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5 Common Boating Mistakes, and How to Avoid Them

Prevent simple mistakes by following these tips.
Boating Safety

If you're new to boating – or even if you’re not – it’s easy to make simple mistakes that may have serious consequences on the water.  Almost always boating errors are caused by being in a hurry, not paying attention, or both, and most of them are more embarrassing than anything else; for example, failing to tie up the anchor before tossing it over the side or jumping from the boat to the dock and ending up in the water instead.

But the upside to these kinds of errors is that you can easily avoid them by taking a basic boating course, staying focused and always completing a pre-departure checklist.  Never assume somebody pulled up the anchor, put in the boat plug or…well, you name it. Under rules established by the U.S. Coast Guard, a vessel operator is always responsible for his or her actions. Here are five of the most common boating errors and some thoughts on how to avoid them.

1.  Failure to install the boat drain plug prior to launch. Installing the plug is one of the most basic procedures in boating, but on boat launches around the country some boater invariably forgets it almost every weekend. Compounding the problem is that several boat models have more than one plug. If an operator fails to install any of the plugs, the result is a boat full of water.

Embarrassing? Very. But this even happens to professionals on occasion.  I have seen—though rarely—emergency crews launch a boat and take off without installing the plugs. Everything's fine while they are speeding along, but when they slow down to come alongside, the boat suddenly fills with water surprising everyone, especially the person expecting to be rescued! Don’t assume the drain plug is in the boat. 

2.  Failure to pay out enough line when anchoring. In boating, the only thing more frustrating than a boat that won’t go is one that won’t stay put. Anchoring your vessel over a hot fishing spot or in a secluded cove for a few hours of relaxation is part of the fun, but it does require a bit of arithmetic to get it right. Remember that the amount of line needed to anchor a vessel (called scope) should be 5 to 7 times the depth of the water in calm weather, plus the distance from the surface to where the anchor attaches at the bow.  If high winds or rough sea conditions are present, then use 10 times the depth. Fail to use the proper scope and your vessel may drag anchor and drift ashore, into other vessels or - worst case - out to sea!

Boating Chart

Reading a nautical chart is an important skill. A GPS
can tell you where you are and how to get where you
want to go, but it can’t tell you what’s under the boat
or what’s between you and your destination.

Anchors need to be pulled at a narrow angle to the bottom to allow the flukes to catch, dig in and become set. Once you've paid out the right amount of line, set the anchor by securing the line to the bow cleat and drifting or slowly reversing power downwind, with the bow facing the anchor, until you take up the slack. Add a little, but steady, reverse power until the anchor digs in and holds. If the anchor drags, pull it up to see if it’s tangled in the line or fouled by weeds. If so, try again. You may have to move to another location to find the kind of bottom that will allow the anchor to dig in and take hold. Stay away from underwater pipes or power lines where you intend to anchor, otherwise you could get a nasty surprise. Also, if you anchor in the vicinity of other boats, be aware of the fact that if the wind shifts or the current changes your vessel may pivot.  You’ll need to account for this when selecting an anchoring spot.

3.  Failure to carry appropriate and up-to-date nautical charts for the area traveled. In order to be truly safe, a smart skipper will carry a chart of the waters on which he or she is traveling.  Not only do you need to know where you are and what is around you but you also need to know what is under you.  Yes, there is a bottom under all that water, and a chart will tell you how deep the water is, what the bottom is made of and if there are any obstructions that could cause a problem, such as rocks or an old wreck.  Without appropriate charts, a boat operator runs the risk of running aground, hitting submerged objects or just plain getting lost.

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