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So You Think You're a Safe Boater?

Published By: Jonathan Lee

The Canadian Safe Boating Council (CSBC) and its partners are encouraging the approximately 16 million Canadians who will be heading out onto the water this season to be safe and responsible boaters.
Each year, there is an average of about 100 boating-related fatalities across the country. The CSBC would like to share a few key reminders with boaters before they cast off for their next trip.

Wear a Lifejacket
The CSBC’s stance on wearing lifejackets/PFDs is ‘It won’t work if you don’t wear it’. More than 80 percent of all recreational boating drownings could have been prevented if the person was wearing a PFD or lifejacket, so the organization believes wearing a flotation device should be part of every boating trip or activity.
Whether to wear them or not comes down to a personal decision. However, here are the realities:

Legal Requirement: Your boat must have on board one properly sized, approved PFD or life¬jacket for each person on board. It must be serviceable and close at hand so it can be easily accessed in case of an emergency. That means your PFDs or lifejackets should not be stored in a locked cabinet, wrapped in their plastic shipping sleeve or under other gear. If the only lifejackets you are carrying are inflatables and you have no inherently buoyant PFDs or lifejackets as back ups for you and your passengers, the inflatable jacket must be worn whenever you are on deck or in a small open boat.

Statistics: Despite what many might think, statistics have shown that most boaters do not drown in rough water or bad weather. In fact, most occur in small (under six metres) open motor and paddle craft, and most often the drowning involves falling overboard, the boat capsizing or swamping on a beautiful day.
Can You Get it On?: Many boaters feel that they will put their PFDs or lifejacket on if they need it, but most who drown end up in the water quite unexpectedly. Depending on your boat and where you keep your PFD or lifejacket ‘close at hand’, will you have the opportunity to grab it before going overboard? If not, could you reach it from where you are in the water? Even if you end up overboard with your PFD or lifejacket ‘in hand’, you will be surprised at how difficult that it is to put in on even in the calmest of waters.
Don’t Drink and Boat
An IPSOS-REID study commissioned by the CSBC and conducted in 2014 cited a perception amongst boaters who drink and boat at least occasionally that drinking and boating naturally go together. They also felt that it’s not dangerous to drink and boat. However, that concept does not ‘hold water’ when statistics show that alcohol is a factor in approximately 40 percent of boating-related fatalities.
Drinking aboard a boat is subject to provincial laws and there are conditions when it is legal to drink on board:
• The vessel must be equipped as a residence with a proper galley, head and sleeping quarters
• The vessel must not be underway, which means it’s at anchor, hard aground or tied up
• No one – including the passengers - are allowed to drink when the boat is underway
Similar to laws for an automobile, in Ontario there are limits to your blood alcohol levels when operating any vessel (power, paddle and sail). In Ontario, if you are charged and/or convicted it will also affect your privilege to drive your automobile (other Canadian provinces are considering similar legislation for the future). That means if you are convicted of impaired operation of a vessel, you will face consequences that for first-time offenders includes the loss of your automobile driver’s licence for one year, a significant fine, and a mandatory alcohol education or treatment program. When you are back on the road, you will require an ignition interlock device and can expect skyrocketing insurance premiums. Plus, you will have a criminal record, which can have an affect many other areas of your life, including employment and travel.

Take a Safe Boating Course
If you wish to operate a power-driven vessel, you must have proof of competency or your Plea¬sure Craft Operator’s Card (PCOC). If stopped by the police on the water, they’ll fine you if you are unable to produce this proof.
Transport Canada has authorized approximately 20 different organizations across Canada to administer PCOC courses and tests. Many course providers sell study guides designed to help people prepare for the PCOC exam, which can be taken in person or online.
That being said, a PCOC card is the bare minimum standard for competent vessel operation. Many would benefit greatly from taking an advanced training course covering topics such as boat handling skills or navigation. Equipped with more knowledge and confidence, you may find you derive more enjoyment out of your trips.
Ensure You and Your Vessel are Ready
Be sure to leave a float plan with a responsible person on shore who will know what to do if you’re overdue. A marine radio or cell phone (with service) will allow you to call for assistance should the need arise.
In addition to your vessel’s mandatory safety equipment, having a few tools and spare parts aboard will also allow you to fix minor problems that might otherwise cause you to be stranded out on the water. Ensure that your boat and engine are in good shape and mechanically sound. If using portable fuel tanks, it’s a good idea to have a spare on board as a reserve.
Occasionally, in the months of May and October, daytime temperatures can be balmy but resist the urge to only wear your shorts and T-shirt. Make sure that you are prepared for the colder air that you will find on lakes and rivers as the water temperatures drop.
As you head out, be wary of reduced water levels that can result after a long, hot and dry summer season. Some of your favourite shallow-water fishing holes may be inaccessible at this time of year. Also, while underway, keep a sharp lookout for debris that could penetrate your boat’s hull at speed.
The Dangers of Cold Water
In most parts of Canada the water stays cold throughout the boating season and can have a significant negative effect on even the best swimmers. The majority of drownings happen within meters of safety, a boat, the shore or a dock and many are cold water related.
And when it comes to cold water, be aware of its effects in the event of an accidental immersion. Expect a deep gasp or two when you enter the water. Try not to panic. It will take a minute or so to get your breathing under control after the initial shock. Once that subsides, you will have 10 minutes or so, even in very cold water, to affect self-rescue before you will start to lose muscle control in your arms and legs. This is why it is important to wear a lifejacket or PFD as an essential part of your fall boating wardrobe. It will allow you to continue to float (and breathe) giving you the time to rescue yourself or hours of time in which to be rescued.

For additional information on mandatory items you’re required to have aboard your boat, visit For a library of safety clips, scan the QR code embedded in the police boat photo above.