Boating Safely This Winter (And Beyond)

There’s always a level of danger involved whenever you step onboard a boat. “You have to realize that there’s more risk driving a boat than a car,” said Captain Eric Herstedt, an in-shore fishing guide who leads anglers (fly and bait) on waters ranging from Biscayne Bay to the Everglades and Middle Keys. “Boats don’t have brakes.”

Those risks only increase in the winter months, when lower light, more extreme tides and rougher water conditions increase the odds of running aground…or worse. But there are a number of measures you can take to make sure your next winter excursion is safe and fun and follows the best boating safety practices.

Winter Boating Safety Guide

Above: onboard an offshore sportfishing yacht in the winter months is when boating safety precautions can become even more important. Photo by Marcogovel on Pond5.

Boating Safety For The Winter Months

For starters, one can’t overemphasize the importance of checking the weather forecast before you head out from your marina or launch. “In the winter, conditions can change quickly,” said Brandon Murray, Petty Officer Second Class with the U.S. Coast Guard 7th District. “Winter storms can blow in and create rough weather and sharp temperature changes. You wouldn’t think of hypothermia being a problem in Florida, but it can be a concern. It’s often less experienced boaters who get into trouble, folks that been out on inland waters or sheltered bays, but are unfamiliar with open ocean conditions.”

“The wind might be coming from one direction when you leave, but completely shift on your way back,” Captain Herstedt continued. “The smaller the boat, the more important it is that you’re aware of what’s happening. When I’m guiding in the Everglades, I frequently come upon people with canoes launching to go on a camping trip. I try to explain it nicely, but the bottom line of what I say is –‘You head out with the current forecast, you’re risking your life.’”

Boating In Shallow Water And Low Light

The winter months bring more extreme tides, which often means lower water. A good pair of polarized sunglasses are essential to avoid running aground…or in the least, tearing up sensitive marine habitat. “Darker lenses are fine off-shore, but in-shore, in water ten feet or less, copper or amber lenses are much better,” Captain Herstedt said. “There’s a great little jingle in the Everglades that every boater should remember:

“Brown, brown, run aground.
White, white, you just might.
Blue, blue, sail on through.
Green, green, nice and clean.”

Running aground in shallow water can, to say the least, ruin your day. You might be left to wait for a higher tide to move you off the bottom. You might do costly damage to your engine or your hull. And worst of all, you’ll likely do long-term damage to the shallow water habitats that are essential to recreational fisheries. “These habitats trap sand and dirt suspended in the water, which keeps our waters clear,” said Dr. Ross Boucek, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust’s Florida Keys Initiative Manager. “And when you run over seagrasses, you create a scar on the habitat. These scars take four to seven years to recover, which means a little mistake on the water causes long term damage.”

“If you see murky conditions ahead or other boats, slow down—immediately,” Captain Herstedt added. “Stop and assess the area. If it seems shallow, go around rather than trying to take a shortcut across. It’s better to get someplace 15 minutes later than to break up your boat.
Also be sure to slow down when you come to a blind corner. Many head-on collisions occur on such corners; as you approach, slow your speed and stay on your side of the road.”

3 Safety Tips: Speeding, Float Plans And Life Jackets

During the winter months, it’s also important to obey reduced speed limits around in-shore channels. “We see a great deal of manatee mortality in the winter due to migration patterns that bring them closer to shore,” said Ronald Washington, Public Information Officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “No-wake zones are enforced in Florida from November 15 to April 30.”

One of the most important things you can do to help prevent a carefree afternoon cruise turning into a life or death situation is filing a float plan. “This sounds kind of technical,” Officer Murray continued, “but it just means telling friends or family where you’re going, and how long you plan to be out. Be as specific as possible. If we get an overdue boater call and have a good idea of the area where you were going to be, we can get on the search a lot quicker.”

Another thing you can do to ensure your safety and the well-being of your passengers is wear a lifejacket. “People don’t tend to wear them unless they have to – like those operating personal watercraft, or children under age six,” Officer Washington shared. “We’d like to see more of the main boating demographic – middle aged men – wearing lifejackets. There are some very comfortable models on the market, particularly the inflatable ones that expand if you hit the water. Most deaths from accidents are due to drowning, and are preventable. Boating sober also saves lives. Alcohol is a direct factor in many boating accidents. Switch out the beer for a sports drink.”

The Bottom Line: Be Prepared

If you’re heading out for a day on the water, you don’t want to forget your fishing tackle or the cooler with your lunch. And you definitely don’t want to take shortcuts when it comes to your safety. Below is a partial safety checklist for safe boating.

  1. Have a full gas tank
  2. Check the weather conditions carefully for the full day
  3. Know your boat’s limitations; if you have a 22’ boat, you shouldn’t head 30 miles out in the Gulf if there’s any wind or rough weather forecast
  4. Make sure your navigation lights work; you can lose visibility quickly during low-light times, and others can lose visibility of you
  5. Wear a life vest, and also bring floating cushions
  6. Bring working flares
  7. Bring polarized glasses, preferably with lighter shaded lenses
  8. Carry an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB); if your boat capsizes, it will ping out a single so the Coast Guard can find you
  9. Carry a VHF radio (you can reach the Coast Guard on Channel 16)
  10. Let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back (a float plan)
  11. Bring plenty of warm clothes…even if it’s 80 and sunny when you set out
  12. Have an understanding of the depth of the water where you’re going; know the channels well, as you can lose track of them quickly in lower light
  13. Don’t boat under the influence of alcohol or drugs

“Everybody on board is responsible for the safe operation of the boat,” Officer Washington added. “If it seems that Uncle Fred has had one too many or you see something else that looks unsafe, speak up.”

“Out on the water, you’ve got to be self-reliant,” advised Captain Herstedt. “Make sure you’re well-equipped. If you get stranded in the middle of nowhere, you can’t call AAA.”

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