I love boating in the fall. The colors of the trees lining the shore of the Potomac River, where I do most of my boating, are bursting with bright yellows, brilliant oranges and deep reds. The slight nip in the air mixed with the aroma of coffee sitting in the cup holder next to my helm and the quiet coves coupled with the spectacular view easily convince me that there is nothing better than recreational boating. The waterways that bustle with activity in the summer often feel quite different in the off-season, which is why fall is a favorite time for many of us to explore along the waterfront or find a quiet place to drop anchor and take in the scenery.
However, boating in the off-season carries certain risks, and experienced boaters know to plan for every emergency before heading out. Although most boating accidents occur in mid-summer during the height of the boating season, the potential for serious injury rises dramatically in the off-season when fewer boaters and marine patrols are on the water to provide immediate assistance. U.S. Coast Guard 2010 national accident data show that approximately 1 in 10 July boating accidents involved a fatality; in December, it was 1 in 6.
In the off-season the sun sets early and temperatures drop fast. Depending on where you boat, icy water conditions can put anyone who ends up in the water in real trouble. Fewer boaters means fewer people to come to your aid or radio call for help. Carrying extra gear and knowing what to do if you encounter a problem could mean the difference between a bad day and a really bad day.
The steps outlined here can make accidents less likely and improve your chances of survival if something does go wrong.
Consider Worst-Case Scenarios
There’s little to no margin for error in the off-season, so consider every possible scenario, beginning with becoming stranded. Be sure you have enough fuel to get where you’re going and back again. The rule of thumb is one-third out, one-third back, and one-third for emergencies.
As a responsible boater you should always carry a first-aid kit, but in the off-season be sure you also have an on-board emergency kit that includes a dry change of clothes; calorie-dense snack food; fresh water; a thermos of coffee, cocoa, or other warm beverage; duct tape; a waterproof portable flashlight with extra batteries; flares and matches. Stow these items in a waterproof bag to protect them. Also, remember to stay away from alcohol when you're out on the water. Not only does it impair your judgment, but it also hastens the onset of hypothermia.
Carry a mobile phone only as a backup to your VHF-FM marine radio. Mobile phones frequently lose signal and are unidirectional; only one person receives the phone call compared to many who may hear a VHF radio distress call. If your boating activity takes you far from shore, consider adding an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) as well. Rescue 21, the advanced command, control, and communications system created to improve search and rescue, is currently being deployed in stages across the United States. This new system enables the Coast Guard to pinpoint the location of a distress call from a DSC-VHF marine radio connected to a GPS receiver. If you get in trouble, especially during the chilly off-season, every minute counts.