Anglers Need to Be Safe Boaters First

Help reduce the surprisingly high rate of fatal boating accidents among anglers.
Anglers fishing on a boat.

It may surprise you but those who fish and those who water ski have similar numbers of recreational boating accidents. Even more surprising, the risk that an angler will have a fatal boating accident is nearly 10 times that of someone on skis: 39 percent vs. 4 percent, according to 2009 U.S. Coast Guard recreational accident data, the most recent available.

What accounts for the difference? Consider these factors: skiing is done in open water with three people involved: the boat operator, the lookout, and the skier. In open water, additional help for a downed skier can be as close as other boaters or people on or near the shore. Skiing is also more often a warm weather pursuit – again, raising the likelihood that other boaters will be nearby to help if needed. Most important, the skier is very likely to be wearing a life jacket or inflatable life belt.

Contrast this with the angler: alone in a quiet cove or miles offshore, frequently fishing during the “shoulder” seasons when vacationers and crowds of pleasure boaters are absent, and too often not wearing a life jacket. Solitude and no life jacket can be a deadly combination if the boat capsizes or the angler falls overboard.

One of the best ways to prevent accidents while fishing is to learn boating safety. Anglers—like all boaters—should take a boating safety course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and recognized by the U.S. Coast Guard. Courses are offered through the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons®, state boating agencies, and local boating clubs. These low-cost/no-cost courses are readily available online, on CD-ROM, and in the classroom, and can bring you up to speed quickly on emergency procedures and required safety equipment, including the need for U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets for everyone on board.

Know Your Boat’s Limitations

Beyond equipment and procedures, safe boating is also a matter of knowing your boat’s limitations and the environment in which you operate.

The kinds of small boats favored by anglers – semi v-hull vessels, flat-bottom jon boats, and canoes, for example – require careful handling. Smaller vessels can capsize more easily than larger ones.

In small, open-constructed boats, the wave-size-to-boat ratio is much less than on a larger boat, and a small boat will fill with water more quickly if washed over by a large wave, or even a small one. Transoms and helm station areas are wide open and the boats have smaller and fewer bilge pumps, or none at all. Also, decks are not watertight, and water that enters can sometimes cause damage that leaves the angler stranded.

Even empty, these boats may have little to no freeboard – the distance between the rail or top edge of the boat and the waterline – and even less when fully loaded with occupants, coolers, and gear. It’s easy to overload small vessels unintentionally, and an overloaded boat is more likely to capsize, even in relatively calm waters.

So keep in mind your boat’s maximum load capacity. On most mono-hull boats up to 20 feet in length, this information can be found on the capacity plate, permanently affixed to the hull by the manufacturer. It notes the maximum horsepower rating and maximum load weight at which the boat can safely operate. If a capacity plate isn’t present, one easy formula for calculating the maximum load for a mono-hull boat is to multiply the boat’s length times its width and divide by 15. Using that formula, a 6 ft. wide, 16-foot boat can carry up to 6 people.

To further reduce the risk of capsizing, be sure your load is distributed evenly to keep the boat balanced. When boarding, step gently toward the vessel’s center, and never onto the gunnels or seats. Standing for any reason in small boats, even changing seating positions, can raise the center of gravity and make the boat less stable. The same is true for sitting on the gunwales or seat backs, or on a pedestal seat while underway. A raised center of gravity means that a wave, wake, or sudden turn can result in a person falling overboard.

For this and other safety reasons, you might consider purchasing a boarding ladder. Although not required, these work well on a variety of boats and are a big help in getting a person in the water back aboard quickly.

Complete a Pre-Departure Check List

One of the reasons there are so many fishing-related accidents is that a lot of fishing enthusiasts consider themselves anglers first and boaters later. That attitude can make them complacent, neglecting the basics of boating safety. Anglers may not pay close enough attention to their surroundings, may fail to prepare for emergencies, or engage in behaviors that put themselves at greater risk than those who see themselves primarily as boaters – this includes boating and drinking. In 37 percent of all 2009 recreational boating accidents involving a fatality, the boat was engaged in fishing prior to the accident.

For safety’s sake, be a boater first. Complete a pre-departure checklist prior to launch to make certain your boat is in good working order and has all the necessary safety equipment on board. File a float plan with the marina or with a friend or family member, letting others know where you’ll be boating and when you expect to return. Be sure to wear a life jacket at all times. And be sure to check the weather report and waterway conditions, bearing in mind that weather conditions can change quickly.

All anglers should remember that boating is an intrinsic part of their sport, not merely a
means to an end. Practicing safe boating probably won’t improve your chances of reeling in the “Big One,” but it will certainly help ensure that you live to fish another day.

Equipment to Have On Board

Life jackets have been well adapted to fishing and now include vests and auto-inflatables that allow the wearer a full range of motion. Besides having life jackets for each person on board, here are other items anglers should keep on hand, depending on the size of their boat.

  • Throwable Type IV flotation device with line
  • First Aid kit
  • Blanket and a dry change of clothes stored in a waterproof bag
  • VHF marine radio
  • U.S. Coast Guard-approved marine fire extinguisher
  • U.S. Coast Guard-approved visual distress signals
  • Boarding ladder
  • Chart of the local area

If fishing in unfamiliar waters, research the area in advance. Ask about water and weather conditions and the number of boats you’ll encounter. Watch your speed.

Don’t Rock the Boat

Small boats require special care in loading passengers and gear. Here are a few important tips anglers can follow when preparing to head out to their favorite fishing hole:

  • Avoid standing in a small boat and take care in changing positions. Both actions raise the center of gravity, which increases the chance of a boat capsizing or a passenger falling overboard.
  • When sitting, keep your legs spread and lean against a seat for increased stability.
  • When loading, hand your fishing equipment to someone already in the boat.
  • Distribute gear and passengers evenly around the boat, by weight. To make sure no one trips, be sure gear is properly stowed.
  • When boarding, step gently toward the vessel’s center —never onto the gunnels or seats. Keep one hand on the boat.
  • Don’t drink alcohol, or take any drugs – even over-the-counter medications – that induce drowsiness and impair judgment.
  • Remember to always file a float plan with the marina or with a friend or family member.
  • Finally, be sure you and all passengers wear a life jacket at all times while on the water. Check out the new inflatable vests designed specifically for anglers.

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The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency’s Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to “Boat Responsibly!” For more tips on boating safety, visit