Let’s Be Careful Out There! Boating Safety Tips

by John McKiggan

Nova Scotia is “Canada’s Ocean Playground”. This week I watched with interest the news reports of the annual sailboat race from Halifax to Saint-Pierre. Anyone who lives in Halifax knows that sailing and powerboating form a big part of our summer recreation activities.

However, as boating and personal watercraft become more popular, accidents, injuries and fatalities have increased as boaters who have little experience take to the water.

A few simple tips and some common sense preparation can ensure that your time spent on the water is relaxing and fun.

Responding to On-Board Emergencies

The best emergency is the one you are able to prevent through proper preparation. But mistakes happen and you can’t control the actions of other boaters who may place you and your passengers in jeopardy. Knowing how to respond to common boating emergencies can mean the difference between tragedy and having an exciting story to tell once you reach the dock.

Red Sky at Night, Sailors Delight. Red Sky at Morning, Sailors Take Warning!

While it is a catchy little rhyme, trusting your safety to some antiquated nautical poetry is perhaps not the safest practice. Many accidents happen when boaters encounter unanticipated changes in the weather.

There is an old expression here in Nova Scotia: “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute or walk a mile”. The adage merely recognizes weather can change dramatically from location to location and hour to hour. That’s why it is important to check out the nautical weather forecast.

Remember marine weather broadcasts wind speed in knots. Light winds, less than 15 knots, translates to 19 km per hour or less. Strong winds, up to 33 knots, can mean winds up to 61 km per hour.

What to do in Rough Seas

Rough weather is a subjective term. To someone who has just started boating or is susceptible to sea sickness 15 knot winds can be scary. But to someone who is used to sailing in a variety of conditions, the weather may only start getting “rough” when the wind reaches 30 knots and the waves are two metres or more.

Putting on life jackets or personal floatation devices is prudent. Make sure you have buckets or bailers close to hand. Ensure bilge pumps are working and that deck drains are clear.

At the first sign of inclement weather you should “batten down the hatches”. Close all open ports, doors and hatches and turn on your navigation lights.

When navigating through rough waters, avoid plowing straight into oncoming waves which can swamp your boat as a result of water coming over the bow. For the same reason, you shouldn’t run with the sea because waves may overtake the stern of your boat causing you to take on water. The safest way to navigate in rough waters is to take waves at an angle and to tack, or use a zigzag pattern, to get back to shore.

I Spy

There’s a reason ships had a lookout at the top of the tallest mast. You should always maintain a lookout for changing weather conditions. Being caught in heavy fog or rain can significantly reduce your visibility. Poor visibility is a common cause of accidents on highways and it is the same on the water.

If you do get caught in conditions of poor visibility, turn on your boats running lights, sound your fog horn and raise your radar reflector if you have one.


Laws regarding consuming alcohol on boats differ from province to province. However, in every province it is illegal to operate a boat while impaired. Even so the Red Cross reports that up to 66% of boaters admit to drinking alcohol while boating.

MADD Canada recently reminded the public at a press conference this week that alcohol is responsible for 40% of all boating accidents.

People who would never think of swigging a beer while driving down the highway think nothing of consuming half a dozen beers while speeding around in a boat with their friends and children.

The fact is that whether you have a single beer or a glass of wine, drinking while you are boating puts you, your passengers, and other boaters at risk.

Person Overboard!

People can end up in the water as a result of stumbling or tripping or they may end up in the water after falling off water skis or a tube being towed behind your boat. Losing someone over board can be a life-threatening emergency.

Prudent boaters will consider, in advance, what steps they will take for recovering persons who have fallen overboard.

The first thing you should do if someone falls overboard is to throw out a life ring or life jacket to mark the spot in case the person submerges while you bring the boat around to affect recovery.

One person should be designated as the lookout to keep the person in the water under constant surveillance.

When approaching someone in the water it is best to come from the leeward side (the opposite side the wind is blowing from) so that the wind does not blow the vessel into the person possibly knocking them out or causing them further injury.

Decide if you will attempt to recover the person from the side of your boat or the stern. Trying to pull someone over the gunwales (side edge) of a boat can swamp the vessel.
If you are in a motor boat, shut the engine down before attempting recovery. People who are in the water but otherwise safe can suffer serious injuries if they are pulled into a spinning propeller.

If someone must go into the water to help the person who has fallen overboard it is imperative they wear a life jacket or PFD. Remember the person who has fallen overboard may be panicked and dangerous.

CO Poisoning

Carbon monoxide is produced when burning fuel. The gas is odorless, tasteless and colorless. Exposure to carbon monoxide can cause brain damage or death.

Signs of carbon monoxide poisoning include nausea, headaches, vertigo (dizziness) and drowsiness. The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can easily be confused with sea sickness, heat stroke or intoxication. However, unlike any of these less serious conditions, carbon monoxide poisoning can kill you.

If you suspect you or one of your passengers is suffering from symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning you should move immediately to a well-ventilated area, call 911 and seek medical attention.

Heat Stroke

Although we have been enjoying a stretch of beautiful weather here in Halifax, much of Canada is suffering through a heat wave that increases the chances of developing heat stroke.

The signs and symptoms of heat stroke include muscle cramps, weakness, dizziness, nausea, sweating and fainting. Severe cases of heat stroke can lead to hallucinations, confusion and seizures.

The easiest way to prevent heat stoke is to remain well hydrated (with water, not alcohol) and to stay in a cool shady area or wear a hat.

Remember drinking alcohol or caffeinated beverages accelerates dehydration. Treatment of severe cases requires that you get the victim to a cool shaded area, apply cool compresses or water to the skin. In extreme cases you may want to place icepacks in the victim’s armpits and groin area.

Sea Sickness

While sea sickness isn’t fatal or even seriously life threatening, it can certainly ruin an otherwise pleasant day on the water.

Sea sickness is the result of the body’s inner ear balance system reacting to the unfamiliar rocking motion of the boat.

There are numerous types of medications that can be taken to prevent sea sickness. The most common non-pharmaceutical remedy is ginger. Non-medical or herbal means of preventing sea sickness includes applying pressure points to your wrist where you find your pulse.

Think Like a Boy Scout

The easiest way to ensure your boating excursion is safe and enjoyable is to remember the Boy Scout motto: “Be Prepared”. If you prepare for emergencies you will be more aware of the situations that can cause them, and be in a better position to respond when they do.


A version of this article is included in the Summer edition of our consumer safety magazine The Safety Report. If you would like a free copy contact us and let us know you would like us to send you the magazine.

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