“They’re on the back seat,” I answered my friend who was taking out his dad’s small bass boat for the first time on the Susquehanna.
With an equal mix of excitement -- and nervousness -- we went around the boat, making sure everything was in place. We had a pair of oars in case the old 20-horsepower motor failed. We had the anchor, we had our fishing gear and a cooler with lunch. Everything seemed to be in place.
A few minutes later, we were on the river, looking ahead for the best fishing spot, but unfortunately not looking down.
Soon, our feet were soaked and it was obvious we were taking on water, fast. We had double-checked everything on our mental lists except that the boat plug was completely in place. It was amazing to me afterward how something so small could cause such a huge disruption to our plans that day.
Taking any boat out on the river -- or any waterway -- should be a practice in checklists, according to Tim Schaeffer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. Make a list and, like Santa Claus gearing up for his Christmas Eve run, check it twice.
"Great memories on the water begin with some basic safety steps that include wearing a life jacket," said Schaeffer. "Whether you're paddling, waterskiing, fishing your favorite spot, or just relaxing on a pontoon boat, we can have fun and stay safe by following a checklist that includes sharing a float plan and never boating under the influence."
This year, in addition to the life jackets, boating regulations and boat plugs on our lists, COVID-19 restrictions need to be followed -- such as social distancing and limiting non-essential travel well beyond your home.
"Boating in a state park, or on any of Pennsylvania's beautiful rivers, lakes and streams can be the great escape many of us are looking for right now," said DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn. "We can enjoy the physical and mental benefits that come with spending time on the water, but we should continue to take steps to protect ourselves and those around us.”
With that in mind, Schaeffer’s checklist includes the following:
Protect others from the spread of COVID-19. Boaters should abide by Governor Wolf's Stay-at-Home Order and follow social distancing guidelines from the CDC. When boating, these safety measures include:
Wear a life jacket. Law requires that you have a lifejacket on board for every person on your boat. Children ages 12 and under must always wear a life jacket when aboard a boat less than 20 feet in length, including all canoes and kayaks. In 2019, 57 recreational boating accidents in Pennsylvania resulted in eight fatalities. Seven of the eight victims in 2019 were not wearing a life jacket at the time of the mishap that resulted in death (87%). According to Pennsylvania boating accident reports, roughly 80-percent of all boating fatalities occur annually because boaters were not wearing life jackets. Life jackets must be U.S. Coast Guard approved and properly fit the individual, including children and infants.
Never boat under the influence (BUI). Alcohol use increases the chances of having an accident. Alcohol affects balance, coordination and judgment. It is illegal to operate a boat while under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance. Just like operating a motor vehicle on the roadway, in Pennsylvania, a person operating a boat is over the legal limit if he or she has a blood alcohol concentration of point-zero-eight (0.08%) or higher. BUI penalties include loss of boating privileges, significant fines and imprisonment. Waterways Conservation Officers will be on patrol throughout the summer looking for impaired boaters.
Create a float plan. Let someone know where you are planning to boat and when you expect to return. Plans can change when you're having fun but keeping someone aware of your location throughout the day can ensure that help arrives quickly if you experience a mechanical or medical emergency while on the water. Carry a 'dry bag' in which to keep your cell phone and other valuables while boating.
Take a basic boating safety course. In Pennsylvania, all boaters born after December 31, 1981 who operate boats powered by motors greater than 25 horsepower must have a Pennsylvania Boating Safety Certificate. A certificate is also required for anyone who operates a personal watercraft (such as a jet ski), regardless of age. Online and classroom-based courses can be found at www.fishandboat.com. (Due to public health concerns related to COVID-19, classroom-based courses may be limited.)
Have proper registrations and launch permits. In Pennsylvania, all powered boats must be registered with the PFBC. Anyone operating an unpowered boat, such as a kayak, canoe or standup paddleboard, who wishes to use a PFBC or DCNR boat access, including those at state parks, may either register their boat or purchase an annual launch permit. Launch permits are available for purchase at the commission’s website: www.fishandboat.com.
Read through the entire Boating Handbook published by the Fish and Boat commission. Copies can be found at various outdoor suppliers and a full PDF version is online at www.fishandboat.com
Some additional safety tips were shared by Caz Russell, of Montandon, as he took me on a ride along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River last week where the Chillisquaque and Turtle creeks each enter the river, and around the new Central Pennsylvania Thruway bridge construction project.
At one point, he motioned toward a branch jutting out of the water.
“Many times we don’t realize how much is below the water. That could be a sign of a small tree lurking below -- or it could be a brush pile. It could definitely do some damage, depending on the size of the watercraft you are in,” he said. “Just assume it is a big tree under the water and stay away.”
This holds true for debris along the edge of waterways, too, which when combined with a swift current, can quickly become a major hazard, he added.
Another critical skill for safety while boating -- communication.
“We want to make sure we communicate very well, even when giving someone permission to board or get off the boat. Everyone should be on the same page to avoid an unexpected issue,” he said. “We should be very clear in our communication to friends, family and especially children when on the water so everyone knows what to expect and stays safe.”
The same holds true for boat operators that like to bring along their canine companions.
“You need to keep your dog under control. As the owner, it is up to me to make sure he is safe on the boat. Him running around with other people on the boat can be very dangerous,” he said. Reinforce commands such as “sit,” “stay” and “here.” Use a leash if needed to make sure your companion doesn’t find himself in a dangerous situation.
When finished on the water, it is just as important to develop and double-check a list to “have a safe ride down the road and back home,” Russell said.
“First, make sure you have the boat winched tight, the latch on and the boat is up snug against the roller. Secondly, I always unplug my trailer’s lights when backing it in the water to avoid a short, so make sure those lights are plugged back in,” he said. “Also, make sure the boat’s tie-downs are attached and tight -- you don’t want the boat to become loose. Lastly, take one more look around the inside of the boat for paper, water bottles or other items that could blow out while driving, including gear like life vests.”
Also, for those who dutifully screwed in their boat plugs and avoided an early, wet end to their boating adventure, now is also a good time to remove the plug so any water sloshing around in the bottom of the vessel can drain.
To learn more about boating in Pennsylvania , including complete rules and regulations, registration and title information, how to find great places to boat near you, how file a boating accident report and answers to other frequently asked questions (FAQs), visit the Boating Basics page on the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission website (www.fishandboat.com) or the FishBoatPA mobile app.
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.