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By Donna Cipolloni

Tester staff writer

A vehicle capable of reaching speeds up to 50 mph, has no brakes and requires no special license to operate? As ridiculous as that may sound, there are thousands of them out there in the hands of recreational boaters up and down the waterways surrounding Southern Maryland.

“The most important thing anyone can do for themselves, their family and others around them on the water, is to take a safety boating course and learn what they need to know to safely operate a vessel on our waterways,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Philip Robinson, commanding officer of Coast Guard Station St. Inigoes, Maryland. “Eight out of every 10 boaters who drowned in 2013 were operating a boat less than 21 feet in length.”

Whether the vessel is a motorboat, sailboat, canoe, kayak or jet ski, local agencies such as the Patuxent River Sail and Power Squadron or Coast Guard Auxiliary offer free ongoing boat and water safety courses that go over everything any boater needs to know.

Course topics cover all aspects of boating safety including necessary life safety equipment; federal and state boating laws; personal watercraft requirements; sound-producing devices; visual distress signals; docking, undocking and mooring; using charts; weather and tides; river hazards; emergency radio calls; types of buoys and beacons; navigation rules and filing a float plan, among many others.

“We would ask everyone to file a float plan regardless of whether they’re in a motorboat, sailboat or just renting a canoe or kayak for the day,” Robinson said. “Write down where you’re going, who’s with you, how long you expect to be out, what safety gear you have with you — and leave it with someone. If you don’t show up later, they can turn that information over to the Coast Guard and we’ll use it to narrow our search and help us identify where the missing persons might be.”

And while wearing a life jacket may seem like a no-brainer, many individuals wear one incorrectly rated for the speed of their boat, not properly fitted, or don’t wear one at all.

“A jet ski transits at an extremely high rate of speed and not every life jacket is rated for the impact you’d receive falling off at that rate of speed, so it’s necessary to have the one you need,” Robinson explained. “And, in my experience, the majority of deaths on the water were people not wearing life jackets; or several were wearing jackets, but they were too big.”

Simple flotation craft such as canoes and kayaks can also result in casualties, Robinson said.

“Canoes are unstable and you have to balance them so you don’t tip over; and be careful not to overload them,” he added. “If a kayak flips over, you need to know how to get it back upright.”

Robinson also cautioned boaters to always check the weather before heading out and be wary of lightning and winds that cause high seas.

“Canoes are made of metal and are susceptible to lightning strikes,” he said. “They’re also not rated for seas. If the wind picks up, it’ll get rough out there. If you see a storm coming in, get off the water.”

One duty of the Coast Guard is to educate the public.

“We want the same thing they do — we want them to have a good day on the water; but we also want them to return home safely that night,” Robinson said.

Every day, Robinson’s crew randomly boards vessels to observe the operator for signs of intoxication, assess their boating capability and run through a vessel safety checklist.

Boat and water courses:

- U.S. Coast Guard Boating Safety Resource Center:


- U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary:

- U.S. Power Squadron:

- American Canoe Association (ACA):

Find a vessel safety check examiner:

- and click on “I Want a VSC” to

find an examiner near you

Float Plan information and blank float plan form:


Life jacket information:




Top 10 paddler tips: