Be Safe on the Water this Summer

News, Crime

With summer in full swing and the July 4th holiday weekend right around the corner, many people will be spending their free time on the water. Whether going out in your own boat, with a group of friends or even cruising around the Caribbean, there are many opportunities for fun. But it’s important to remember amidst the fun to be safe and to be aware of the rules and regulations that apply to where you are.

We asked Pennsylvania maritime lawyer,  Fred Goldsmith, of Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC to provide some guidelines and best practices for boaters who may have big plans this summer:

Boating laws and regulations vary from state to state. Generally, as boat size and power increase, so do required safety equipment and restrictions on operators.  There are also requirements which apply when operating on federal lakes and reservoirs, such as those maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  So, it is important to first check state and federal boating laws and regulations websites.  Here are some good websites to start your search:

With this is mind,what follows are general guidelines.

In the event of a boat crash, what steps should be taken immediately after the accident?

If you or others are injured, use a cell phone or VHF radio (Channel 16) to call 911 for EMS and, if applicable, local or state police, sheriff, Fish & Boat Commission, etc. Under federal and most states’ laws, you have a duty to stop and render assistance.  Most states require you immediately report to state boating regulators, orally, AND in writing on the agency’s approved form, the details of boating accidents, particularly where there is personal injury, death, or property damage above a set limit. If no EMS/hospital treatment is obtained, see your own doctor or hospital Emergency Room ASAP, as medical conditions require.

  • Get photos, even with a cell phone or disposable camera, of the accident scene, vessels, equipment, people, products, involved.
  • If possible, preserve the accident scene and any vessels, equipment, or products, involved, until it can be investigated.
  • Write down the name, address, and phone number of everyone involved, and also witnesses on your boat and other boats, as well as those onshore who saw the accident.
  • Promptly report the accident to your own insurance company, usually by calling the insurer’s 800 number, or by calling your insurance agent or broker.
  • Try to avoid discussing the accident or giving a written or recorded statement to the other side’s insurance adjuster until you have the opportunity to talk to your lawyer.

Can people have open containers of alcohol on a boat? And along the same lines, do the drinking and driving laws we’re all aware of for operating a motor vehicle apply to those operating a boat?

Boating open container laws vary from state-to-state.  Some states, Texas, for instance, allow open containers, others, Utah, for instance, do not.  Regardless, mixing boating and drinking is irresponsible and simply inviting tragedy.  Both boat operators and passengers should save drinking for until after they’re home safely.  Alcohol, even in small amounts, impairs motor function and judgment.  Boat operators must be able to safely operate machines that can kill or maim their passengers, skiers they are towing, and other boaters and swimmers.  Passengers serve an important role as look-out for others boats, swimmers, and obstructions.  Smart and responsible recreational boaters do not put beer and other alcohol in the cooler they take on-board.

The law in Pennsylvania and most states, and on federal waters (such as U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes and reservoirs) is that if your blood alcohol content is .08 or higher, you are considered intoxicated and have committed the criminal offense of boating while intoxicated.  Most states apply and strictly enforce laws against boating while intoxicated (BWI) and boating while under the influence of drugs.

What are the regulations surrounding boat licensing, life jacket requirements, engine size and other common rules of the water people must know about?

Most states require motor-powered boats and sailboats to be registered and bear a state decal and registration number.  Some states, such as Pennsylvania, exclude from the numbering requirement unpowered kayaks, sculls and sailboards. There are usually horsepower limits on smaller lakes and on many federally-maintained lakes and reservoirs.  Check for local laws and regulations.

The federal Inland Navigation Rules apply on all “navigable waters.”  And most states have their own “rules of the road” which closely track the federal Inland Navigation Rules.  Pennsylvania’s Navigation Rules and related boat operation rules are typical.  These Navigation Rules require boats to be operated at a safe speed, with a proper lookout, to give way to other boats–both commercial and recreational–which have the right of way, to show proper navigation lights at night, and to use specified sound signals when communicating your pathway intentions to other vessels.

Pennsylvania and most states’ boat operation regulations make it illegal to:

  • Operate a watercraft in a reckless, negligent, or dangerous manner. Boats must be operated at a rate of speed that does not endanger the life or property of any person.
  • Operate a boat at greater than slow, no-wake speed within 100 feet of the shoreline, docks, launch ramps, swimmers or downed skiers, persons wading in the water, anchored, moored or drifting boats and floats. Slow, no-wake speed is the slowest possible speed of a motorboat required to maintain maneuverability so that the wake or wash created by the motorboat on the surface is minimal.
  • Operate a motorboat less than 20 feet in length at greater than slow no-wake while a person is standing on or in the boat.
  • Operate a motorboat not equipped with railings or other safeguards at greater than slow, no-wake while a person is riding on the bow decking, gunwales, transom, or motor covers.
  • Cause a boat to become airborne or to leave the water completely while crossing another boat’s wake when within 100 feet of the boat creating the wake.
  • Weave through congested traffic.
  • Operate faster than slow, no-wake when within 100 feet to the rear or 50 feet to the side of another boat that is underway, unless in a narrow channel.
  • Operate within 100 feet of anyone towed behind another boat.
  • Operate a pontoon boat at greater than slow, no-wake speed while a person is riding outside the passenger-carrying area.
  • Operate within 100 yards of any U.S. Navy vessel. You must operate at slow, no-wake speed within 500 yards of any U.S. Navy vessel.
  • Operate a motorboat which anyone sitting, riding or hanging on a swim platform or swim ladder attached to the boat.

Most states have mandatory boater safety course requirements, particularly for those under 16 or 18 and enhanced requirements for operation of Personal Water Craft (“PWC”) (such as WaveRunners, Jet Skis, and Sea Doos).   For instance, in Pennsylvania, persons 11 years of age or younger may NOT operate a boat of greater than 25 horsepower and persons born on or after January 1, 1982, may not operate such a boat unless they have obtained and have in their possession a Boating Safety Education Certificate.

Pennsylvania regulations require PWC operators to:

  • Wear life jackets at all times and that all passengers also wear life jackets.
  • Carry a fully charged fire extinguisher on board.
  • Carry a sound-producing device on board.
  • Attach the kill switch safety lanyard to clothing, body or life jacket.

Pennsylvania PWC boating regulations make it illegal:

  • For anyone to operate a PWC without having in one’s possession a Boating Safety Education Certificate.
  • To rent a PWC to anyone 15 years of age or younger. No one less than 16 years of age may operate a rented PWC.
  • To operate a PWC from sunset to sunrise.
  • To tow a water skier behind a PWC with a capacity of two people or fewer, and to tow more than one skier.
  • For anyone 11 years of age or younger to operate a PWC.
  • For anyone 12 through 15 years of age to operate a PWC with any passengers on board 15 years of age or younger.

Most states require boats be equipped with a sound-generating device, such as an air horn, to alert other boats and help avoid collisions.  Other commonly-required equipment includes:

  • Fire extinguishers
  • Occupant capacity plates
  • Backfire flame control devices for inboard gasoline engines
  • Engine exhaust mufflers
  • Buoys for SCUBA divers
  • One serviceable and “readily accessible” Coast Guard-approved wearable PFD (personal flotation device) per boat occupant, and that younger passengers, usually those 12 and under, wear a PFD at all times while aboard boats 20′ or less in length. canoes, and kayaks.  In addition, most states require larger boats, usually those over 16′, to carry and have “immediately available” a throwable type PFD.
  • A Coast Guard-approved visual distress signaling (“VDS”) device be aboard.  Pennsylvania, for example, only requires a VDS device when operating on Lake Erie.
  • Navigation lights sufficient to comply with the federal Inland Navigation Rules and state regulations are also commonly required.

As a boat owner, is it a requirement to purchase insurance? What is the best way to go about this?

My research reveals that no U.S. state or federal laws require boat owners to have insurance.  Regardless, it is prudent to have insurance to cover your boat, trailer, yourself, your passengers, and your liability if you injure, kill, or damage other people, boats, docks, or other property.  Most lenders and marinas also require boat insurance.   When purchasing insurance for your boat, which is called “marine insurance,” make sure you are working with an agent or broker who is experienced in marine insurance.

It appears from media coverage that cruise ship crimes are on the rise. As cruise ship season is well under way now, what are some tips you can offer people to stay safe while they are on vacation at sea?

Don’t leave your common sense at home.  Conduct yourself and care for yourself and your family as though you were vacationing in a foreign country.  There are numerous published legal cases involving sexual assaults by crewmembers upon passengers.  Don’t open your cabin door unless you know and feel safe around who’s knocking.  Don’t get drunk and wander around the ship alone: you risk making yourself a victim of a theft, assault, or fall overboard.  Keep an eye on what you are drinking, to ensure a stranger does not slip a “date rape” drug into your glass.  Don’t accept a pre-poured drink or beer from a stranger.  Instead, get a fresh one from the bartender.

  • Supervise your children.  Just like on shore, there are numerous potentially hazardous activities and conditions aboard ship: pools, stairs, elevators, balconies, railings, electrical shock and burn hazards.
  • There are also numerous stories of illnesses spreading among ship passengers.  One precaution: take hand sanitizer, such as Purell, with you.
  • Don’t take valuable jewelry aboard ship.  Safeguard your passport, other forms of identification, plane tickets, credit cards, and cash.  Don’t flaunt your valuable possessions, money, or wealth, aboard ship and on shore excursions.  On shore, you signal to potential thieves that you’re a tourist by: wearing t-shirts and hats with logos and US business names and slogans; wearing hip pouches, expensive cameras, watches, and necklaces. Instead, keep a lower profile, both in your appearance and demeanor.
  • Be careful and don’t horseplay near balconies, railings, and when walking on gangways, lest you fall to a dock or deck below, or overboard.  Wear tennis shoes or other footwear which is both comfortable and which affords good traction on wet wood and steel decks and other walking surfaces.

The law which applies varies depending on the flag of the ship, where the ship is located, and, if ashore, where you’re ashore.  If you’re on the high seas, international maritime law will likely apply.  But, rather than have to worry about what law applies after an incident, take sensible precautions to avoid being a victim of a crime or an accidental personal injury or death.  If you or a family member is injured or killed, most cruise lines have “ticket clauses” which limit where you can file a lawsuit and by when you must do so. Courts often enforce these “forum selection” or “ticket” clauses” against the passenger.  Look for these types of clauses in the promotional material you receive from the cruise line or travel agency and on the print that accompanies or is on the back of your cruise ticket.  If you find the clauses unacceptable to you, look for another cruise line or choose another type of vacation.