Ah, boating! Cruising along, wind in your hair, soaking up the summer sunshine. Pretty carefree, huh?
Not in the era of COVID-19.
With National Boating Safety Week coming up May 16-22, the folks at the Virginia-based National Safe Boating Campaign have issued some guidelines for people who hope to avoid exposure to the virus, formally identified as SARS-CoV-2.
Lt. Ed Goodson, a spokesman for the West Virginia Natural Resources Police, said the guidelines closely parallel the ones people have followed for the past several weeks.
“First, it’s a good idea to limit the people aboard your boat to people in your immediate household,” he said.
“Second, while at the fuel dock or at the marina, you should stay at least 6 feet away from people who don’t live in your house. Stick with the social-distancing guidelines you’ve been following.”
Goodson said it’s also a good idea to watch what you touch.
“When you fuel up, either at a filling station or at a marina, keep in mind that a lot of people have touched that fuel pump before you did,” he explained. “Wash your hands or use sanitizer after you touch it.”
With so many restaurants and marina stores closed, Goodson said it’s a good idea to bring along all the food and refreshments you will need for a full day on the water.
“Also, go directly from your home to the boat and back so you don’t have unnecessary contact with anyone,” he added.
Goodson said it’s not unusual for boaters to “raft up” — tie their boats together at the end of the day and have an impromptu party.
“Rafting up is not a good idea,” he cautioned. “In fact, with this virus around, it’s a really bad idea.”
The Safe Boating Campaign guidelines also caution against getting close to other boats while pulling up to a beach. Boaters should use the 6-foot rule for that, too.
Goodson said those are the COVID-19 boating guidelines, but he added that people getting ready for the 2020 boating season should have other safety measures in mind as well.
“If your boat has been sitting all winter, you’ll want to check it to make sure it has the required safety equipment,” he continued.
According to the guidelines, those include the necessary navigation lights, a fire extinguisher, a horn or other signaling device, and life jackets for everyone on board.
Goodson said of all the required equipment, life jackets — also called PFDs or personal flotation devices — are by far the most important.
“Drowning is the cause of death in four of every five fatal boating accidents,” he explained. “Anytime the boat is moving, everyone on board should be wearing a PFD. Kids age 12 and under should have them on at all times, even when the boat is stopped.”
There was a time when life jackets were universally bulky and awkward to wear, but Goodson said modern inflatable models allow people to be safe and still be comfortable.
“A lot of bass fishermen use them,” he said. “They’re deflated and out of the way until someone goes into the water, then they inflate and work just like any other PFD.”
Some models inflate automatically when they get wet or are submerged to a certain depth; others are inflated manually when the wearer pulls a small handle.
Goodson said even the most sophisticated life jackets aren’t any good unless boaters are willing to put them on. The slogan, “The best PFD is the one you’re wearing,” is a mantra used throughout the boating industry.
Every year, many of the boating accidents that occur in West Virginia take place when people operate boats while intoxicated. Not surprisingly, Goodson believes boating and alcohol are a bad mix. So are boating and drugs.
“Always have a ‘sober skipper,’” he said. “And it has to be someone old enough and experienced enough to pilot the boat.”
Goodson outlined a couple more no-nos: Boating at speeds too fast for weather and wave conditions, and boating while distracted. Texting while boating can be just as dangerous as texting while driving.
Being able to signal other boaters for help can come in handy at times. While most everyone carries cellphones nowadays, cellphones don’t work when they’re wet. Goodson recommended having a signaling device, such as a whistle, that will work even after being submerged.
Finally, he said, it’s always a good idea to draw up a float plan, much as a pilot draws up a flight plan, that details where and when you’ll be on the water.
“Make sure to share that float plan with others,” he said. “It’s always a good idea to let people know where you plan to be.”