While enjoying a beautiful day on the water is a great way to spend time with children, it’s extremely important to promote basic safe boating practices long before you ever leave the dock. A modest investment in proper equipment and a brief training lesson can reap huge dividends. Stress the importance of the safety lessons and you’ll quickly learn that time spent sharing skills with your smallest shipmates makes for happier and safer excursions.
Safe boating starts with properly fitted life jackets.
Florida law mandates that all children under 6-years of age wear a USCG-approved life jacket while a vessel is underway. Compliance greatly tips the odds in your favor should trouble occur, considering 75% of all boating related drowning victims in 2009 were not wearing life jackets. Do not compromise with your children. The boat does not leave the dock until life jackets are on.
Not surprisingly, the traditional Type II orange life jacket, while inexpensive and effective, is uncomfortable and boring for kids. Modern life vests on the other hand come in various designs for specific purposes with many parents finding Type III vests intended for water sports enthusiasts a much easier sell. They are much more comfortable and come in a range of kid-friendly colors. Allow your kids to pick out their own life vest. Not only will you ensure a proper fit; letting them select their own design may be enough to make wearing a life vest enjoyable. Equally important, set the right example for children by wearing your own life jacket while underway. And don’t forget to make sure your kids wear deck shoes to prevent slips and falls. Hats, sunscreen and long-sleeved shirts will provide protection from the sun.
Safe boating requires essential skills for both crew and passengers. Some boating skills take time to learn, like proper navigation. While obviously age dependent, children can learn to read a chart at a very young age and can be taught to use landmarks to approximate current position. It’s also important to teach children proper nautical terminology. Starboard, Port, Bow, Stern—these key words are important when describing an action in relation to an approaching vessel. Also, don’t lose sight of the fact that a child who is engaged while onboard will typically remain interested in boating for life.
Kids should be assigned real responsibilities while onboard, at the dock and during boarding and disembarking. By doing so you reinforce the message that you value safe boating skills. Treat children as valued members of the crew. Introduce them to your boat’s safety equipment and teach them how to operate it, making age-appropriate modifications to the safety spiel you’d provide an adult.
Make sure your kids understand danger. Don’t scare them, but make them aware that boating involves serious risks and that their actions can minimize those risks. Talk about propellers, hooks and leaning over the rail. It’s important to point out that safety features such as signal flares and fire extinguishers are not toys and are only to be used in the event of a real emergency.
Third, give each child a task while the boat is underway, making sure they are firmly seated with both feet on the ground. Young passengers can serve as lookouts—they may point out that floating debris loaded with dolphin you would have otherwise missed. Assign children a direction to survey and teach them how to call out what they see. Encourage them to take note of their surroundings, like who can spot the most flying fish.
For more adventurous kids, designate them as assistant navigator. Teach them how to set the anchor. Join them in checking the deck for loose objects and making sure everything is safely stored before getting underway. Kids can assist in making the boat a safer place while actually having fun doing so.
For parents who want to know more, the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary offers courses on boating safety and seamanship. About Boating Safely is ideal for young teens to take alongside mom and dad. Successfully completing this course often results in lower boating insurance rates so be sure to consult with your agent. There are also two courses created especially for younger children. Boating Fun is written in storybook fashion and is designed for 4 to 9-year olds. Waypoints is a ‘best-of’ version of About Boating Safely, written in a style that appeals to preteens. You can download free copies of both at cgaux.org/boatinged. Instilling safe boating skills at an early age will go a long way toward making your fishing and boating experiences safer and more successful.