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A Virginia Boating Safety Refresher

As we enter the second half of the summer, it is essential for boaters and their passengers to refresh some boater safety guidelines. Unfortunately, here in Northern Virginia, boating accidents and drownings occur on the Potomac River every year. These boating-related accidents, injuries, and deaths can be avoided by taking proper measures.

First and foremost, every vessel on the Potomac River is required to be equipped with enough life jackets for every passenger and have some type of audio signal device such as a whistle or horn. This rule applies to small, unmotorized vessels too, such as kayaks, paddleboards, and canoes. Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources estimated that approximately 80% of all drowning victims could have been saved if they had been wearing a lifejacket. Make sure there are ample life jackets for everyone, regardless of the size of the vessel.

You can find a summary of Virginia’s equipment requirements based on the size of the boat here.

In addition to having the required equipment on your boat, it is also important to have an experienced captain steer the boat. Virginia requires that all operators of a motorboat with a 10-horsepower engine or greater, and personal watercraft, take a boating safety class pursuant to Virginia Code § 29.1-735.2. Make sure your captain is adequately certified and experienced before setting sail.

Like driving, it is illegal to operate a boat under the influence of alcohol per Virginia Code § 29.1-738. It may not be illegal for the passengers on a boat to drink alcohol, but it is their duty to drink responsibly. Several studies show that more than half of drownings are alcohol-related. If you are the captain of the boat, it is your responsibility that everyone arrives back in port safe and sound. This means that you need to monitor the amount of alcohol your passengers consume if you choose to allow alcohol on board and to be especially sensitive to the effects of consuming alcohol in the hot sun.

It is legal to boat at night with proper lighting, but boating at night is significantly more dangerous than during the day. Visibility is substantially reduced on the open waters at night, making it difficult to see anyone or anything in the water. It is incredibly difficult for a boater to see someone swimming or treading water at night and swimming after dark should be avoided. That is why Virginia Code § 29.1-742 was enacted to prohibit water skiing or the towing of other similar recreational devices after sunset. As the captain or a passenger on a boat traveling at night, you must remain diligent for objects hard to see in the dark, such as jetties, buoys, or debris. Only experienced boaters familiar with the waterways should consider boating at night and only when it is absolutely necessary. Most importantly, if boating at night, make sure you have a navigation system or app (iSailor is excellent) to make sure that you stay in the channel at all times.

So, remember these basic boating safety rules this summer season:

  1. Ensure your vessel is properly equipped for its size and that all required equipment is in proper working order;
  2. Familiarize each of your passengers with the location and use of safety vests;
  3. As captain, maintain proper control and speed of the boat at all times;
  4. Do not drink while operating a boat;
  5. As captain, if you allow alcohol on the vessel, monitor your passenger’s consumption and do not permit anyone to become intoxicated;
  6. Avoid boating at night if possible; and
  7. Remember, while boating is great fun, if you as a captain or a passenger, do not act responsibly, it is potentially very dangerous.

If these simple, commonsense guidelines are followed, you and others on board will be significantly safer. Smooth sailing and enjoy!

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