Boating with Children: 10 Safety-Onboard Tips

Boating with Children: 10 Safety-Onboard Tips

Boating provides children with memories that will last a lifetime.  But a safety mishap can not only endanger the child, but also make them fearful – possibly putting them off boating for life.  So it’s worth embedding safety into life aboard your boat from the beginning.

  1. Life jackets: children are far more susceptible to being bounced off a boat during an errant wave.  Make sure all children on board are wearing life jackets of the appropriate size for the child.  A poorly-sized life jacket does little good when it's needed, and can actually entangle a child in the water. If you don't have child or toddler-sized life jackets on board, go and pick one up before you cast off. Life jackets should fit snugly without binding, and when fastened, should be impossible to lift above the ears of the wearer.  Ideally, choose a full lifejacket as this has a neck support to hold the child’s head above the water.  Go for the automatic inflation model so that the rip cord does not have to be pulled upon immersion.   
  2. "One hand for yourself, one for the boat"is an important rule when moving about the vessel.  Learning to be stable on board is especially important for those with a developing sense of balance and little experience on floors that move.  Even the slightest wake can send an unprepared child sprawling. Relegate children to central locations during foul weather or heavy chop, keeping them away from the rails whenever possible. Rough waters are hard enough for adults, and children need special attention during these times.  
  3. Listening to and heeding instructions on board the boat: institute a zero tolerance policy for  ignoring your instructions on board. A skipper needs to be listened to immediately, for everyone's safety, and while it may seem heavy-handed,  it pays off.
  4. Toddlers and Babies: while many babies are rocked to sleep by the boat’s motion, toddlers are a challenge on a boat as they’re not of an age to accept instructions and just want to move and explore all day. This is where a safety harness with tether becomes very useful. Controlled freedom is what it’s all about, so clip them to a secure point near the helm via the tether and they can wander in a 2.5mtr radius to their hearts' content.
  5. No Go Areas: every boat should have no go areas… the bow on a motor launch during movement, the area forward of the cockpit on a yacht.  This saves the risk of head/boom collisions and ensures easy monitoring of the family from the helm.  Keep all small children away from the companion way, one of the most dangerous areas on the boat in a seaway. Even sitting near the open companionway could cause a child to be bounced backwards down the open gap, and is an area that should be closely monitored.   Berthing the boat back into the marina successfully is the biggest stress point for most boaties. Have a firm rule that all children are sitting safely and quietly. 
  6. Family as Crew: engage your family as much as possible in the operation of the boat. More experience and knowledge does lead to less danger. Kids should be shown and encouraged to start/stop the engine, use the manual winches, switch items on the electrical panel on an off, operate the anchor control and trim the sails.
  7.  Running on the pontoons: walk - and wear your lifejacket!  One of the more dangerous areas of boating is the pontoon: children love running up and down and exploring.  Pontoons are lined with hazards such as cleats, ropes, hoses and joints.   If a child trips or falls , there are so many boats in the marina, it’s hard to locate a drifting child and also very easy for them to drift underneath  or get jammed between boats.  Climbing out is almost impossible on their own unless they climb via a boarding ladder of a moored boat.
  8. Toys: children love inflatables and dinghies, and the outboard engine is a huge attraction. Ensure you teach safe practices and firstly... can they row and are the oars permanently in the inflatable? Insist on life jackets being worn. Monitor the weather and currents.  One of the bigger danger areas, especially for older children using the outboard, is the danger to swimmers. Ensure your children keep well away from any swimmers, both off the beach and off other boats. Teach them to keep a good look out and to keep their speed down, and to adhere to set boundaries.
  9. Who knows how to get home?  Boating with only your child and yourself on board is a significant risk if you the skipper were to be incapacitated or fall over board. Make sure your child has rudimentary skills in VHF radio usage, with Coastguard and emergency channel knowledge, electrical switchboard functions, chartplotter position reading and engine start/stop.
  10. Don’t get complacent: before spending the night on board, review safety drills and fire escapes. They’re required on cruise ships and are a smart idea too for the family boat. Older children should know the locations of all escape hatches and how to open them.  Drills may vary each night - depending on whether you’re at your home, or an unfamiliar berth, or at anchor.

Finally, make sure your insurance is ship-shape.  Contact Mike Taylor-West  if you have any questions.

Child-proofing your boat

  • Consider guardrail netting (like the soft netting used in playpens) to keep little ones from falling overboard.
  • Lighting: plug-in household night lights work when you’re on shore power. At other times children can use chemical light sticks to provide safe, cool, spark-proof emergency lighting. Install waterproof, shockproof, 12-volt LED courtesy lights at strategic spots around the boat. They’re found at marine suppliers.
  • Carbon dioxide alarms are a must on any boat that uses fuel (cooking engine, generator). CO2 is not “seen” by smoke detectors or fuel “sniffers.” You need dedicated CO2 alarms, preferably models that give both audible and visual signals. An alarm should be mounted in every sleeping compartment. Often the headaches and nausea of CO2 poisoning are mistaken for flu, so you’re tempted to stay in bed at a time when it’s crucial to get out into fresh air.
  • You must keep safety equipment on board, including life jackets. Ideally, fit new vests every few years specifically for children’s sizes - including infants. Lifejackets can turn a body upright and keep the head above water, even if the person was unconscious when hitting the water. 
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