When it comes to boating, there are two kinds of rules. There are the Coast Guard’s rules, e.g., laws, that must be followed or you go to jail; and there are the rules you learn from experience that you follow to avoid disaster. Everyone at the helm of a boat should be familiar with the first kind of rules to be legal and safe. This article is about the second kind of rules—Rules To Live By to save your ego and your wallet a great deal of pain. When you rent your boat, follow these rules to ensure that your boating experience will be safe and fun.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Everyone knows men are too proud to ask for directions. Boaters, male or female, can also be afraid to ask for help for fear of looking weak. Don’t be. Your fellow boaters are nice people who want to help you. They’ve all been new boaters, and have no doubt been helped by others as they learned the sport. This is especially true when you’re trying to dock your boat, launch your boat, or anchor your boat. All are tricky and potentially hazardous maneuvers. Pulling up to a dock against the wind is hard, and it can seem like you have to come in at ramming speed to get there. You don’t want to earn the nickname “Captain Crunch.” Getting a trailer into the water, and the boat on and off the trailer can require the agility of an acrobat.  Getting an anchor to hold has vexed mariners since Noah sailed the ark. There is no shame in asking for help.

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When in doubt, slow down.

Remember, boats don’t have brakes. If you hear, see, or feel something that doesn’t seem right, slow down. A loud beeping sound is generally an alarm, which means something is wrong. Slow down and figure out what is beeping and what it’s trying to tell you. Feel a bump? Slow down and look around to see if you may have hit something. This rule also applies to how you act on your boat. Don’t rush. You’ll stub your toe on cleats (those bars on the deck for tying lines), bang your head on doorways (they’re never high enough for an adult to stand in), or slip and fall in the water. Important sub-rule: keep all personal items in zipped pockets. Marinas are filled with phones, radios, sunglasses, and keys of people who didn’t. It takes more time to (slowly) unzip a pocket to get out your phone, and slowly put it back when you’re done, but you’ll be glad you did.

Assume everyone else on the water is totally clueless and you’ll be right much of the time.

Yes, most boaters are nice folks who are happy to help you. But the fact of the matter is anyone can buy and drive a boat and not everyone takes the time to get familiar with the first kind (Coast Guard) of rules. Give other boats on the water plenty of space, especially if they look like they’re fueled more by alcohol than by gasoline. Never anchor or swim where there is a lot of high-speed boat traffic. Unfortunately, not everyone is paying attention while they’re driving. See that guy with a beer in one hand and his phone in the other, coming toward you at full speed? Stay out of his way!

Check your gauges.

In a car, about the only gauges that really matter are the fuel and speed gauges.  You might look at the others every once in a while. In a boat, all the gauges are important. Keeping an eye on them can help keep you out of trouble. In fact, in most boats, unless you have a GPS, the speed gauge might be the least important. Speedometers on boats are notoriously inaccurate.

  • The engine temperature gauge is the most common indicator of trouble. High temperature is a sign that something has failed or is failing. It could be a hose, a faulty impeller, or a clogged intake for coolant water. Make sure you know the normal operating temperature so you will be able to tell if the engine is heating up.
  • Battery voltage is also critical—especially if you spend time at anchor listening to music or using other electronics that drain the battery. When the battery power dips below what is needed to start the engine, you’re in trouble. The music might still be playing, but you still might not have enough cranking power to start the boat.
  • The tachometer should also be monitored. A spike in RPMs at cruising speed is a sign that something is wrong. It could be some seaweed has wrapped around the propeller. Also, if you have two engines, you might not notice if one of the engines dies, because there’s not a big difference in sound when one or both engines are running. Check the tach periodically to know all is well.
  • Oil pressure and fuel levels are, of course, critical as well. Check them frequently. The only downside to monitoring fuel levels is that you might notice how quickly your fuel is depleted!

Don’t bark at your first mate.

Male boaters are notorious for shouting at their partners. It isn’t necessary. Granted, there are stressful moments in every voyage, especially at the beginning and end of the day when launching, docking, or anchoring. As is the case in Rule To Live By #1 (don’t be afraid to ask for help), a little humility goes a long way, as does courtesy. If you want your partner to love boating as much as you do, don’t make it into a contest to see how much he/she can read your mind. Once you’ve turned off your significant other to boating, you may not get another chance to win him or her back. A few years ago, a gentleman wrote a letter to a boating magazine about how happy he was, initially, when his wife gave him a shirt that had the name of their boat and the word “Captain” underneath the boat name. He was feeling pretty good until she presented the companion shirt she’d made for herself. No, it didn’t say “First Mate.” Instead, it said “Owner.” For all you captains out there, it’s not a bad attitude to take. Treat your partner like you work for him/her, and things will go well for both of you. 

Boating is one of the most wonderful pastimes in the world. How else can you leave home in the morning and find yourself on a deserted sand bar in crystal blue waters in the afternoon? Renting a boat is the fastest, easiest, most cost-effective way to live like you’re in a beer commercial, far from the cares of the world. Follow these rules to learn from the mistakes of countless others, and you’ll have the time of your life.