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Fourth of July Tips for Boaters

With Fourth of July just around the corner, many of us boaters along the Southern California coast and on inland waterways are already gearing up for some serious partying aboard our boats. Warm weather and fireworks will certainly have us in a jolly mood, but sometimes the party frame of mind can blur our willingness to keep the festivities within limits, especially after we have slugged down a couple of margaritas while dancing on our boat’s rear deck, only inches away from the water.

That tenuous hold on reality could cause someone to fall overboard, and at night, our inability to spot someone in the water, especially if everyone else onboard is also drinking heavily, could lead to a drowning. This is just one more reason for us to establish a set of rules for ourselves and guests while aboard our boats.

Other important rules apply to navigation and anchoring, which can get complicated when a lot of boats converge on the same anchorage or waterway where space may be limited.

We boat owners all have our own procedures and pet peeves, but there is a handful of laws and common sense rules by which we must all abide.

Although this is not codified law, many of the “rules of the road” are stated in the most recent edition of the ABCs of California Boating, published by the California Division of Boating and Waterways, which we can presume will be treated as law, or at the very least, “established practice” in a criminal or civil court.

First, avoid exceeding the maximum number of passengers stated on the vessel’s “capacity plate,” which is installed by the builder. For practical purposes, a passenger weighs between 150 and 180 pounds. Going beyond the maximum passenger count risks putting too much weight above the waterline, which can cause a small boat to capsize.

Next, carry the correct number and type of fire extinguishers. All it takes is a cigarette lighter or a fireworks sparkler to fall on deck and ignite a small puddle of gasoline on the polyester resin to cause a potentially deadly fire.

Also ensure your vessel is carrying the correct number of personal flotation devices (PFDs) for everyone onboard. The minimum requirement is a Type 4 device, which includes throwable cushions.

Also critically important is a VHF radio. If you are going to be close to shore and other boats, a handheld VHF should be sufficient. Make sure to charge the battery pack before setting out on your vessel so you will have it handy while underway. A permanent VHF radio with a whip antenna, or on a sailboat, a masthead antenna is a much better choice, as this device can transmit and receive up to roughly 25 miles. Carrying both devices enables someone aboard the boat to communicate with other crew off the vessel without having to worry about cellular tower access for a phone. And just in case you were wondering, a cell phone does not take the place of a marine communication device.

Next, do your best to control the amount of alcohol being consumed on your vessel. Drunkenness can cause someone to slip and fall on deck, or worse, fall overboard and drown. If you are the individual operating the vessel, your maximum allowed blood alcohol level in California is .08 percent, NOT 8 percent. And even at anchor, if you have passengers onboard, common sense dictates you remain sober enough to watch over the needs and safety of guests and crew. When managing a large number of passengers, the best practice is to abstain completely from all inebriants for the duration of your onboard gathering.

Other rules apply to the manner in which we operate our vessels in coastal waters, particularly “right of way,” which may get blurred in the heady mood of a major holiday. In a narrow channel with two boats approaching from opposite directions, each boat moves to the right side of the channel, allowing the other boat to pass to the left. Where two boats are heading toward each other at a right angle, the boat passing along its port side has the right of way.

If you are on a sailboat and another sailboat approaches directly from the opposite direction, the boat with the wind on the port side should yield to the vessel on the starboard tack. The situation changes when dealing with two different types of boats approaching each other on the water. When a boat under sail approaches a motor boat, the sailboat has the right of way because it cannot maneuver as quickly as a motor vessel. However, when a large ship is approaching, both the sailboat and the motor boat must give way because a huge vessel hundreds of feet long obviously cannot turn quickly for a smaller, more agile vessel.

For anchored raft-ups, the best practice is for the largest vessel to set its bow anchor and allow smaller vessels to tie up on either side of—and in the opposite direction of—the anchored boat. Tie bow to stern, stern to bow, and use at least two boat fenders on either side of the main vessel to prevent structural damage and to ensure a safe, snug platform for foot traffic across the three vessels. Also make sure to tie off lines to side or deck cleats for a firm hold. Adding extra boats to either side of the anchored boat is possible, but usually these are dinghies rather than larger vessels.

Although I have never seen anyone absent minded enough to light fireworks on a boat, common sense dictates we leave all explosives at home, far away from our little domiciles on the water. Fantastic firework shows can be seen along the coast, and it’s a real “blast” to watch them from the rear decks of our boats. The fireworks show in Hurricane Gulch near Cabrillo Beach, Los Angeles Harbor, is a spectacularly choreographed event attracting thousands of visitors every Fourth of July.

Be safe and have a great time! See you out on the water!

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