The July Fourth weekend is a favorite holiday for many boaters, particularly for those in the Northeast. Summertime is well underway, the boat is finally running and, for many of us, fun is in full swing with cruising, overnighting on the hook, sandbar rendezvous, fishing and water sports. The long weekend gives us a chance to relax and reflect on how great it can be to spend time with the family on the water.
In the excitement to get out there, though, it’s important to remember you will not be alone. Far from it. Especially during the July Fourth holiday weekend, you’ll be sharing the waterways with leagues of other recreational and commercial vessels.
This means your skills and boating manners need to be in top form, not only to keep yourself and your passengers safe, but also because your abilities as a skipper (or lack thereof) will be on display for all to observe.
Start preparing well ahead of the holiday weekend by going over your checklist of critical safety gear. This checklist should include having personal flotation devices for everyone on board, a throwable flotation device, a fire extinguisher and visual distress signals, among other equipment that the U.S. Coast Guard recommends.
Also think about whom you’ll be inviting on the boat. It’s important not to overload your boat with passengers, even for a short trip. Boats smaller than 20 feet length overall generally include a capacity plate that indicates the number of people—or the combined weight of the people, engine and gear— that the boat can safely accommodate in calm conditions. Exceeding these amounts is not to be taken lightly; the decision imperils your safety and the well-being of your passengers.
Next, verify the amount of usable fuel aboard and top off the tanks well before the weekend. The last thing you want to do is wait in long fuel-dock lines,. And you really want to avoid running out of fuel and calling for a tow.
Then, think about where you’ll be boating all weekend. File a float plan with family or friends ashore, and call them when you return to shore, either each night or at the end of the weekend, so they’ll know you’re safe. Also share that plan with anyone who will be boating with you—and give them a reminder that they’ll need to hold on and stay put while the boat is moving.
Next, take some time to think about all the boaters who will be around you on a busy holiday weekend. Some of these skippers spend precious little time on the water, which makes it your responsibility to safely navigate past their bad behavior. During the July Fourth vacation period, you’ll likely need to be even more vigilant than usual.
For instance, a failure to observe no-wake or slow-speed zones is one of the most common offenses. Some boaters operate their vessels the same way they drive automobiles and trucks. Their “all for me and get out of my way” attitude is annoying, at best, and a constant danger to others. Years ago, while I was summering at the Jersey Shore, an accident occurred near a bridge on Barnegat Bay. A small-boat operator became impatient as a larger boat ahead slowed to observe the posted no-wake signage. The small boat darted to port to pass the lead boat, and ran smack into another, larger boat coming from the opposite direction. That lack of common sense when approaching a bridge killed two teenagers.
Nobody wants their holiday weekend to end that way, so get yourself into a defensive-driving mindset. Boat helms rarely include a rearview mirror, which means you need to be looking not only ahead, but also around and astern of you to monitor water traffic. You can be chugging along at 10 knots, bopping to the beat of the music pouring out from your eight stereo speakers, and some wingnut can be on approach to fly past your boat at 25 knots or more. You and your passengers are really going to rock out from his wake.
Also keep an eye on speed when approaching boats that gather on sandbars for cookouts, swimming, shelling and sharing the shallows with families and friends. Gathering this way is a summertime staple that makes memories and develops new friendships—vital components of boating DNA—but you need to arrive slowly, so as not to disturb the boats already in place.
Some boats may use an anchor on land and another out the stern to keep the vessel in position as the tide rises or falls. If your group prefers to raft up, make sure you have ample fenders and lines for both sides of your boat, and ease in slowly.
In many boating areas, the Independence Day holiday includes evening fireworks. If you are already on the sandbar or are rafted up, then you will have a comfortable, eagle’s view. However, if you plan to drift or anchor in a body of water that attracts a large fleet, you will need a different program.
First and foremost, make sure your navigation lights work. If you are drifting, the boat is considered underway; it requires lighted red and green side lights, and white mast and stern lights. If the length overall is less than 39.4 feet, then an all-around white light can take the place of the mast and stern lights.
If you’re anchored, then the side lights are extinguished and the all-around white light is on. The
anchor rode scope should be a minimum 4-to-1 feet in calm conditions, or more depending upon the boat length, water depth and sea state. The more scope, the better the anchor holds, but always be aware of the other boats in the anchorage to allow ample swinging room.
Some boaters speed back to the dock after the fireworks. In a crowded anchorage, I always remain on the hook until most of the boats head out. I find that timing to be easier on my eyes, with better night vision following a stern light.
And remember, enjoy the Fourth of July, and all of the summer that’s still ahead. Just strive to be safe on the water as you celebrate.
QUIZ: Test Your Seamanship Knowledge
1. INTERNATIONAL RULES: Lights on a vessel shall be ON from:
A. One half hour before sunset
B. Sunrise to sunset
C. One hour after sunrise
D. Sunset to sunrise
2. INLAND RULES: In addition to sidelights and sternlight, a pilot vessel underway shall exhibit, when engaged in pilotage duty:
A. Red over white lights
B. Green over white lights
C. White over red lights
D. Red over white over red lights
3. INLAND RULES:
When there is doubt as to whether the situation is an overtaking or not:
A. Sound the danger or doubt signal
B. Assume an overtaking situation and act accordingly
C. Change course to forward of the beam of the other vessel to make sure of the situation
D. All of the above
4. NAVIGATION: One red pennant displayed at a storm warning display station forecasts:
A. Winds to 25 knots, but satisfactory sea conditions
B. Winds to 33 knots, dangerous sea conditions for small craft
C. Winds to 35 knots
D. Winds to 45 knots
5. INTERNATIONAL & INLAND RULES: Your vessel is at anchor in fog. The fog signal of another vessel, apparently underway, has been growing louder and the danger of collision appears to exist. In addition to your fog signal, what signal may be used to indicate your presence?
A. One prolonged, one short, and one prolonged whistle blast
B. No signal other than your fog signal may be used.
C. One prolonged followed by two short whistle blasts
D. One short, one prolonged, and one short whistle blast
ANSWERS: 1. D, 2. C (Rule 29), 3. B, 4. B, 5, D
This article was originally published in the July 2022 issue.