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Hazards to boaters appear in many forms: dams, submerged objects, cold water, fast changing weather, and current. These hazards aren't always obvious. Boaters need to recognize these dangers and be ready to avoid them at all times. Developing a keen appreciation and understanding of the overall "boating environment" lets boaters avoid hazards on the water. 

Boaters must stay clear of dams. Failure to do so can result in tragedy. Dangerous currents above the dam can draw boats into water going over or through a dam. If boaters lose power upstream of a dam or find themselves drifting toward a dam, they should immediately deploy an anchor to hold their position.

Areas below dams are also hazardous because of strong recirculating currents (known as a hydraulics) and turbulent water. Boaters must stay back from the area below dams to avoid getting pulled into the hydraulic. 

Some dams are not marked and can be spotted by looking downriver for a discernible horizontal line going across the water. Boaters are responsible for knowing the waters they are on including knowing the locations of all dams before launching boats. Unmarked dams are dangerous and boaters should avoid them.

Marked Dams
Owners of dams meeting certain criteria are required to mark them. Dams that are marked may have "Danger Dam" signage on the shoreline upstream and downstream of the dam. Marked dams may also have buoys with "Boats Keep Out" emblems. Boaters must comply with the restrictions noted in the signage and buoys.

There are more than 2,000 dams on rivers and streams throughout Pennsylvania that can be extremely dangerous under certain conditions. A dam that might seem completely safe at one minute can be turned into a dangerous low head dam the next if, for example, a sudden storm increases flows. All dams are potential "drowning machines" and should be avoided.  In Pennsylvania, dams are regulated by the Department of Environmental Protection.

Submerged objects
A submerged object in the water can be a hazard to an unwary boat operator. Rocks, stumps, logs and other objects can damage a boat's hull or motor, sometimes resulting in injury or death to people on board. Water levels vary on almost every waterway in the state. Even a few inches difference in depth can make the difference between "smooth sailing" and an abrupt end to the boating day.

Running aground at high speed can result in people being ejected from the boat. Boaters can protect themselves by keeping a sharp lookout for objects in the water and changing bottom structure. A depth finder or fathometer can keep a boater informed of the depth of the water. Operators who are not sure of the bottom should reduce speed.

Safety on the water depends on developing respect for the power of water. Current can be deceptive and boaters should never underestimate its power. Even a moderate current can exert a force of several tons on a capsized canoe, pinning it against a rock. Boaters venturing out in strong current must stay within their abilities and skill levels, especially in unpowered boats.

A strainer is an obstruction, like a tree or fence in the water, that allows water to pass through but holds and traps boats and boaters. Boaters in current should keep a safe distance from strainers that they could be "pinned" against.

Factors that determine weather include temperature, barometric pressure and wind. Smart boaters check the local forecast the night before going boating and again in the morning. There are a variety of smartphone weather apps and weather channels that provide up-to-date forecasts, some of which are customized for boaters.

Be alert to weather you can see. Signs that the weather may worsen include:  clouds gathering, darkening and increasing in size; sudden temperature drop; rapid wind shift or change in speed; and drop in barometric pressure (check a barometer). If a storm is approaching, everyone in the boat should put on a life jacket, if not already wearing one. The operator should head for the nearest shore and beach the boat, if necessary. It is best to find a shore on the downwind (leeward) side of the land. In a large boat, after making certain everyone is wearing a life jacket, the operator should start the engine or secure the sails (whichever is applicable). All unnecessary gear should be stowed or secured, and the running lights should be turned on.

If unable to get to shore, the boat operator may need to ride out the storm. If forced to do so, the operator should keep the bow headed into the waves, wind and/or current. If the motor fails, a sea anchor on a line from the bow will keep the boat into the waves. A bucket will work as a sea anchor in an emergency. Lightning is a dangerous part of bad weather. At the first sign of lightning boaters should lay fishing rods flat on the deck and lower or remove antennas, flags, etc. If possible, get to a safe harbor. Being on open water during a lightning storm can be a terrifying and dangerous experience.

Cold water
Cold water shock is a major factor in boating fatalities when water temperatures are less than 70 degrees F. Cold water shock causes an involuntary gasp (often resulting in aspiration of water), hyperventilation, breathlessness and a reduced ability to control breathing and swim. A life jacket greatly increases your chance for survival in cold water. It also increases the amount of time for you to be rescued.

A disproportionate number of fatalities occur during the months of November through April in Pennsylvania. Coldwater immersion is one of the primary reasons for these fatalities, based on boating accident data. That's why the chance of a boating accident resulting in a fatality is significantly higher from November through April than during the rest of the year.

Here are some cold water survival safety tips:

  1. Always wear a life jacket, even when not required. Many models also offer insulation from cold air.
  2. Never boat alone.
  3. Leave a float plan and know the waters you plan to boat.
  4. Bring a fully-charged cell phone with you in case of emergency.
  5. Wear clothing that still insulates when wet such as fleece, polypropylene or other synthetics.
  6. If you are about to fall into cold water, cover your mouth and nose with your hands. This will reduce the likelihood of inhaling water.
  7. If possible, stay with the boat. Get back into or climb on top of the boat.
  8. While in the water, do not remove your clothing in cold water. 
  9. If you can't get out of the water, get into the Heat Escape Lessening Posture (HELP).
  10. Once out of the water, get out of the wet clothes and warmed up as soon as possible.

Alcohol and boating
Alcohol is a hazard to boaters. It affects balance, coordination and judgment. Instead of making a person warmer, body temperature actually cools faster because alcohol dilates blood vessels. Use of alcohol also results in increased risk­taking. It is illegal to operate a watercraft on all waterways of the Commonwealth while under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance. Remember, drinking and boating do not mix.

Alcohol is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents.

  • BUI is illegal. Operating a recreational vessel with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 or higher is against the law. 
  • Boating under the influence applies to drugs and some prescription medications, as well as alcohol. 
  • Alcohol can impair a boater's judgement, balance, vision and reaction time. It can increase fatigue and vulnerability to the effects of cold water shock. 
  • Sun, wind, noise, vibration and rocking of the boat are all "stressors" common to the boating environment. These stressors intensify the effects of alcohol, drugs and some medications.
  • Alcohol is dangerous for passengers too. Intoxicated passengers can easily slip, fall overboard or suffer other life-threatening incidents. 
  • It's important that all operators and passengers are wearing a USCG-approved life jacket. Also, operators should use an engine cut-off switch. 

For more information on hazards on the water, take a boating safety course.