Employee & Community Health

Top 8 tips for safe fall boating

9/11/2017 by Dr. Matthew Bernard

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While summer may be fading fast, the boating season in the Upper Midwest can extend until lakes and rivers ice over. But cooler weather also means colder water, which makes fall boating more hazardous.

In 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard logged 4,463 boating accidents over the course of the year. 

  • Those accidents led to 701 deaths.
  • Where cause of death was known, 80% drowned. Of those drowning victims, 83% were not wearing a life jacket. 
  • Eight out of 10 boaters who drowned were in vessels less than 21 feet long; the highest percentage of deaths (47%) involved open motorboats.

Here are the top eight tips for having a safe boating experience during autumn fishing and waterfowl hunting seasons.

Tip #8: Assess the risk ahead of time - think about what could go wrong and prepare for the worst-case scenario. 

Tip #7: Be sure your boat and motor are in good operating condition. 

Tip #6: Have safety equipment on hand. Carry a VHF (weather) radio. If you bring a cell phone, put it in a waterproof box or pouch attached to your clothing. A strobe light, whistle or emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) will increase your chance of being rescued if your boat is disabled or you end up in the water. 

Tip #5: Dress in layers, including a hat. High-tech fabrics can help keep you warm and dry without a lot of bulk. Avoid cotton, which provides little insulation and gets heavy when wet. Bring a change of clothing in a waterproof container. 

Tip #4: Leave a float plan with a friend, family member or neighbor that spells out where you're going, how long you expect to be out and who to call if you fail to return as scheduled. 

Tip #3: Check the weather forecast before you launch. Fall storms can arise without much warning. Remember the Edmund Fitzgerald. 

Tip #2: Boat safe and sober - save the alcohol for when you've returned safely. 

And the #1 tip is: WEAR A LIFE JACKET! Your body can lose heat 25 times faster in cold water than in cold air. Buckle or zip up your life jacket before you leave the dock - putting it on once you've fallen into the water is almost impossible. 

Sudden contact with cold water can have a severe effect on your body including heart attack, quick loss of body heat and inhaling water by gasping - all of which can lead to drowning. A life jacket can keep your head above water, help keep you warm, and provide a chance for rescue. To increase visibility in the water, add reflective tape to your life jacket. 

A vest-style life jacket is preferred; if you do a lot of cold-weather boating, you may want to consider one designed especially for hypothermia protection. (Note to every boater's loved ones: A life jacket makes a great gift.)

Dr. Matthew Bernard is a family physician in Employee and Community Health (ECH). He also serves as chair of Mayo Clinic's Department of Family Medicine.