Boating. Swimming. Water recreation and sports. There are plenty of family-friendly activities you can enjoy in and on the water, but each comes with some inherent risks. It’s important to understand potential dangers, and how they can be avoided.
10 Safety Tips for Swimming Around Boats
Understand the Danger Zone
The first step to staying safe while swimming around boats is understanding the danger zone.
The major area of concern is the boat’s propeller, or the “propeller danger zone”. Anyone swimming around the boat should stay away from the back of the boat to ensure they are not going near the propeller, even though this is often a popular swimming spot. The propeller poses a significant safety risk, and swimmers may inhale toxic fumes from the exhaust.
To reduce these safety hazards, keep the motor turned off while anyone is swimming around the boat, and anchor the boat in place. Swimmers can then swim around the boat more safely, but caution them to never swim under the boat and to remain clear of the back of the boat just in case.
Know the Signals
In some cases, such as with water sports like wakeboarding, swimmers may need to be picked up after falling into the water. Because the boat’s motor will be on, the boat operator, the observer (the person designated to watch the swimmer or rider), and the person in the water need to understand the same hand signals to communicate with each other. These signals make it possible for everyone to understand the boat operator’s intentions and act accordingly.
- Slow down – put your hand palm down, and move it up and down
- Speed up – put your hand palm up, and move it up and down
- Stop – put your hand palm facing outward toward the front
- Go forward – use your index finger to point toward the bow
- Go in reverse – use your index finger to point toward the stern
- Turn – point in the direction you will be turning
Wear a Life Jacket
One of the best things you can do to stay safe while boating or swimming is wearing a life jacket. This is especially important for inexperienced swimmers or in bodies of water with boat traffic. There are five types of life jackets, each better suited for different situations:
- Type I – Inherently buoyant, suggested for offshore fishing, boating alone, or boating in stormy conditions
- Type II – Inherently buoyant, suggested for inland fishing and boating
- Type III – Inherently buoyant, suggested for supervised activities; Inflatable, suggested for boating in and near the shore
- Type IV – Throwable device to assist an overboard person
- Type V – Special use life jackets for specific situations
Swim in Designated Areas
Swimming in or around areas that boats use to travel is dangerous. Instead, look for a designated area that keeps you away from boat traffic. Look for an area where you know the water depth and if there are underwater structures. Make sure you aren’t near rivers or rip currents, or moving water that can pose a risk to swimmers, including waves and surf.
Federal, state, and private recreation areas around the water often have designated swim areas. These areas are ideal for swimming, because they usually offer access to amenities, include safety features including signs and buoy lines, and may have lifeguards.
Use a Buddy System
Swimming alone can be dangerous, so it’s always better to use a buddy system, especially if you’re going to swim in unfamiliar or open water. Having a buddy means having access to help in the event of an emergency. It’s an additional layer of safety, ensuring that someone in your group can provide help or call someone, if needed.
You should always stay visible while you’re in the water. This means more than just staying where the observer and boat operator can see you. We recommend wearing bright-colored swimming gear or using flotation devices with flags to enhance your visibility to boat operators and reduce the risk of accidental collision.
Just as you should never operate a boat while drinking, you should never swim while under the influence. Alcohol can impair your judgment and coordination, increasing the likelihood of having an accident in the water. It can also make it easier for you to become dehydrated. To stay healthy and safe, bring plenty of water and some snacks.
Know Basic Water Skills
Even though you should wear a life jacket while you’re in the water, you need to know some basic water skills to stay safe. These skills can be invaluable in emergency situations.
- Floating – Stretch out your arms and legs, tilt your head back, keep your chest open while allowing the lower part of your body to sink, take a deep breath, and relax.
- Treading water – Treading water helps keep your head above the water. Push your arms out to the side in a back-and-forth movement, kick your feet back and forth or move your legs in an up and down circular motion, keep your chin lifted, regulate your breathing, and lean back. Use a flotation device if one is available.
- Emergency swimming techniques – Floating is the best option if you need to conserve energy, but if you need to move to a safer location or to get help, you can doggie paddle or backstroke. The backstroke conserves the most energy, making it the better option for a longer distance.
Be Cautious of Currents
Currents can be extremely dangerous to swimmers, so try to assess the waters before you step out of the boat. Always avoid areas with boat traffic, as this poses extra unnecessary dangers and can make currents worse. To test for a current, you can watch leaves, twigs, or other debris floating on the water to see what direction it is moving in, and how quickly. You can also look for areas of choppy, rippled, or different surface textures that would indicate a change or shift in the water pattern.
Have an Emergency Action Plan
An emergency action plan should include how to prevent an emergency, how you can prepare for one, how to respond to one, and how to recover from one. This guide offers many ways to mitigate an emergency, but it’s just as critical to know how to respond to one.
If a swimmer gets hurt, they should know how to signal for help, typically by waving their arms overhead and shouting “help” at the observer and boat operator. The observer should always monitor the swimmer and be able to react if they notice the swimmer has become disoriented or unconscious.
It is the responsibility of the observer to alert the boat operator to the distressed swimmer. The boat operator may need to safely drive the boat to the swimmer. If they do not already have a flotation device, get one to them immediately. From there, you will need to assess the swimmer’s health and condition.
If they are hurt, determine whether you can treat the wound with the materials available in your first aid kit. You should always have a fully stocked and in-date kit on your boat. If you are unable to, then you should dial 911 or use your boat’s radio to call for help.
Once the swimmer has received help, you can work with them and any involved parties to determine the next steps to ensure they are comfortable and safe.
Stay safe, and have fun!
Following these safety tips will help you have a more enjoyable time in the water and help prevent emergency situations. If you’re ever unsure how you can stay safe while boating or swimming, look up local guidelines to see what you can do.