To keep recreational sailing a fun and safe activity, there are some rules sailors are expected to follow. First, it's important to be honest about your skill level. Don't overextend yourself -- if you're a beginner or an old pro, going beyond your skill puts both you and others at risk. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 70 percent of reported deaths at sea occur because the boat operator didn't have adequate (or any) boating instruction [source: U.S. Coast Guard].
Your skills will only take you so far -- you'll need wind in your sails to get you out on the water. Make sure to determine the wind speed and direction before you set out. Also check the forecast. It may be sunny as you make your preparations, but a change in the weather could result in a dangerous expedition.
With skill level and wind direction determined, you'll also want to inspect your boat, gear and tools to ensure they're all in good condition, and note if you have everything you need onboard before setting out. Federal law requires you to carry safety equipment onboard. You and your crew should wear life jackets and all know how to use the boat's safety equipment. Be sure to know how to make a distress call for immediate assistance -- the time you find yourself in trouble is not the time to figure how to call for help.
It's also smart to have a plan. On your adventure you'll likely be out of sight of land, and if you have an emergency, it might be difficult for help to find you. Put together a float plan and leave a copy with a friend or local marina before you set sail. At the least, your plan should include:
- A description of your boat
- The name of your boat operator and the names of all people onboard
- What type of safety and survival equipment you have with you (food, flares, paddles, marine radios, etc.)
- Your destination, arrival and departure times
Skill, wind, inspection and a plan -- check. Once you've launched your boat, be alert and aware of your surroundings. By simply maintaining a safe speed and looking around you, you're less likely to collide with other boats or objects (the top two causes of accidents [source: U.S. Coast Guard]). And leave the alcohol on shore: Drinking and operating equipment is just as dangerous at sea as it is on the roads. Violators with a blood alcohol content of .08 percent or higher may be subject to civil and criminal penalties, one year imprisonment or both. [source: U.S. Coast Guard]. Alcohol use is a leading factor in fatal boating accidents -- nearly 20 percent of reported fatalities [source: U.S. Coast Guard].
For a comprehensive list of rules and regulations, visit the U.S. Coast Guard's Navigation Center.