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From the SIERRA Experts

7 Common New Boater Mistakes

An aluminum boat run aground on a sand bar next to a lake

There are two types of boaters - those who have made mistakes and those who will.

We all make mistakes. It’s especially true for new boaters who haven’t yet had the opportunity to learn from past mistakes — which is how we all learn what not to do.  To help shorten that process, here are some of the more common mistakes new boaters often make and how you can avoid having to learn the hard way.

Launching Without the Drain Plug

This one is hard to beat for making you feel like dummy, yet it happens all the time. There are generally two reasons for this: The person who was supposed to do it plain forgot or assumed somebody else already did it. That’s why you should have a pre-launch checklist and assign tasks to each people. It’s counterproductive when somebody whose job it isn’t decides to install the plug. For one, it throws off the routine. Another problem is they might not do it correctly. A simple rule can help avoid this - make it one person’s task to put in plug. But encourage any member of the crew to double check.

Running Out of Fuel

Beginning boaters can have a hard time gauging the amount of fuel required for a day on the water. If your boat has an analog fuel gauge be aware these are notoriously inaccurate. Fortunately, most modern boats are rigged with engine gauges that provide detailed fuel flow and fuel level data.   Experience will help you learn your boat’s fuel consumption at various engine RPMs and speeds, and from this, you can extrapolate your cruising range.  When figuring your range, allow for the round trip with 25% of your fuel capacity in reserve. Changing wind and wave conditions while you’re on the water can greatly reduce your boat’s fuel efficiency. When in doubt, eer on the side of caution and keep that 25% reserve in mind.

Running Aground

Next to running out of gas, running aground is one of the biggest reasons boaters need to call for assistance. To avoid this, boaters need to know the draft of their boat and be familiar with any shallow water obstructions in their area. Having a GPS/chart plotter onboard is extremely helpful, but only if you understand how to interpret the charts. This is especially important when navigating channels that go in and out of marinas. Watch your electronics and the visible channel markers. Always be on the lookout for obstructions and warning. Remember that the depth of water under your keel can vary widely with changing tides. Also remember that if you pull up on an exposed sandbar to relax for a while, dropping tide levels may leave you unable to get back out. Tidal swings can vary dramatically at different times of year and in different waterways. Understanding how tide shifts impact water levels is one of the most basic and crucial parts of boating safety.    

Letting The Battery Die  

Taking care of your boat’s battery is an important part of overall maintenance. Check the status of the battery regularly between trips. Your engine’s alternator may not be able to keep the battery fully charged if you run the engine a short while, anchor up all day running accessories, pumps, and lights, and run a short way back to the dock. It may be necessary to hook your boat’s battery to a charger in between trips to avoid getting stranded on the water.

Ignoring the Weather

Boaters should always check the marine forecast for their region before planning a trip. Listen to the Marine Weather on the VHF radio before pulling away from the dock. Online forecasts make it easy to check the predicted wind and wave conditions where you’re going to be. Many Internet weather sites let you click on a specific zone for a more accurate forecast. Remember that winds and wave action are usually worse the further offshore you are. Fall and winter months can bring more unpredictable wind and precipitation. In freshwater, remember that a heavy rain can dramatically change river conditions. It’s important to consider how the weather that’s already behind you may have changed conditions today. If in doubt, don’t go out.  And if you are on the water and notice the weather deteriorating — such as seeing lightning or hearing thunder in the distance — head for home right away.

Leaving Loose Ends

Whether you’re leaving the boat for a few minutes or for the day, it’s vital that you securely tie it up to the dock before stepping off the boat. Few things are more embarrassing (and potentially dangerous) than seeing your boat drift away with the wind or current while you’re getting the trailer or enjoying a drink. Learn how to tie a proper clove hitch when securing to dock poles or railings. Use a good cleat hitch to attach lines to the cleats on your boat and/or the dock. Always use both a bow line and a stern line. Three lines are even better If your boat has a spring cleat amidships.

Forgetting to Raise the Outboard/Outdrive

What’s worse than hearing the outboard’s lower unit scraping across the concrete as you’re pulling the boat up the ramp? Having everybody else in the marina hear it, too. This is not only embarrassing, but it can also be costly. Fortunately, this mistake is one most boaters make only once. Always double check that you’ve trimmed up the outboard (or outdrive on I/O boats) before pulling out. Also, don’t forget dangers from above before you start your tow home. Make sure you lower your VHF antenna and remove fishing rods from rocket launcher rod holders - especially those across your boat’s T-Top.  This can be a truly expensive mistake.

All this information can be daunting for new boaters. But you’re not alone if you make any (or even all) of these mistakes. The important thing is that you learn from your mistakes and improve your boating skills over time.  Soon enough, you’ll be past the new boater stage and on to sharing your own insights with the next wave of new boaters.

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