Safety is especially important on small boats

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Safety is an important focus any time you and your family are out on the water, but this is especially true in small boats. Boats under 26 feet in length are involved in roughly 80 percent of all boating fatalities, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, and a majority of those are due to capsizing or falling overboard. Most of these accidents are caused by excessive speed, reckless operation, operator inattention or inexperience and boating under the influence, meaning that they could have been avoided with proper planning and handling of a boat. To avoid the risk of injury, death or a boating accident that leads to a costly boat insurance claim, keep in mind the dangers specific to a small boat in order to protect yourself, your family and your boat.

Maximum capacity

Even with nobody in them, smaller boats have significantly less freeboard – the distance between the top edge of the hull and the water level. This means that it takes a smaller wave to break the top of the hull, trapping water in the boat.

Add in passengers, food and supplies, and the freeboard in a small boat quickly becomes much smaller. For this reason, it is important to know precisely how much weight your small boat can safely carry. The Coast Guard recommends one of two techniques to identify the safe capacity of your boat. The first is to simply look for the capacity plate, which is affixed to the hull by the manufacturer on most mono-hull boats up to 20 feet long.

If your boat doesn’t have a capacity plate, you can still calculate the maximum passenger capacity using the second technique: simply multiply the length of your boat by the width and divide by 15. This means that if you have a boat that is 15 feet long and 10 feet wide, it can carry a maximum capacity of 10 people safely.

Lower wave-size-to-boat ratio

One of the most important differences between a large boat and a smaller craft is the wave-size-to-boat ratio, according to the Coast Guard. This ratio, just like it sounds, describes the difference between the height of the waves your boat encounters compared to the size of the vessel. While a large boat may be able to handle large waves crashing against its hull, a small boat can easily be capsized – even by the wake of a nearby boat.

In order to avoid this risk, be aware of the size and direction of waves coming toward your boat. You need your full attention to do this, so it is of paramount importance that you are sober and driving at a safe speed at all times.

Weather concerns

Small boats have more trouble dealing with inclement weather than larger boats. Typically, small boats are furnished with fewer bilge pumps, if any at all, according to the Coast Guard, meaning that they cannot empty water from the hull as quickly. Couple that with the fact that even a smaller wave washing over the edge of a smaller boat can quickly fill the hull with water, and it is easy to see how weather conditions can be extremely hazardous to small vessels.

The responsibility for planning around weather conditions falls on the operator. With this in mind, The University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences Fisheries Division Small Boat Safety Manual recommends that operators of all boats check the National Weather Service for information about the waters in which they plan to operate. If the NWS issues a small craft advisory, boaters should stay out of the water.

If you are concerned about the safety of driving your small boat, you should consider taking a boater safety course. Not only will this make operating your small vessel safer for you and your family, it may lower the premiums for your boat insurance.


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