Safety First in Boating

By Elizabeth Ratliff | May 2, 2005
From Missouri Conservationist: May 2005

Flowers are blooming, birds are singing, and boats are shucking their covers all over Missouri. Warm days in April and May bring fishermen and boaters to the state's waterways in droves. Before launching your boat for the first time this spring, there are a few things to keep in mind to make your boating experience safe and fun.

As early season boating regulars know, the water is still cold, even on warm days. Most boating fatalities occur from capsizing and falling overboard. Cold water decreases the amount of time a person can swim or tread water, regardless of training or swimming ability.

Best Boating Law

One of the best Missouri laws is the one that requires each vessel to have one appropriately sized, U.S. Coast Guard approved personal flotation device for each passenger on board. However, PFDs are useless if they are not readily accessible.

Nine out of ten drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket. That's why authorities recommend that boaters wear a life jacket at all times. If traditional life jackets are too bulky, hot or uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time, consider trying an inflatable, U.S. Coast Guard approved PFD. Some inflatable PFDs resemble suspenders or fanny packs. A CO2 cartridge inside inflates them. Pulling a cord activates some. Others inflate automatically when a sensor comes into contact with water.

These small, lightweight PFDs are more expensive than regular life jackets, but most users agree that the convenience is well worth the extra cost. All inflatable PFDs are approved only if they are worn.

Children under seven years old are required by law to wear a PFD while aboard any vessel, unless they are in a totally enclosed cabin, such as on a houseboat. Before heading out, make sure the life jacket fits the child well, so he or she won't slip out of it after falling into the water.

Another required piece of boating safety equipment on every vessel 16 feet or longer is a throwable personal flotation device, such as a seat cushion or a ring buoy. Throwing a buoy to someone in danger of drowning keeps would-be rescuers out of the water, where they might themselves drown.

Vessels 16 feet and longer also must be equipped with a sounding device. If your boat doesn't have a horn, a simple solution is a plastic or metal whistle. You can attach it to your boat keys so you'll always have it when you're on the water.

All boats that have gasoline onboard must be equipped with a fire extinguisher. It is always a good idea to make sure your extinguisher is still charged after sitting all winter.

If your boat is equipped with an ignition safety switch lanyard, always attach it to you when running the motor. It cuts the engine in case you fall overboard, preventing the boat from circling back and running over you. It also keeps the boat close so you can more easily re-enter it.

Hunters who use boats need to be especially careful. It's easy to overload a johnboat with dogs, guns, decoys, gear, hunters and hopefully some wild game. Always check the capacity plate on your vessel and be sure you're not exceeding the manufacturer's recommended load.

Boat Signals


Buoys are the traffic signs of our major waterways. “No-wake” buoys are white with an orange circle. They are commonly found in front of docks and marinas. You are required to be at idle speed between the buoy and the dock.

  • “Danger” buoys are white with an open orange diamond. They mark hazards in the water, such as shoals, reefs or shallow points. Always give these areas a wide berth to avoid damaging your boat.
  • “Boats keep out” buoys are white with an orange diamond with a cross through it. They often mark swimming beaches or dangerous areas near a dam. It is illegal to operate a boat in these areas.
  • An orange flag displayed by another vessel indicates a person in the water swimming or skiing. You must stay at least 50 yards from that vessel while above idle speed.
  • A red flag with a diagonal white stripe indicates a SCUBA diver is in the water. You must remain at least 50 yards from the flag.

Because boating traffic is usually light during winter months, it's a good idea to leave a float plan with someone who is not going with you. Always have a cell phone, dry clothes and matches in a waterproof bag, as well as flares or a signal kit to get the attention of passing boaters or someone on shore in case of emergency.

Boaters should always be alert to dangerous weather conditions. Storms usually forecast themselves with rising winds and dark clouds. Don't wait to head for shelter, and never rely on a small boat to get you safely across any body of windroughened water, especially during fall, winter and spring.

Boat Defensively

Defensive boat operation helps you avoid collisions. Maintaining a safe distance from other boats gives you enough time to avoid them. Keep a sharp lookout in all directions. Other operators may make unexpected course changes that could put you on a collision course.

 Be especially alert when boating at night. It's difficult to see the shoreline, docks, hazards and other boats in the dark, and the mixture of shore lights and navigation lights on a busy lake can become confusing.

Add in the difficulties of rescue and it's easy to understand why boating accidents that occur at night tend to be much more serious than daylight accidents.

Always keep your lights in working order and check them before leaving your dock or trailer. The law requires a 360-degree white stern light and a red and green light on the bow. Spotlights are helpful for intermittently checking for hazards in the water or to signal another vessel if you need assistance, but Missouri law prohibits continuously displaying a spotlight at night.

Boater's Checklist

These items are required by law:

  • Boat registration
  • One wearable PFD for each passenger
  • One throwable PFD
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Sounding device

Given the dangers, you should slow way down at night. On Missouri's biggest reservoirs and the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the speed limit is 30 miles per hour from a half-hour after sunset until one hour before sunrise.

Missouri's two big rivers often have swift currents and dangerous water conditions—especially in spring. Navigation charts are helpful for staying in the main channel and avoiding the numerous submerged dikes.

Boaters also need to respect barges. These huge vessels often take up the majority of a channel and create large wakes that can capsize a small vessel. Don't cross in front of a barge. If you lose power, it can't stop in time to avoid you.

Alcohol and Water

About half of Missouri's boating injuries and fatalities involve alcohol. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, affects vision, coordination and judgment and slows down physical reaction time.

Studies show that exposure to heat or cold, glare, vibration, noise and motion increases the effects of alcohol. Studies also show that an alcohol-impaired boat operator is 10 times more likely to be killed in a boating accident than a sober boat operator.

Passengers aren't immune from the dangers. Alcohol increases the likelihood of falls, missteps and risky behavior for everyone aboard. In fact, an American Medical Association study shows that passengers with high blood-alcohol levels are just as likely to die in a boating accident as intoxicated boat operators.

The Missouri State Water Patrol has a zero-tolerance policy for boating while intoxicated. The first conviction for boating while intoxicated is a class B misdemeanor, the second is a class A misdemeanor, and a third or subsequent conviction is a class D felony. If you plan on drinking alcohol while out on the water, be responsible and use a designated operator.

Last year in Missouri 321 boating accidents resulted in 174 injuries and 16 fatalities. Statistics show that eight out of 10 boating fatalities occur on boats where the operator had no boating safety education.

Missouri recently passed a law that requires people born after January 1, 1984, to have taken and passed an approved boating safety course before operating a boat on Missouri lakes.

The law went into effect January 1, 2005, and the course is available now. For further information, visit the Missouri State Water Patrol Website. Everyone who boats is encouraged to take the course and help make boating on our lakes and rivers safer.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - TomCwynar
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Editor - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler