When enjoying the nation’s lakes, rivers and coastal waterways, small-boat operators need to be aware of their craft’s limitations.
More than 80 percent of boating fatalities occur in boats less than 26 feet. Although excessive speed, reckless operation, operator inattention or inexperience, and boating under the influence can be contributing factors, small boats also have other hazards to consider.
A wave can quickly fill a small boat with water. Small boats have open transoms and helm station as well as fewer and smaller bilge pumps—or none at all. Water can enter non-watertight decks and damage control cables, leaving the boat stranded.
With little to no freeboard (the distance between the top edge of the boat and the waterline) when empty, small boats have even less freeboard when fully loaded with occupants, food and gear. It’s easy to overload small boats unintentionally , making them more likely to capsize, even in calm waters.
So keep your boat’s maximum load capacity in mind. On most mono-hull boats up to 20 feet long, the maximum horsepower rating and the maximum safe-operating load weight are listed on the hull capacity plate. If a plate isn’t present, you can calculate the maximum safe capacity by multiplying the boat’s length times its width and dividing by 15, which would mean a 6-foot-wide, 18-foot-long boat can carry up to seven people safely.
Make capsizing less likely by evenly distributing your load. Standing, even to change seating positions, raises the boat’s center of gravity, making it less stable. The same is true for sitting on gunwales, seat backs or a pedestal seat while under way. A raised center of gravity means that a wave, wake or sudden turn can cause a person to fall overboard.
Complete a pre-departure checklist before launch to make sure that your boat is in good working order and has all the necessary safety equipment. And be sure to check the weather report and waterway conditions, keeping in mind that conditions considered safe for a 40-footer might be unsafe for a boat half that size.
Small boats are a lot of fun, so take the time to inspect your boat before launching and watch your load to make all of your journeys safe ones.