Driving a boat, especially if you are towing a rider, is a significant responsibility. Any time you are in control of a watercraft, you want to make sure you know the rules of the water to keep your riders, passengers, fellow boaters, and yourself safe. So, before you head out on the water it’s important to know about boat driving etiquette. This guide will help you learn some basic etiquette that’s expected of you while driving your boat while covering some best practices to keep your rider safe and going over what to do in the event of an emergency.
Best Practices to Keep Your Rider Safe
First and foremost, always plan for safety out on the water. Safety starts before you even get in the boat to embark on your watersport adventure. As you are packing supplies, you want to be sure to include the following safety gear:
- U.S. Coast Guard-approved Life Jackets: You should have at least one life jacket per passenger/rider. Everyone, regardless of age, must wear one, and it is highly recommended that they are worn throughout the entire duration of the boat ride (children are always required to wear theirs).
- Type IV Personal Flotation Devices: You should also have at least one personal flotation device (PFD) within easy access on board your boat. These are not designed to be worn but instead thrown in the water in the event someone goes overboard. Common Type IV PFDs include life rings and buoyant cushions.
- Rider Down Flag: An orange flag is a universal signal to boaters that someone is in the water somewhere near a boat. Like your PFD, this flag should be in an easily accessible location on board your boat for when your rider is in the water. It is recommended to have another passenger on board act as a lookout so they can raise this flag.
NOTE: Federal requirements may vary depending on location, so always be sure to check local regulations when planning a boating trip!
Tips for Towing
Once you have all your safety gear and you are out on the water, it’s time to check that your rider is ready. Start by agreeing on an easily heard verbal cue or an easily seen gesture (a wakeboard tower mirror will help with this!) that will mean “ready to go” while your rider is still in the boat. After they give you the agreed-upon signal, check the area for any other boats. If there are any other boats,
When you accelerate, try to keep it smooth without going to fast. Accelerating too quickly will make it hard for the rider to get up on their board. Once your rider is up, remember to ease back to somewhere between 15 and 19 miles per hour. In general, going slower is better for beginner riders and faster is better for experienced riders looking to perform more advanced tricks, but your cruising speed will depend on your rider and passengers.
You and your rider should have more agreed-upon hand signals for slowing down and speeding up. This will make it easier for the rider to perform their tricks, but do not forget to drive carefully at all times. As the driver, you are in charge of maintaining everyone’s safety and following boating etiquette. This means avoiding crowded areas, watching your wake, staying at least 150 feet away from shore or structures, and driving carefully. Even with experienced riders, sharper turns at high speeds equate to potentially dangerous conditions, so know your own, your rider’s, and your boat’s limits to avoid any preventable injuries or accidents.
Picking Up a Fallen Rider
Any time you have a rider, you want to have a spotter on board the boat. A spotter’s responsibility is to keep their eyes fixed on the rider to be able to react as quickly as possible if the rider goes down. If you do not have any other passengers on board to act as spotter, the responsibility falls to you, the boat driver. Equipping your boat with safety items such as tower mirrors will help make this job easier.
Should a rider fall into the water, your spotter should have access to quickly raise the orange flag to let you and other boat drivers in the area know. This part is critical to keeping the rider safe from harm. Once you have been alerted they are down, approach them from downwind at a slow, controlled speed. Once you have reached the downed rider, turn off the boat’s engine (do not shift into neutral) and help them get back aboard the boat. Every rider and passenger should be on board before the engine is restarted.
Check out our guide to picking up a rider after a fall for more detailed information.
Remember that safety and courtesy go hand-in-hand out on the water. If you consistently do your part to keep your passengers and riders safe, then you will naturally be taking steps to be courteous to those around you. But that certainly is not to say that safety is all there is to boating etiquette. Follow these rules of boating etiquette and you will be sure to have a better time out on the water:
Rules of the Ramp
Boating etiquette starts at the ramp. Try to have everything ready to go before you launch your boat. This ensures you are not wasting time and are being respectful to other boaters that may be waiting to go out or head back in.
Watch Your Wake
Always be mindful of your wake and other boaters around you. Creating large wakes near anchored or smaller boats can be dangerous, so always give a wide berth when passing.
Know Your Speed
Many boating areas have speed limits. Just like a car on the road, a boat on the water is expected to know, respect, and follow these speed limits.
Bringing snacks on board is completely fine, especially if you plan to be out on the water for a longer period of time. What is not fine, however, is tossing your trash overboard. Always have a place for your trash and dispose of it properly once you have returned to land.
Boating and watersports are great ways to fully enjoy what the water has to offer, but remember that others are trying to enjoy it, too. If you are listening to music, try to keep it down to a respectful level. As you are passing other boaters, wave and say hello. And offer to help when you can. Friendliness among boaters is a strong, proud tradition that everyone should want to carry on!
Be Respectful on the Water
While you are out, you are likely going to be sharing the water with other boaters. Always pay attention to your surroundings so you are aware of what is going on around you and respect everyone, including law enforcement, fishermen, and other tow boats. Keep in mind that you may not be the only driver towing a wakeboarder, skier, or other watersport rider, so knowing how to navigate the waters safely and efficiently is important.
Following these safety guidelines and quick and easy boating etiquette tips will help you have an even better time on the water. But if you ever find yourself with a question, don’t hesitate to ask a fellow boater!
For more boat driving tips and techniques, be sure to check out our full guide to driving a boat for wakeboarding.