Safe Boating Week: Memorial Day Tips From Jim Emmons, Water Sports Foundation

Although the July 4th Holiday is generally considered the biggest boating weekend of the year, Memorial Day marks the kick off to the boating season in many parts of the country. That means that many boaters – some of them new to the water entirely – are clamoring to get out there and enjoy some fun in the sun. But in that mad rush to get everyone onboard and fishing and floating around their favorite Stomping Grounds, boating safety is more important than ever. That’s why we sat down with the Executive Director of the Water Sports Foundation to discuss some tips and advice – and some of the biggest topics and issues in boating safety right now – ahead of this weekend’s fun.

Below is a transcript of our interview, led by Marilyn DeMartini.

Mother Helps Children Put On Life Jackets For Boat

Above: A mother helping her daughters put on life jacket safety vests for a day of safe boating on the water. Photo by Creative Footage on Pond5.

Understanding The Rules Of The Road

BT – We are with Jim Emmons who has been the passionate Executive Director of the Water Sports Foundation for over 10 years. The Water Sports Foundation just embarked on a major boating safety initiative – prompted by the 415,000 new boater owners on the water in just the past year. While boating safety has always been important, but now, knowledge of HOW to stay safe on the water is paramount.

Anyone who has been on the waterways in the U.S. over the past year can testify — it’s crowded out there and MANY people do not understand the rules of the road or navigation, boat launching, docking or anchoring and mooring. It’s understandable that new boaters need to learn skills, but the pandemic prevented many normal personal interactions with dealers to help orient a new boater. Now, with Memorial Day being the kickoff of the season in most of the country it’s important to remind boaters to be safer on the water.

Jim, we understand the push for boating safety with 415,000 new boat owners on the water. But what is the mission of the Water Sports Foundation?

JE – The Water Sports Foundation, through more than a dozen U.S Coast Guard non-profit grants has been a primary provider of boating safety outreach. Last year, we were awarded funds for a new project to develop a national public relations campaign. This project included the development of a new website that is one-stop shopping for consumers, the industry and media to get all the boating safety resources they need. In an entertaining way, we describe and list sources for boating education, address safety for paddlers — a serious need as nearly 1 out of every 3 boating fatalities involves a paddler. We provide real world stories with which people can identify and articles, videos and even Spanish language radio recordings to bring this important message home. Safer boating and the reduction of the senseless loss of life is achievable with preparation and education.

Common Sense Helps Avoid Boating Accidents

BT – What are the most important issues that you are trying to address and what is your timing?

JE – At this time of year, we’re focusing our outreach efforts in advance of the Memorial Day and 4th of July weekends as they are the biggest boating holidays in the U.S. Though boating in the southeast and southwest can be year-around, we look at all the people who are taking to the lakes, rivers and oceans in a variety of boat sizes, boat types and styles and do everything we can to remind them to be safe on the water.

The tragedy of a boating accident will haunt a family forever, especially is a loved one is lost. With minimal preparations the senseless loss life can be avoided and while overall boating deaths have declined in the past twenty years, even on one death is too many! While we direct much of the educational aspect to new boaters, even seasoned boaters can learn something new or hone their already acquired skills. Every time I take a boating education course, I learn something new.

Key Boating Safety Tips

Our common sense message is very clear on several key boating points:

Wear life jackets. Drowning is the cause of death in 79% of fatal boating accidents—and 86% of those were not wearing life jackets. That situation is simply solved if boaters would just wear a life jacket! And now, there are comfortable and more attractive options to the big orange jackets most people think of. The inflatable suspender or belt pack styles are comfortable and easy to wear and there is even an inflatable Lifeshirt in development that could revolutionize water safety—especially for children and I personally and professionally support this new technology and hope it hits the market soon. Boaters should also check the laws in their state on life jacket usage—especially for children since the age limits vary.

Don’t drink and drive. Drinking and boating is a recipe for disaster—and Boating Under the Influence is illegal everywhere. Getting a BUI will be an expensive and life-disrupting experience—just like a DUI. Plus, the statistics are “sobering.” When the cause of death was known, 23% of fatal accidents were alcohol related – the leading known contributing factor to boating deaths in the U.S. We all know that a cold beverage tastes great while boating, but for the captain, this is not just a refreshment—boating is a responsibility. Even when passengers are drinking—especially in the hot sun and while underway, as temperature, wind and waves affects how we assimilate alcohol. Tipsy guests can cause serious accidents like falls and falling overboard, while a tipsy captain can cause fatal accidents that will ruin any survivors’ lives forever. One of our partners, Sea Tow, created the Sober Skipper program as a solution—it’s like a designated driver program on the water.

Get skills training. Since the pandemic prohibited many dealers and OEMs from conducting personal training for those purchasing new and used boats over the past year, these new boaters have still hit the water, in many cases not knowing the basics of rules of the road (navigation), launching a boat at a ramp, docking or operating with all the new technologies onboard. The Water Sports Foundation has curated the many boating educational opportunities across the country—both online and now, more in-person, so people can find out where and how to get the skills training and safety education they need to enjoy their boating experiences more. It is much more fun—for the captain and passengers—when the skipper knows what to do, getting to and from and on the water! A safe and positive experience keeps people in the sport, rather than selling their boat because they had an unpleasant or unsafe experience.

Beware of paddle-boarders (and kayakers). Paddlesports are included in this safety effort as well, for as noted, nearly one out of three boating deaths involves a paddler. With the skyrocketing numbers of kayaks, paddleboards, fishing kayaks and canoes sold in the past year, the waterways are filled with new paddlers who likely do not know how to properly navigate and operate their vessel. They can easily be overlooked in traffic by powerboaters who don’t even see them. Wear brightly colored clothing that’s suitable for the water temperature because kayaking has been described as a swimming sport when not kayaking. And, especially for paddlers, always wear your life jacket!

Wear a lanyard (kill switch). Be aware of the new engine cut-off switch legislation (ECOS) which mandates use of a cut-off switch (usually a red coiled lanyard attached to the helm), on boats 26’ or smaller while on-plane. Its use is key to boating safety because if the captain is suddenly dislodged from the helm, or falls overboard, with the throttle down, the boat’s rudder torque forces the un-manned vessel into a circular pattern, causing a life-threatening situation! When using an engine cutoff device, if the captain is unexpectedly thrown from the helm, the engine stops. A new law went into effect on April 1, 2021 requiring boaters use their engine cutoff device.

BT – That is a LOT of information and some scary numbers. Where can people find more about these situations, resources and other ways to stay safe?

JE – Just visit the Water Sports Foundation Programs Page that has a ton of information, all of which is easy to find and understand, with links to all sorts of articles that make it entertaining as well as informative. We are very happy and grateful that the U.S. Coast Guard made this site possible. In our Top Tips article there is a Coast Guard free mobile app for boating safety, weather and regulations, and the site even has a Media Center to help people like you find all the information they need to write educational articles for your readers, viewers and visitors! The Water Sports Foundation is truly one-stop-shopping for boating safety!

BT – Of course, we also recommend all boaters – especially new ones – review all the great resources on Boat Trader as well before the season, including our boating safety guide , captains bag inventory checklist and our getting your boat ready for the summer articles. Remember that the three most important aspects of any day spent boating on the water are: safety, safety, safety!


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