Risk Management: Managing Boating Risks

by Ed Schirick

The week of May 19-25 has been designated as National Safe Boating Week. The theme this year is "Boat Smart from the Start. Wear Your Life Jacket." With summer almost here, this is a timely reminder for camps across the country, but there are other safety and risk management issues involving boating. Let's look at ways to reduce power boating risks (many of these issues will also apply to other boating programs).

Many campers participate in boating activities safely each summer. However, boating accidents do occur, and while most are minor, some result in serious injury and property damage. Boating, like driving a camp van, is an activity where staff must be vigilant and ready for anything.

Boating Risk Identification

What are some of the risks involved with using power boats at camp? Following is a quick list of risks for your consideration. You may have more or less at your camp, so don't allow your thinking to be limited by this list.

  • Damage to the boat from submerged or floating objects
  • Injury or death of campers and staff in the boat, being pulled by the boat, or in the water
  • Damage to other boats, collision
  • Injury or death of people in other boats, being pulled by other boats, or in the water
  • Damage to docks
  • Pollution of land and water from accidental spills of gasoline, oil, or other petroleum products
  • Financial loss, negative public relations, interruption of program, disappointed campers, disgruntled parents, demand for refunds, or lawsuit
  • Noncompliance with state and federal boating laws and regulations

Your Policies, Practices, and the Law

In addition to these inherent risks, your policies and practices influence risk. For example, will you allow power boats to be used with only one staff person on board regardless of the activity, or will you require at least two staff at all times? Using at least two staff at all times regardless of the activity (waterskiing, fishing, pleasure rides) will reduce risk and enhance safety. (ACA Standards PA 20 through 35 apply to watercraft activities.)

Are you in compliance with state and federal boating regulations? State boating regulations vary considerably, and more states are requiring boating safety education and certification. Are you familiar with your state's latest requirements? The Web site www.boatsafe.com offers a brief summary of state boating laws, as well as other useful information on boating safety. Take some time to review state and federal boating laws to ensure your operations and training are in compliance.

Are staff permitted to use your power boats on their own time? If so, what are the rules and policies that govern this usage? Policies that permit staff to use power boats increase risk. This doesn't mean you shouldn't allow staff to use the boats, just be mindful that such a policy creates additional risks, which must be managed. If you decide to let staff use power boats, here are some other risk factors to consider.

  • What qualifications are necessary to use the boats?
  • Is prior experience an issue?
  • What about a minimum age?
  • What are your rules about personal flotation devices and footwear?

Boat Operator Qualifications

Do you have a job description that explains the duties and identifies skills needed for driving power boats at your camp? How do you train power boat operators? Is a valid motor vehicle driver's license required? If so, do you check the motor vehicle driving record of power boat operators as a gauge of their driving habits? How do you document their training and skills? Is defensive driving stressed? Do you give power boat operators a check ride (test), similar to the van driver before allowing them out on their own? How do you communicate the rules unique to your program and site?

Standard PA-27 (Motorized Watercraft Training) specifies that the camp "have written evidence that all operators and drivers are provided training prior to use of motorboats and personal watercraft." The standard goes on to specify procedures and on-the-water training. The level and amount of training required by this standard is not specified; however, its intent is to provide boat specific training. But how much?

The answer to this question and possibly to other training needs may be in some new training tools available on the Internet. Boating safety courses on the U.S. Coast Guard's Web site, www.uscgboating.org, include an online basic boating safety course that is approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA).
The course also meets criteria acceptable to the U.S. Coast Guard recreational boating program.

Other links from the Coast Guard Web site include the Boat U.S. Foundation, safety and certification courses from www.boat-ed.com, and an eight-hour boating basics course from the Boating Safety Institute of America. These courses may assist you in developing a comprehensive and progressive training program for staff to help reduce some of the risks involved in boating. How much training becomes a matter of picking and choosing from these and other resources now available. You might want to begin adding training and certification requirements in your job descriptions for boat operators. Training becomes more important as some programs find it increasingly difficult to find experienced staff to fill important roles and as state and federal regulations change.

Other Issues

Make sure the boat and its equipment are in good repair and are being used for the purpose intended. Whether camp staff or outside contractors maintain the boat, keep meticulous records of maintenance and repair, as well as safety equipment on board. Make sure the boat is in good operating condition each time it is used.

In summary, camp boating programs that employ qualified, well-trained staff, use well-maintained boats, and are in compliance with state and federal boating regulations will be safer and reduce risks. Find some time to review how you manage your motor boat operations and consider how you can improve safety and reduce risk. Use the risk management process to your advantage and remember "Boat Smart from the Start. Wear Your Life Jacket."

Originally published in the 2001 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.



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