounding for trailer lights. Rust can be cleared with sandpaper. Always be sure you are attaching your trailer to a ball that is the same size as the trailer’s hitch (2-inch hitch equals 2-inch ball). Be sure your trailer has and periodically check safety chains. Check lug nuts at the beginning of the season to be sure they are not loose. Then check them periodically.

Other items to have on board your boat include a sound-signaling device (whistle or horn); basic first aid kit, including a CPR mask; extra prop; paddle or oars; anchor and rope; mooring rope; and tool kit.

Steven Sullivan is a deputy sheriff for the Waupaca County Sheriff Department’s water patrol, special conservation warden and boater safety instructor for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and a security officer with ThedaCare.