Teaching Kids the Basics of Safe Boating

Easy tips to make the subject of learning to boat safely interesting and simple.

a family on a boat.

For new boaters, new challenges mean new skills that everyone on the boat must learn. Make it easy on your kids and yourself with a little finesse and these handy online resources.

No matter how you slice it, trying to teach your kids about boating navigation rules or proper life jacket use has the potential to become a protest session. But young boaters still need to know the basics, so here’s a little help, with easy tips to make the subject interesting and simple to learn — even when parents are doing the teaching.

1. Set The Example. Kids learn best by following the leader, so be a good leader. You’ll never convince them to wear a life jacket if they feel it’s a case of “do as I say, not as I do. So, wear your own. When the kids see you put it on out of habit, they’ll do it too — just like you do with your seat belt in the car. Click your life jacket buckle and ask them to make it click too.

And really, life jackets aren’t so bad to wear anymore. When I was a kid, there would be six of those cheapie orange horse-collar style vests on the boat. They never fit right, and when you went in the water, they rode up around your neck, which prevented you from drowning but made you feel like you were being strangled in the process. Today, life jackets are made to fit the human body and allow easy movement, plus many of those made for kids sport fun designs or popular cartoon characters. You can even buy them at discount stores, often for as little as $15 bucks. It’s the best — and cheapest — peace of mind you’ll ever get.

2. Enlist Older Kids as Allies. Keeping kids inside the boat is a common problem. It’s way more fun to hang your arm over the side and play with the wake splashing up alongside. And while that may be safe enough in open water, it’s risky business in the marina. You might not even notice what’s going on until someone cracks an arm on a piling — or worse, when the youngest passenger soon realizes he can’t join in the fun with his older siblings, cousins or friends without leaning over the side. The best way to manage this situation? Engage the older kids who started it.

Clue in older kids to your concern and ask them to help keep the little ones safe. Kids generally like to be helpful, and they especially like to feel trusted by parents or other adults, so when they ask what they can do, just say, “Little Ben thinks he can do everything you can do, so if you don’t keep your arm in the boat, neither will he.”

3. Establish Common-Sense Safety Procedures. Many parents have an irrational fear of the prop, but what they should have is a rational fear of not keeping everyone aware of its potential for danger. Even at rest, a boat propeller can cut a foot or leg severely. Just keep away from it. Today, most boats designed for recreational skiing and swimming have a swim platform over the sterndrive and prop. This affords a margin of safety for swimmers, but everyone still needs to beware that kicking it while treading water can be painful at best. (I bumped mine on dry land in the garage one day and it took seventeen stitches to close the wound.)

Even adults do dumb things. I once watched as a boat came into the marina with a woman sitting on the platform, dragging her legs in the water. The force of the water kept her legs high above the prop and she was enjoying a relaxing foot message. Suddenly a boat unexpectedly entered the channel from a canal and the captain had to pop the boat in reverse to avoid a collision, which pushed the woman’s legs down toward the prop. She escaped injury — and likely never even realized the danger she was in — but she was really just lucky, and so was her captain for not noticing her dangerous behavior.

When swimmers are in the water, the keys should be out of the ignition. I keep my keys in a cup holder near the transom, which forces me to check for prop clearance when we head out to sea. And nobody rides on the gunwales or transom when the boat is under way.

Your family automatically obeys the rules of safety in the car, and they should do the same in the boat, too. Even though it’s a different environment with many new pleasures and a few reasonable risks, these are easy enough to mitigate when a few clear rules are understood. For more help teaching your kids the rules, here are some helpful websites that will give your kids rainy-day activities to prepare for those sunny boating days.

BoatSafe Kids: Features activities and games such as Life Jacket Tic Tac Toe, as well as boating trivia questions ranging from how many knots are in a mile to how the boat’s bathroom became “the head.”

DiscoverBoating: Weaves together kids’ games with sage advice on life jacket wear, navigation and other safety topics geared toward children.

Safe Boater Kids: This cool graphic short story is embedded with lessons about boating safety procedures and life jacket wear, and is accompanied by “Kids Don’t Float,” an info-packed boating safety lesson disguised as a coloring and activity book.

Waypoints: Presents games, puzzles and other challenges for kids ages 10 to 12 that cover important topics such as proper safety gear, life jacket types and rules of the road.

Boating Safety “Sidekicks”: Offers a number of colorful and dynamic games designed to teach young boaters about many aspects of boating safety in a variety of watercraft, from kayaks to PWCs to powerboats.

Boat-ed.com: Sooner or later, your young boaters will want to take the helm, which in most states, can start in the teen years once they pass a boater education course. Many states accept the courses offered at Boat-ed.com, and while there’s a fee for formal certification, the study material and testing is available for free. I took it — and learned from it, too.

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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 www.uscgboating.org.