How to Stay Safe on the Water

Follow these important boating and wading safety tips for waterfowlers


By Wade Bourne 

Boating and wading safety should be of paramount concern to all waterfowlers. Disaster can strike quickly, with deadly consequences. In the early 1980s I witnessed the tragic drowning of a young duck hunter. Several years later a johnboat I was using during a solo hunt sank in rough water. I was not wearing a life preserver, but fortunately the water was shallow enough for me to wade to shore unharmed.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, hunters are involved in an average of 35 major boating accidents per year, resulting in 14 deaths and 27 serious injuries. Eighty percent of these reported deaths occurred by drowning, and 85 percent of the victims were not wearing a personal flotation device (PFD).

For that reason alone, wearing a PFD should top your list of safety precautions when hunting from a boat, says Will Hillyer, chief warrant officer 2 in the U.S. Coast Guard's Boating Safety Division in Washington, D.C. "I can't stress enough the importance of wearing a life jacket," he warns. "This is the easiest and most effective safety precaution hunters can take. Put that life jacket on before you get in the boat and don't take it off until you climb out."

Following are 10 additional tips from Hillyer for staying safe on the water when pursuing ducks and geese:

1. Never overload your boat. Boats under 20 feet in length are required to have a capacity plate that indicates the maximum weight and number of people the boat can safely carry. Know your boat's limits and don't exceed them. To be safe, always stay well below these limits when hunting in rough waters.

2. Never venture onto big water in a boat that's not seaworthy. Wide beams and high gunwales are crucial for navigating open water, especially in strong winds, which could arise unexpectedly.

3. Keep an emergency kit stored in your boat in a waterproof bag. The kit should contain signal flares, a GPS device, whistle, cell phone or handheld radio, flashlight, fire-starting kit, and other survival items.

4. File a float plan with a family member or friend so rescuers will know where to look in the event that you have an accident or become stranded. Be sure to provide crucial information such as where you will launch the boat, where you plan to hunt, and when you expect to return.

5. Never carry a loaded firearm in the boat. An accidental discharge can prove disastrous.

6. Make sure that your boat's running lights are operating properly and use them whenever you're on the water between sunset and sunrise.

7. Distribute weight along a boat's centerline, positioning passengers and gear so the boat runs with its bow slightly raised.
8. Never operate a boat while under the influence of alcohol. Drinking and boating are a deadly combination.

9. Neoprene waders can actually help you stay afloat in deep water, especially if they are fastened around your waist with a wader belt. These waders also help retain body heat, which could provide you with additional protection against hypothermia.

10. Take a boating safety course. Search online for local courses taught by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, U.S. Power Squadrons, and various state agencies.