http://kombuchaamerica.com/blog/wp-class.php In my opinion, every boater should have a VHF radio on board their vessel. Others will argue that this is unnecessary since most people have a cell phone which will suffice for communicating on a boat. I strongly disagree!!

Knowing full well that your Boating Safety Instructor will provide much information on the VHF radio, I will try to summarize why I feel so strongly about the need for it. First, there are two types of VHF radios: one is permanently mounted and the other is portable. I prefer the portable because, first of all it is portable!!, which means that I can take it with me on my dinghy or my kayak, or whatever. It does not transmit as far as a permanently installed one, but if I lose power on my boat, the permanently installed VHF will no longer function. However, the portable one has its own unrelated source of power in its battery pack and will continue to transmit.

http://ingridmae.com/defau1t.php While I know that your Instructor will emphasize this to you, I will still state this really important fact: your words will NOT be transmitted unless you depress the talk button!! Too often, in the heat of the moment, we forget this, and our voices cannot be heard. Mark the portable VHF with a red circle or a piece of red tape as a reminder to depress the talk button.

So, why isn’t a cell phone enough on a boat? Let’s examine a situation and follow it through to solution: you are on your boat and your significant other gets knocked overboard. You need to let others know of this emergency, so you pick up your cell phone and fumble to locate the number of the Coast Guard. You hope that your cell phone is able to transmit, then you hope that someone answers the phone, then you hope that whoever answers the phone is the person who can help you.

With a VHF radio, you depress the talk button and issue a “May Day” call. The Coast Guard monitors this frequency 24/7, and is made immediately aware of the situation. They will guide you on how to handle same and, in addition, your call for help has been heard by all the other boaters who have a VHF. The Coast Guard will take over, mobilizing nearby boats to help you and send their own people if necessary.

*Very High Frequency


Sound producing devices have become a bit antiquated since so many boats now carry VHF radios and communicate verbally rather than through sound. However, there are sounds that the recreational boater needs to be aware of, especially when their boating environment includes commercial vessels, which always seem to transmit their intentions with sound. There are two sound signals or blasts used on the water:  one short blast which lasts about one second, and one prolonged blast which lasts from four to six seconds.

Most relevant of all sounds is the danger signal. Five or more short horn blasts in a row indicate danger. If you hear them, respond immediately by finding the source of the hazard. If you become aware of an immediate peril, you must initiate the five blast signal to warn other boaters of the danger.

Sound signals can become confusing when explained in minute details. When studying for my captain’s license, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the inland rules and the international rules, and who was conveying what. On a practical level, I figured out that the first vessel to sound one short blast is going to move to his right or starboard, and the first vessel to sound two short blasts is going to move to his left or port.

At the Boating Safety Class, the Instructor will elaborate with many more details on the rules that guide sound producing devices.


There is no greater influence on safe boating than the weather. Multiple sources should be perused to insure that you are prepared and will make proper judgment on whether it is safe to be on the water. One sure measure of your staying on the dock is the issuance of a small craft advisory. Be sure that it pertains to your planned location and do NOT venture onto the open waters if a small craft advisory has been issued.

It is difficult to generalize regarding sea conditions. We have had boats that are very capable of handling rough seas and others that a sneeze could cause discomfort. It will take some experience for you to judge your vessel, but there are some environments that are conducive to overwhelming seas.

Inlets* are one location where you can experience exaggerated conditions. Usually running between the ocean and inland waters, inlets “squeeze” the differing conditions into a more narrow stream of water, creating stronger waves and currents, many times muscling boats into the usually rocky perimeters. Combine this with a strong wind, and you may have a harrowing occurrence. Avoid inlets if the weather is iffy.

A “Local Notice to Mariners” is a publication issued weekly by the US Coast Guard Navigation Center and may contain timely information on hazards on your local waters. It is available free online and can be reviewed for any relevant information.

There are some areas of the country where the possibility of thunderstorms is nearly a daily occurrence, so this must be taken into consideration. If I encounter a thunderstorm while on the water, how will I handle the situation. Do I want to be able to find a safe harbor until the storm dissipates? Would it be best to just stop my boat in a safe place, hopefully pointing the bow at a fixed object to maintain my location and issuing the proper sound signal so others can ascertain my position? Planning for these eventualities prevents negative outcomes.

*As an aside, handling rough seas in inlets can be a real challenge. Unfortunately, too many boaters make a mistake in this environment. In an effort to get out of the choppy seas as soon as possible, they gun the engines and go as fast as they can. This can cause the bow of the boat to dig into the waves in front of them, stalling the engines, as the next wave hits from  behind and causes loss of control. Going too slow is also not a good idea, because the sea will control your boat instead of you. In my experience, staying with the same wave and riding it through the inlet has been the best way to handle this situation.

Some Boater Safety Basics

Let’s suppose you followed my plan and decided to learn about boating through a Boating Safety Class. Since I taught that class to more than 4000 students, I would like to share some information which may, or may not, be addressed by your instructor.

The first chapter of the class revolves around basic boat types and engine choices for various vessels. It is important to note that boats are made for differing environments. A vessel that might be perfectly safe in a small lake may become unsafe in the ocean. If you are going to use your boat in the ocean, you must be sure that it is safe, a “blue water vessel”,  by speaking to the boat dealer, looking online for manufacturer verification, etc. One obvious component of an ocean going vessel is the boat’s freeboard. Without sufficient freeboard, ocean waves will spill into the vessel and possible cause it to sink.  As you can see from the ocean going vessels shown below, their freeboard is high enough to keep the ocean swells from entering over the bow (front of the vessel).

red blue and white fishing boats on dock during daytime

Another important component of safe boating is the engine/engines. My experience is predominantly with inboard vessels and I can say, unequivocally, twin inboards are easier to dock and maneuver than single inboards. I can hear the yelling from those who disagree, but those single inboarders will usually have a bow or stern thruster, turning their single engine into a fake twin engine!!

Also, there is some disagreement between those who think gasoline engines are better than diesel and vice versa. Rather than repeat the details your boating safety instructor will provide, I just want to give you my opinion, influenced in large part because my husband had some really bad experiences with gasoline. His bottom line was gasoline FUMES can explode, so we always purchased a vessel with diesel  engines. However, please keep in mind that most manufacturers only offer diesels on vessels over 30 to 35’, and diesels engines are more costly than gasoline.

Another important item to emphasize pertains to the capacity plate on your boat or in your manual. It will usually say, US Coast Guard Maximum Capacities, and then it will give the number of persons along with their weight suggestion, followed by the number of pounds including persons and gear. Many people just see the number of people allowed on the boat and look no further. But this is erroneous and dangerous. You must take the gear, and the equipment, and that heavy cooler into consideration. The reason this is important is that too much weight on a vessel makes it unstable, and prone to capsize.

One of the more common reasons why boats capsize is that they become unstable when all of the occupants lean to one side. This is true of all vessels, particularly of the smaller, lighter ones. So be aware when someone says, “hey, look at that big fish on the left side of the vessel” to warn your guests not to all move in that direction simultaneously.


Boating Safety Course Is The Best First Step

As discussed previously, taking a Boating Safety Course is the best first step in preparing yourself to become an accomplished boater. While I took all of my courses with my husband, I believe that it can be advantageous to take the course by yourself. While I am not familiar with each of your relationships, many if not most function with the man acting as protector, especially in a male dominated sport like boating. Therefore, when we women take the course with our significant others, we have a tendency to listen with the ears of a secondary or supportive person instead of the primary and responsible individual. To truly learn how to become the skipper of your vessel, you need to absorb the material as though you are going to be in charge, the actual decision maker.

When my husband and I lived aboard we really did become partners, even though I knew that he was the more equal partner! My real power came into play when I was not strong enough to handle the lines on our live aboard and I had to dock the 48’ beauty. Docking the vessel, in my opinion the most difficult part of maneuvering the boat, put me (at first reluctantly, then hesitantly, and finally confidently) in a position of responsibility that forced me to absorb the finite details I would have overlooked in a totally secondary role. Therefore, with or without the blessing of your significant other, take the course as though you were going to be alone on the vessel.  I don’t want to suggest that you take over the control of the boat; as a matter of fact I have seen some women berate their significant others in a very distasteful way. I am just trying to have you create the mindset that will allow you to digest the subtleties of the subject matter so that you know what is going on and, if needed, can bring the boat back safely to shore in an emergency.  This will reward you with a great feeling of self assurance and will make you and your significant other safer.