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Boating Safety for Kids
May 22, 2007
by Capt. Steve Byrne

Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Parker fits a child with a lifejacket.
Relax, take a moment and read this article carefully, it may save the life of the most precious gift that God has given us, our children.

Boats and kids go together like peanut butter and jelly. Don't believe it? Just ask any child if they would like to go for a boat ride on a warm summer day. There is a universal fascination with the marine environment that exists in children. For those of us who spend considerable amounts of effort, money and time fishing or boating, that fascination remains intact. We are all children at heart; it's only that the toys are bigger. This love of the water forms a bridge between generations that is easy to cross.

As wonderful as this time together can be, the responsibility that goes with it is enormous. How many reports have we heard of tragic consequences from what started out as a fun day on the water? Whether they are the result of a momentary lapse of concentration, or blatant stupidity, the consequences are permanent. Hearing about boating fatalities makes me shudder. I wonder how one parent tells the other that their child didn't come back to the dock? Let's make sure we never have to face that situation.


Before your next boating season begins, why not take the time to go over your safety habits? We all know the things we are supposed to be doing to keep ourselves, our guests, and our children safe around the dock and on the boat. But how much of what we know do we put into action? It is human nature to let our guard down over time, and get away from what we know we should be doing. When it comes to our children, human nature and status-quo is unacceptable.


I'm not sure where I first heard the expression, but it fits our needs when it comes to protecting our children on the water. Adults need to be constantly vigilant for potential dangers. Rarely does an event occur that could not have been seen ahead of time. Marine events typically happen slowly. We often hear of "sudden storms," but truthfully, nearly every storm is preceded by subtle hints that something bad is coming your way. With the accuracy of today's forecasting, there is no excuse for weather-ignorance. Likewise, close calls with other vessels are usually preceded by a significant amount of time during which either vessel could have changed course and avoided the situation entirely. The rule of thumb is, when in doubt as to another boater's intentions, give way.

Constant vigilance is our first line of defense.


Before heading down to the marina, it is mandatory to check the weather. I realize that this probably sounds like something that goes without saying, but just go to the harbor on a nice, sunny weekend afternoon when the wind is blowing 25 from the east. It's a safe bet that you'll see a conga line of boaters leaving the harbor, and coming right back in. They obviously didn't check the weather before packing the family car. They also failed to notice Old Glory snapping in the wind at a right angle to the pole in the parking lot, or the sound of halyards knocking against their masts. We are sometimes so distracted by the kids, by what we need to bring, and everything else that pulls at our attention, that we fail to notice the important details.


Once you are out on the water, keep a constant eye on the weather. If skies begin to darken, or the wind picks up from a new direction, that's your cue to start heading in the direction of safety. I'm not saying you should run for cover every time a cloud covers the sun, but if you think the weather is changing don't wait for lightning bolts to start shooting before heading in. Why all this attention to the weather? After all, this article is supposed to be about kid's safety, right? The fact is that children are affected by the weather to a greater degree than adults. The pounding of a boat in rough seas has a magnified impact on children. Tiring them out in heavy seas will make them more susceptible to accidents. Knowing your passengers' limitations is your responsibility.


Most marinas have a policy which states that children under a specified age must have on a lifejacket, any time they are on the dock. Many parents disregard the rule, allowing their progeny to roam the docks, often without supervision. It is easy to let your guard down when you are in the comfortable, familiar surroundings of your home dock. Your friends are there, it's beautiful out, and you have spent a million afternoons there. The fact remains, that docks are easy to trip on, and falling in is a lot easier than climbing out. Wearing a lifejacket will make getting out of the water an issue of comfort, instead of an issue of life and death.

These children just completed a USCG water safety course designed for children
With this in mind, make sure you bring the kids when it's time to buy them their life-jackets. Certainly, the most important factor is the fit of the jacket. It should not be too tight, or they won't wear it. Too loose, and they can slip out of it. If you have any doubt as to the proper fit of the jacket, ask for help. Let the little ones decide what color or design they like. When they have a life-jacket that fits, and they like the way it looks, it will be easier to keep it on them.


Before stepping on to the dock, there should be an understanding between children and adults. While they are on the dock, on the boat, or anywhere near the water, they must follow directions without argument or delay. There is no room here for compromise. The result of not following directions will be the immediate end of the excursion. This position/policy might seem overly harsh, but think about the consequences of even a minor delay in following directions. Picture this: You are drifting for fluke in Ambrose Channel when you notice the wake from a passing tanker fast approaching. The big ship passed several minutes ago, and while the waves are just reaching you now, they are 6-footers, spaced no more than ten feet apart, coming at you broadside. Little Johnny is on his tiptoes, leaning over the side and peering into the depths. He is completely oblivious to the impending roller-coaster ride. Seeing this, you shout at him to stop leaning over the side of the boat and sit down. This is not the time for an argument. If a child will not or cannot obey commands, they should be left at home - for their own safety.


There are several excellent websites that get kids thinking about safety. The great thing about them is that the kids will have fun learning about safety. As a result, they are more likely to remember what they learned, and they will become more aware of their own safety on the water. - This site has tons of nautical information for kids. Life-Jacket Tic-Tac-Toe, and a nautical-themed word search provide minor entertainment, while there is a great list of questions asked by kids, such as, "Can cats and dogs go boating?" The answers come in a clear, easy-to-read form. - Another site that is chock full of information, in the form of quizzes, coloring pages, games, flash cards, poems, cartoons and more. Your children could spend hours on this site learning about everything nautical, while having a great time.

The United States Coast Guard has some good information in the form of a poster at and the American Red Cross also provides plenty of good information for adults who are supervising children on the water. Their website is located at

One final site for boating safety is This site has a comprehensive list of boater's safety courses, complete with links to the organizations that give the course. They also have a section called Saved by the Jacket, in which kids and adults tell their personal stories of how their lifejacket saved them from drowning.


If your child is old enough, a boater's safety course would be a great way for the two of you to spend time together while learning more about safe boating. Find a boating course in your area (Red Cross, U.S. Power Squadron, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, US Sailing, etc) -- these courses teach about navigation rules, emergency procedures and the effects of wind, water conditions, and weather.

Making children aware of, and involving them in their own safety is the best way to ensure that everyone has a fun, safe, boating and fishing season. Enjoy yours!

Editorís note: Steve Byrne produces Saltlines, Trophy and FYI for our magazine.

Fortunately, this child was wearing a lifejacket.
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