10 Boating Lessons Kids Should Know Before Climbing on Board

You can find boating tips for kids all over the Internet. BoatUS offers a bevy of them as do U.S. Power Squadrons, the American Boating Association, and Discover Boating. You can even find them on BoatTrader’s sister site Boats.com. So when tasked with coming up with a list of 10 boating tips for kids, I tried to come up with as many new ideas as I could.

So, here’s the officially unofficial Waterblogged list of 10 boating safety tips geared toward children. It’s packed with common sense stuff anyone should know, but it also has some new nuggets of wisdom you won’t find anywhere else.


PFDs, three points of contact with the boat, and keeping body mass inside gunwales and rails are keys to safety. Doug Logan photo.

1. Yes, you have to wear a personal flotation device.

Kids have a habit of discounting everything their parents say. Up is down and down is up. “Yeah, yeah, dad, whatever.” That means if you tell your son he has to wear a personal flotation device, he’ll assume you’re lying for the sole purpose of making him look and feel like a dork. But there’s nothing dorky about PFDs. In fact, it’s the law — either state law or a U.S. Coast Guard requirement — in all states. You can check your state’s laws here.  Kids will abide by an authority as long as it’s not the two people who shared enough love to bring said kids into this world. Parents obviously can’t be trusted.

2. At a minimum, use three points of contact at all times.

You need a minimum of two feet on the deck and one hand holding onto something while on board. Or two hands and one foot. By maintaining three points of contact, your child will be able to hold on if the boat hits a big wave or wake, or makes a sharp turn to avoid debris or another craft. Boatbuilders go to great lengths to put handles and grab rails all over the place on their products. This is why they do it, so people on board don’t go careening to hard objects like the corner of an open windshield or a T-top support or bare fiberglass. Three points of contact means they’re always hanging on.

3. Keep your center of mass inside the gunwales.

Here’s an opportunity to teach your kids about boating safety and about physics. Very simply put, keeping your center of mass inside the gunwales means keeping at least two-thirds of your body inside the boat at all times. Why? Because once the center of mass extends outside the gunwales — as you might do when netting a fish — it makes it a lot easier to go overboard. That’s a bad thing, particularly in places where the water is cold.

4. You can drive when the time is right.

Little kids lack the judgment and fine motor skills to drive a boat, but as they get older they’ll keep pestering you to drive. When should let them? I’m going to side with Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980), whose theory of cognitive development has withstood academic scrutiny for some time. You can read more here if you like, but age 9 or 10 seems about right. Younger kids who aspire to drive the boat can sit on your lap so you can correct any mistakes they might, or will, make.

5. You must run the blower before you start it. Yes, every time.

Once kids drive a boat once, they know everything, right? Turn the key, drop it in gear, throttle up, and off we go. Not exactly. Explain to them how a boat’s engine sits in a compartment where gas fumes can accumulate and ignite if they see a spark under the hatch, which can happen when a boat is first started after sitting a while. Teach it as a habit so it becomes a habit.

6. Be smooth with your inputs.

Once they get behind the wheel, the first thing kids want to do is thrust the throttle forward and jerk the wheel around. Kids enjoy having an impact on their surroundings and nothing is more exciting than making a boat do exactly what they want in dramatic fashion. But that’s how people get hurt and why rule No. 2 is in place. Teach them to be smooth with the throttle and smooth with the wheel. It’s safer, more comfortable for the passengers, and it becomes more important the faster you go. Jerking the wheel at 40 mph is a good way to hurt people, but a nice smooth arcing turn at that speed is perfectly safe if there are no other craft around.

7. Channel markers are important.

Kids would never sit through a Power Squadron course listening to some crusty old salt prattle on about charts and magnetic deviation, but they do need to be able to recognize basic markers and buoys and know what they mean. It starts with something as simple and important as “idle speed, no wake” and “red right returning.” Staying inside the channel can keep them from running aground and again verifying the need for rule No. 2.

You and your kids all need to pay attention to how much sun they're getting.

You and your kids all need to pay attention to how much sun they’re getting. Doug Logan photo.

8. Maintenance follows fun.

You are well aware that if you want your boat to start and run the next time you take it out, you need to put it away properly every time you use it. That means washing it and flushing the engine if you’re boating in salt water and taking the time to turn off the batteries with the master switch. You can use the process as a teachable moment to educate your kids about the proper care and maintenance of a boat.

9. Protect yourself from the sun.

Kids have delicate skin that can get burned in the sun if you don’t take the proper precautions. I prefer clothing and hats over sunscreen, but you do whatever you like to keep your kids from getting sunburned. If they get burned the first time you take them out on the boat, they’ll forever associate boating with the pain of sunburn and you’ll have a hard time getting them to go again.

10. Know where the propeller is — and stay away.

Of all the tips I found on the Internet, this was not one of them, yet it seems so obvious. Look, propellers can be sharp and dangerous even when they’re when static. When spinning, they’re life-threatening. Kids need to know they’re nothing to mess around with. Teach them to stay well clear when swimming and skiing.

For more tips, see Lenny Rudow’s 10 Tips for Boating With Kids on boats.com.


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