A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Prior to this summer, I’d done a little boating and a lot of research, so I wouldn’t have considered myself a total newbie. Looking back on a summer of fun out on the water, I’m fortunate for the many helpful lessons I learned and humbled by how much information there still is to know.
From the time I was six months old, I was very fortunate to spend two glorious weeks a year with my family at a rented cottage every July. Among the many draws of the annual pilgrimage to a modest cabin in the woods resided behind the boathouse doors. It was just a little, old MFG fiberglass runabout with a 70 hp Johnson outboard on the back, but cruising to the local marina for ice cream or going on sunset cruises were the highlights for me. Sitting on my dad’s knee, he’d let me steer when we were putting around at slow speeds.
Over the years, I’ve piloted plenty of PWCs and the odd runabout at friend’s cottages – I even captained a houseboat near Bobcaygeon for a buddy’s bachelor party weekend. It wasn’t until the pandemic struck that I decided to become an urban boater and purchased a Wellcraft Martinique 2400. After my first (mostly) successful summer on the water as a boat owner, I’m certainly no expert but I do feel like I gained some knowledge I wish I’d known when getting started.
Here are a few things I learned, and several others I wish others did, in no particular order, that can help new boaters start off on the right foot.
10) Be Aware
I’ve seen plenty of questionable driving behaviour on the road over the years, but I wasn’t prepared for some of the things I saw out on the water. These occurrences weren’t a matter of poor etiquette, although there was a lot of that too. I can’t even recall how many times this summer I muttered, either quietly to myself, or aloud to my passengers, “There’s no way this is really happening.” I witnessed boats dangerously overloaded with people to the point of nearly capsizing, passing through clearly prohibited areas, and up on plane going full tilt through No Wake Zones.
Drunk girls dancing on the bow of moving boats were commonplace, as were passengers standing on the swim platform while in motion. Both may be fun, but could have horrific consequences.
I saw so many near-misses that simply defied comprehension. I heard personal watercraft without lights on fly by me in total darkness, had boats pass me so closely that I could have reached out to touch them, and saw one shockingly intoxicated boater deliriously looking around in dismay, wondering why his craft wasn’t moving away from his slip when he had it at full throttle (Spoiler alert: it was still tied up to the dock). Long story short – there is a shocking number of inexperienced and dangerously unqualified boaters, so keep your head on a swivel.
9) Be Respectful
A little respect goes a long way. I was really impressed at how eager my new dock mates at the marina were to help me out and offer tips. It is customary to help each other out with lines when docking, which is particularly appreciated on windy days.
You may think that you’re the life of the party, but be considerate of the fact that those around you may want to relax and might not share your taste in music. Be courteous to others by lowering the volume to a reasonable level while in populated areas.
Carbureted engines require time to warm up, but avoid revving your engine, idling or running your generator for extended periods while parked at the dock. And take your garbage with you. I was shocked by how many boaters wouldn’t clean up after themselves.
Oh, and this shouldn’t have to be said, but based on many experiences this summer apparently it does - urinating off the dock at the marina is not civilized or respectable behaviour.
8) Respect Mother Nature
Many people don’t heed or acknowledge the warnings, but high winds and big waves should be taken seriously when boating – particularly on big bodies of water. Meteorological conditions can change quickly. Check the weather forecast and monitor regularly. Know your limits and err on the side of caution.
Learn to recognize the signs of changing or deteriorating conditions and plan a strategy accordingly. That could mean not setting off on a trip, heading for home base, or hunkering down in a safe cove until a storm passes.
7) Train Your Crew
Guests may just be looking to unwind and relax, but you’ll likely need some assistance at various points of the journey. Pick someone to help and provide clear instructions before setting off.
Prior to leaving the marina, I’d walk the friend around the boat to demonstrate how the bumpers were hung and lines affixed, so they could help me cast off and it wouldn’t be a surprise when we arrived at a gas dock or returned to the marina later on that day.
6) Your Boat, Your Rules
The safety of passengers on board is the captain’s priority, both fundamentally and legally speaking. There will be times when you need to take control and lay down the law – whether it is asking guests to sit down while the boat is moving or making sure children are wearing PFDs. Doing the right thing may not always be popular, but speak up and hold your ground.
5) Embrace Technology
Technology has revolutionized every industry and boating is no different. From waterproof handheld radios that automatically send a distress signal when submerged in water, to digital charts, sophisticated GPS navigation, and smartphone apps that can provide up to the minute information on currents, wind and wave conditions, it would be silly not to take advantage of these advancements.
Also consider the fact that technology can fail and phone coverage can be spotty in remote areas, so be prepared with analog backups where possible.
4) Constant Work in Progress
It’s a common joke among those in the community that boat is actually an acronym for Burn Off Another Thousand. Purchasing a used boat can offer a more cost effective point of entry, but it can also bring about other challenges. Whether it was a blown fuse, a burned out lightbulb, a broken bimini strap or a torn seat cover, it seemed like there was always something that needed fixing.
It isn’t a cheap hobby and even if nothing is broken, many elements require regular maintenance. Proactively repairing or replacing parts can seem costly and irritating, but it pales in comparison to the expense and frustration of a breakdown.
3) Be Prepared
Know your boat and learn the water where you’ll be travelling. The height and draft of your boat may come into play in certain areas. Water levels can change drastically over the course of a season, so it is important to acquire traditional paper or digital charts to identify sufficient depth and potential hazards. An electronic depth finder is also a good idea.
Ensure you have sufficient fuel for the trip or plan fuel stops accordingly, keeping in mind that weight, speed, and conditions will have an impact.
Plan for things to go poorly. Ensure your watercraft has safety equipment that goes above and beyond the minimum requirements. It is also a good idea to keep some non-perishable food, water, and spare clothing on board to protect from the elements if stranded.
2) Be Open to Learning
It’s impossible to know everything about boating and everyone has to start somewhere. Even the most seasoned boaters will learn or experience something new from time to time.
The best way to learn may be through experience, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pick up tips from others who have been around longer than you have. When others offer suggestions, listen. Their advice could save you time, money or frustration in the future. And in time, as you gain experience, don’t be shy about paying it forward by helping others. More knowledgeable boaters will ultimately make the hobby safer and more enjoyable for all.
1) Enjoy It
I understand as much as anyone that schedules can be hectic and weather isn’t always favourable, but I was perplexed by the number of boats at my marina that sat empty all season long and others that never left the dock. While some urban dwellers are just looking for a waterfront property at a reasonable cost and others may prefer to remain stationary so that they can imbibe without fear of repercussions, but they are missing out on exploring beautiful places, meeting interesting people, and learning new things. My recommendation is to cast off the lines and make the most of it!
The best way to improve is through experience and practice.