Believe it or not, the U.S. Coast Guard does not require a boat operator to learn anything at all about boating prior to getting behind the wheel and advancing the throttle. In fact, you can drive any size vessel that you can afford to purchase (or be invited aboard) and go to town! Imagine if the same rules applied to civilian aircraft.
Statistically, the three main causes of fatalities and casualties in boating are drowning, operating under the influence and ignorance. The government is working assiduously on cutting the number of accidents in all three cases. (In 2009, the Coast Guard counted 4,730 accidents that involved 736 deaths, 3,358 injuries and approximately $36 million of damage to property as a result of recreational boating accidents.) Under way today is a program to get people (especially those at high risk while engaged in towed water sports or operating small, unstable vessels, etc.) to wear life jackets. A second program targets drinking and boating through media, education and on-water law-enforcement efforts, especially over holiday weekends.
The Most Common Cause
But the most common cause of casualties and fatalities while boating remains plain old ignorance. Though the Feds are quietly working toward mandatory boater education, regulations currently exist on a state-by-state basis. Virtually every state has some sort of boating-education requirement except for Alaska, Arizona, California (yeah, can you believe that?), Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, South Dakota, Wyoming, and the territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. You can see exactly what each state's requirements are by visiting americasboatingcourse.com/abc_website/state_boating_law.htm.
In many quarters, mandatory education represents a real point of contention, as conspiracy theorists claim it is really a tax on boating. However, I personally consider education a good thing. What I would object to is paying for a boating license or certificate with no education requirement. That would be a tax.
Experienced (read: educated) boaters can only shake their heads when they witness truly egregious (read: stupid) errors of navigation and right of way while cruising. Inexperienced operators can benefit from taking a boating course in several ways: Knowledge builds confidence and therefore lowers stress. And of course, you can more readily avoid the enmity of your fellow mariners by not doing anything dumb.
Every State Wants Its Say
Numerous companies offer online courses to fulfill your state requirements and issue you a certificate. Some of them charge for the service, while other equally good (and in many cases better) courses are completely free. Unfortunately, most states do not offer reciprocity, so if you live in Florida and plan to take your boat up the coast (by water) to New England for the summer, you better get certificates for each state you transit! Also, though it's not necessary, reading one of the three bibles of boating - Chapman's Piloting & Seamanship, The Annapolis Book of Seamanship or The Practical Encyclopedia of Boating - can be helpful.
Some courses are more fun and/or more interactive than others. Also, several offer one-stop shopping by allowing you to choose your state, and a number of states also provide their own online courses. Then there's the classroom route that some people find more suited to their learning style. For those, you should consider the U.S. Power Squadron and the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary courses. Look at several before embarking on your schooling adventure. Also, check with the state requirements to determine if you really need one in a particular state. Many states have age limits - those of a certain advanced age may not need one this year.
Points to Ponder
The following represent some of the things necessary when boating as well as how to accomplish them:
Always maintain a lookout to watch for hazards of all sorts.
Know and comply with all navigation aids, speed limits and exclusion zones.
Drive at prudent speeds for your location and conditions.
Know what to do when meeting, passing or overtaking another vessel.
Always be aware of the wake you create. You are completely responsible for any damage or injuries it causes.
Enter anchoring or marina areas at a slow speed.
Remember "Red, Right, Returning" - when entering a harbor, keep red navigational aids (buoys, daymarks, lights) on your right when passing them.
Power-driven vessels must give way to boats engaged in sailing or fishing unless room to navigate safely is limited.
Boats ahead and to the right of your bow have the right of way in a crossing situation.
Appoint a designated driver: Law enforcement now treats Boating Under the Influence (BUI) offenses the same as DUIs.
The U.S. Coast Guard requires the following for every vessel:
A personal flotation device for each person on board. (Personal-flotation-device laws for children vary by state.)
A sound-producing device, such as a bell, horn or whistle.
At least one approved fire extinguisher on board.
Approved visual distress signals.
Boating Certification Courses