Safety tips for older boaters

Gino Bottino, MD


With the average age of Americans advancing and the cost of boats increasing, most new engine-powered boats are bought by older boaters. Regardless of age, a skipper must be responsible for the safety of the boat and everyone onboard.

As an operator, you must be aware of your abilities, limitations, and health, including sight, hearing, mobility, stamina and mental acuity. You must also keep in mind the abilities and limitations of your crew: As we get older, so do all our family and friends.

Before leaving the dock, you should check equipment, monitor the weather and complete your predeparture checklist, but you should also gather your crew to ask them if they feel well and are comfortable with their situation and any tasks they’ve been assigned. Ask if they have any special needs or if you should be aware of any conditions that could affect the trip.

Make sure the medical box is stocked appropriately and consider having an automated external defibrillator onboard and someone trained to use it.

Assign a back-up skipper or two. Someone who can start and stop the boat, dock the boat, anchor in an emergency and use the radio to call for help, without any assistance from you.

Holding a man-overboard drill will prove to yourself and your crew that you are all up for this physical challenge, while learning proper rescue technique. Do this at least once a season with your core crew.

Age creeps up on us, and most of us are in denial. In our minds, we’re still young and think we can do anything. Yet, it’s difficult to act age-appropriate when we don’t acknowledge the reality of our age. Facing reality means understanding the normal human aging process and knowing what signs to look for in ourselves and others. As we age, we may

  • become forgetful or fuzzy-headed
  • learn more slowly and retain less information
  • have slower hand-eye coordination
  • experience vision changes
  • have less stamina and more fatigue
  • lose flexibility
  • lose balance and agility
  • become agitated more easily
  • not process language or make decisions as quickly
  • lose strength
  • take longer to process information, making multitasking more difficult

While it’s unlikely anyone will have all of these symptoms, take precautions to ensure the safety of yourself and your crew on the water.

Before a trip

  • Plan shorter, less strenuous trips during daytime hours.
  • Don’t go out alone. Share duties with others.
  • Rely on lists and notes.
  • Downsize or change boat type to accommodate your physical abilities.
  • Get regular physical checkups.
  • Exercise regularly to stay in shape. Biking, tai chi and yoga are great for boaters.
  • Practice boarding the boat safely. (Install a ladder or ramp on the dock.)
  • Look for handicap signs for easier loading and unloading.
  • Relocate electronic equipment (GPS, radar, radio, etc.) for easier access and screen visibility.
  • Add additional rails, safety lines and non-skid tape on highly traveled areas. Deck-mount attachments allow you to put stand-up bars and pole handholds in strategic places.
  • Assign a lookout to watch and listen for hazards and call them out.
  • Plan trips earlier in the day when energy is the highest.
  • Don’t overload the boat.
  • File a float plan with family or friends using the new America’s Boating Club app.
  • Practice throwing dock lines, docking and backing the boat.
  • Stock your first-aid kit with emergency medicines geared for yourself and your passengers.
  • Take a CPR course.
  • Teach passengers how to walk downstairs backward (facing the steps) and to use the three points of contact (both feet firmly planted while holding on with one hand) when getting on and off the boat.

When you’re underway

  • Keep the cabin hatch closed and latched to prevent anyone from falling in.
  • Keep fingers out of lines when cleating.
  • Always wear a life jacket, especially when going forward on the bow for line handling or anchoring.
  • Watch out for mooring lines when embarking or debarking.
  • Inform the crew of speed changes, turns, waves and wind changes that could cause them to lose balance.
  • Have crew members, including yourself, announce where they are going on the boat.
  • Have your lookout announce all approaching boats.
  • Practice what ifs: What do you do when something goes wrong?
  • What if someone falls overboard?
  • What if your boat has a mechanical problem?
  • What if someone gets hurt?
  • What if you have a heart attack or stroke?
  • What if the weather changes?
  • What if the electronics go down?
  • Make this a game with the crew to help them learn about boating and be prepared when something goes wrong.

Special thanks to Harrison Valante, who has presented these ideas during District 2 conferences.

Gino Bottino, M.D., has had wide experience in medical practice and emergency medical matters. A member of United States Power Squadrons First Aid Support Team (FAST) and the Safety Committee, Gino also has a background in competitive sail racing and is familiar with health-related problems afloat.

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