Now that the weather is getting warmer in several U.S. states, outdoor enthusiasts and pleasure seekers alike are making their spring and summer travel plans. Many, in fact, will soon be heading to the country's numerous lakes, rivers, bayous, and ocean coastlines – for swimming, waterskiing, kayaking, boating, sailing, fishing, and other water-based diversions. As with most outdoor activities – such as backpacking in places where wild animals  dwell – boating can be both liberating and, if you're not careful, rather perilous. So, whether you're headed to Lake Mead National Recreation Area  for National Park Week (April 16-24), planning an excursion to the relatively warm waters of the Florida Keys , or looking forward to crabbing in Lake Pontchartrain (as I'll soon be doing with my husband and father), it's important for boaters to obey the following safety guidelines – for the sake of themselves as well as their passengers.
Verify Vessel Safety: Before heading out on the water, make sure that your vessel has been properly maintained, that it meets all local and state regulations, and that your registration numbers are displayed prominently.
Equip Yourself: When planning a boating trip, double-check that you have the following items on board: proper vessel documentation and insurance information, nautical charts, a marine radio, an anchor, a first-aid kit, mounted fire extinguishers, navigation lights, visual distress signals, sound-producing devices, a marine sanitation device, drinking water, extra fuel, and enough personal flotation devices (PFDs) for you and all your passengers.
Wear Your Life Jacket: While it might seem more liberating to ride, fish, or kayak without a personal flotation device (PFD), it's imperative that you actually wear one at all times. Not all boating accidents occur in bad weather and rough seas; many happen in shallow water on deceptively calm, clear days, so be sure to wear a life jacket – even a lightweight, inflatable one – whenever you're on the water.
Stay Safe and Sober: Although many boaters will partake of beer and other alcoholic beverages while out on the water, it's simply not advisable to do so. Wind, noise, motion, and sunlight can intensify the effects of alcohol and prescription medications, making it exceedingly dangerous to operate a vessel while under the influence.
Monitor Your Propeller: Unfortunately, boat propellers are responsible for numerous injuries and fatalities every year. To avoid being yet another statistic, purchase propeller safety devices such as sensors and propeller guards, and don't forget to wear an engine cut-off lanyard at all times – which will ensure that if you and, by extension, your lanyard are thrown from the boat, the engine will immediately power down.
Monitor Your Passengers: To ensure your passengers' safety, never allow them to board or disembark while the engine is running, and insist that they remain seated (in proper seats and not on the bow or transom) while the boat is in motion. In an effort to avoid accidents, assign someone to keep watch around the propeller area whenever other passengers, especially children, are swimming in the surrounding waters. To protect the passengers of other boats, stay alert when operating in congested areas, avoid swimmers altogether, and be aware of boats that are towing skiers or tubers. If someone on your vessel falls overboard, stop immediately, turn the boat around, keep the person in sight as you approach, and shut the engine off before rescuing him or her.
For additional boating advice or information about boating safety courses, consult BoatU.S.  (800/336-2628) or the U.S. Coast Guard's Boating Safety Division , which aims to prevent fatalities, injuries, and property damage on U.S. waterways by improving the knowledge and skills of recreational boaters. While following such guidelines (especially those related to alcohol and life jackets) might seem like a bit of a buzzkill when you're on the water, just remember that being safe will make it easier for you to have a fun, stress-free time – and avoid the boating tragedies that unfortunately occur every year.
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.
Disclosure: While I occasionally accept free or discounted travel assistance when it coincides with my editorial goals, my opinion is never for sale, which means that everything written in my American Nomad blog and Moon travel guides is my unbiased reflection of the things that I see, do, and experience while traveling across the United States.
Photo © 2011 Daniel Martone / Text © 2011 Laura Martone
Laura Martone is Moon’s American Nomad  and the author of Moon Florida Keys , Moon Michigan , Moon Baja RV Camping , and the upcoming Moon New Orleans, which will be published in Winter 2012.