Memorial Day is just around the corner, marking the season when a lot of us start thinking about boats. Whether you own or rent a kayak or an ocean cruiser, tour our beautiful rivers and lakes or head out to Long Island Sound, boating makes a great family weekend. Fishing, too.
But just because you’re breathing fresh maritime air doesn’t make you automatically “green.” The waters need protection every bit as much as the land. You and your kids need protection, too. At the start of every season, anyone in a maritime frame of mind should run down the safety and environmental protection rules.
For people using kayaks and canoes, personal safety starts with being comfortable in the water in case you fall overboard or capsize. Go out with a friend and tip the boat. You’ll learn how to get comfortable floating next to it, emptying the water from it, and getting back in. You will probably never need these skills if you stay on flat waters around here but, just like fire drills, it is good practice. If you’re swimming from sailboats or small motorized craft, be sure you’re capable of climbing back on board.
If you are new to the sport or stepping up in skill level, go with someone more experienced to be sure you understand how to operate the boat. Take a route that suits your abilities. Better to take a short trip and build up your stamina than be scared away by a bad experience. If you’re renting a boat, the outfitter will usually give you a tour route. Stick to it, or tell the outfitter where else you’re going.
On any boat, you need a life jacket for every person aboard, and the jacket should fit. If you are in canoes or kayaks, at least one person in the group should have a pump or bailer, sponge, an extra paddle, a whistle or other loud sound-making device, and a tow line.
The group should have a first aid kit, a dry change of clothes and sunscreen. Wear a hat. For canoes and kayaks a group of three or more boats is great as someone can always be watching and ready to help another boat. Pairing a couple of children or beginners with the more experienced lessens the risk of accidents.
Always bring more drinking water than you think you need: at least one to three liters per person for a day paddle, depending on the weather, and lots of snacks. This may seem like a lot of stuff, but that's why there are boat hatches. Don’t throw trash overboard; pack food and trash into reusable containers. Cigarette butts in water are especially dangerous — their plastic filters are deadly to birds and fish.
If you’re fishing, please don’t throw fish waste into marina water. Marinas are cluttered and waste does not flush out of them as well as in open waters. Fish waste will add more stress to the inevitable fuel and other contaminants there. Discard the waste further offshore or in the onshore trash. Better yet, freeze fish waste and reuse it as chum or bait.
Even for a short trip, check the weather. Last summer, I broke this rule to just go half a mile out to see some oyster-catcher nests in the Sound. I spent an hour on an island, shivering in the rain, as a fast-moving, but very large, lightning and thunder storm swept over us.
Always carry navigational equipment. For paddle boats a compass will suffice. If it is a short trip, let the kids use it. They’ll get in the habit of knowing where they are and how to find their way using maps and compasses.
If you own your boat, give it a good cleaning and maintenance check. But be gentle with it. Most boats will be perfectly clean, and last longer, if you wash with a sponge and plain water or use phosphate-free, biodegradable cleaners. Avoid cleaners with bleach, ammonia, lye or petroleum distillates, as they hurt both your boat and the environment. For extra cleaning, try white vinegar. Wax, used appropriately, keeps dirt from becoming ingrained.
If you’re touching up a paint job or doing major repairs, please use a dust-less or vacuum sander and set out a drop cloth to collect all paint chips, dust and residue. Now is a good time to check your fuel lines for damage. If they need to be replaced use alcohol-resistant hoses. When changing oil, slip a plastic bag over used oil filters to prevent drips. Once you’re finished with engine or other maintenance make sure you bring used maintenance products and chemicals to local hazardous waste collection sites.
To prevent fuel spills in the water, fill your tanks slowly and carefully. Never top off or overfill the fuel tank. It is better to leave 10 percent of it empty, for fuel to expand as it warms up. Use absorbent material to catch drips from the fuel intake and the vent overflow. Remember, it is illegal to use soap to disperse fuel or spills.
You should report spills promptly to Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection's Spill Response at (860) 424-3338. In New York state the hotline is (800) 457-7362 and the U.S. Coast Guard is at (800) 424-8802. Never discharge bilge water with an oily sheen. It’s illegal.
No matter what boat you have, make sure you proceed slowly in shallow areas and avoid contact with underwater vegetation. Don’t disturb wildlife. When cruising near islands, wetlands or other sensitive habitat, please limit your wake as it does cause erosion. Once back on land remove weeds and plants from your trailer and boat before leaving the boat launch. Drain your bilge and bait wells before hauling your boat to prevent the spread of invasive species.
Helping to keep our waterways clean and safe is easy. Hope to see you out there soon.
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