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8 Essential Tips for Staying Safe on Your Next Boating Trip

Aaron Stasiak, of the popular Instagram account The Qualified Captain, shares his best tips for boat safety

If you think about it, it’s kind of wild that just anyone can operate a boat. While many states require boaters to take a safety course before they obtain a boating license, in others, the laws are much more lax.

 Alaska and Maine, for instance, don’t require any sort of documentation from their boaters, while Illinois only requires licenses for people between the ages of 12 and 18, provided they want to operate a boat on their own. All bets are off if you’re in another country, like Mexico or the Bahamas. You don’t need a license to rent or operate a boat there, provided you’re not doing any sport fishing.

That being said, more than 630 people died from boating accidents last year in the U.S. alone, and experts and boating industry professionals are increasingly urging anyone planning on heading out on the water to bone up on safety procedures.

One of those experts is Aaron Stasiak, who runs the wildly popular Instagram account The Qualified Captain. A boater since his teenage years, Stasiak has accrued quite the following just by calling attention to the errors of inexperienced, inebriated, or ill-informed boaters. His Insta is more than just a collection of “fail” videos; It’s also a place to find resources and links to boating safety classes, a store that stocks things like SPF-rated shirts and waterproof first aid kits, and to learn more about how in the world you actually use those life rings you sometimes see on posts in marinas.

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Heading into summer boating season, Stasiak offered these eight tips to help everyone stay safe on the open water.

No Bow Riding—Ever

Bow ridingthe act of perching on the front or prow of the boat while it’s moving—is one of The Qualified Captain’s biggest no-nos. While it might seem fun to have your feet dangling in the water while the boat clips along, it’s actually incredibly dangerous since bow riders can slip off and get sucked underneath the boat into the whirling propeller.

“I’ve seen it happen,” says Stasiak. “If they fall over, they’re going to get sunk right under, and the prop is like a spinning, giant razor blade. It’ll slice you up. People don’t believe me, but I’ve got the pictures and the videos for them to see.”

Stasiak says it’s especially important to keep kids away from the boat’s bow when it’s in motion since it’s much easier for them to fly up in the air if the boat hits a big wave or bumps the bottom.

“Keep the kids off the bow,” Stasiak urges, likening it to letting your kids ride on the hook of a moving car. “I don’t care what speed you’re going. It’s not safe. People can easily hit the throttle by accident, and anything can happen. That’s my biggest motto: Anything can happen, and when it does in the water. It happens frickin’ quick.”

Keep Capacity in Mind

A boat floats because of buoyancy, and messing around with how much a boat weighs can put any craft in jeopardy. If you rent a boat that’s meant for a maximum of eight people, don’t try and cram 12 on just because you’ve got a bunch of friends that want to go. If a boat is meant for four people, but you think you could get six on, no problem? It might seem okay leaving the dock, but things can get very dangerous quickly once you get going.

“If you overload a boat, you actually will pay the price,” says Stasiak. “Sometimes those boats will flip over and capsize, or if you get a boat that’s too heavy, you can be running wide open and smash into a sandbar. That’s a quick way to either get hurt or destroy your boat.”

Know Your ‘No Wake’ Zones

No wake zones are sacred in the boating world. A wake is the V-shaped wave created by a boat as it moves along, so a no wake zone is an area where boats must go very slowly to minimize the amount of water their boat kicks off. No wake zones are often seen in and around marinas, where there’s a lot of boat congestion or where visibility might be a little limited.

“Knowing what’s a no wake zone and what’s no is huge,” says Stasiak. “You actually will become liable if you go through a marina quickly and cause damage to every boat that’s on a dock.”

Stasiak also urges lowering your speed if you’re close to boats that appear to be stopped or an anchor, lest you run over their anchor lines and get all tangled up—not to mention the threat of hitting someone who might be swimming off the side of a boat.

Know Your Weather

Just because it’s Memorial Day weekend or the 4th Of July doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great time to take a boat out for a cruise. If there’s any threat at all in the weather, like rain, high winds, or an electrical storm, then it’s best to sit that day on the water out.

“There are days that you should not be going out on the ocean,” says Stasiak.

It’s also important to think about tide tables and times, lest a new boater gets stranded on a sandbar—something often seen on The Qualified Captain. This is especially important if you’re on vacation and renting a boat; Know the area you’ll be sailing in and plan accordingly.

Etiquette Is Important

There are boating laws, and then there’s boating etiquette or things that aren’t illegal, per se, but that smart and respectful boaters just don’t do.

If you rip past somebody that’s fishing, like me,” says Sasiak, “personally, I wouldn’t do that because I’m going to keep my distance.”

There’s also boat ramp etiquette if you’re moving your boat in or out of the water. “If you’re at the boat ramp, you should have everything ready to go,” says Stasiak. “If you don’t, you can back up the whole ramp and get a bunch of people waiting on you. Prepare at home, and don’t put the cooler together while you’re on the ramp. It’s just little things like that.”

Consider a Life Jacket

While it’s technically never really required for an adult to wear a life jacket while on a boat, Stasiak says it’s something to consider—especially if you’re out on your own.

“You want to have enough life jackets on board for everyone on a boat,” says Stasiak. “They have these new inflatable life jackets now that, basically, you can barely tell it’s on. If something happens, you just pull a tab, and it inflates. I love mine. People might think, “Oh, I don’t want to wear a big obnoxious life jacket, but at the very least, if you’re solo on a boat, you should definitely wear one.

Stay Sober

This should go without saying, but if you’re operating a boat, you shouldn’t be drinking. That’s not to say cracking a beer isn’t tempting—it can get hot out there, after all—but think of it like driving a car. You wouldn’t guzzle a brew in your Toyota, so don’t do it on your boat.

“Realistically, people are going to be drinking on the water. We all know that,” says Stasiak. “But what it comes down to is that whoever the captain is, whoever is running the boat that day, that person cannot be drunk. If you get stopped or something happens, you’re liable, and you’re going to go to jail. That’s the law.”

If You’re on a Jet Ski, Be Smart

A Jet Ski isn’t a boat, but it’s just about as dangerous if not operated correctly. Speeding riders can hit swimmers, and there’s a potential for real injury if a rider hits a wave wrong and flips the Jet Ski. In that scenario, the rider can get bonked quite hard on the head, which can potentially be life-threatening.

“I don’t hate Jet Skis, but I think everybody thinks they can just run wide open because they’re smaller than boats,” Stasiak says. “Just slow down. There’s a time and place for everything. Be smart.”