Boater's Guide to Boating During the Pandemic

Boater's Guide to Boating During the Pandemic


2020 was a year unlike anything we could have imagined. It was a time when many of our most beloved activities were put on hold. It was a time when we had to stay further apart from each other than ever. In many ways, the fabric of our daily life was altered.

Sadly, with the coronavirus pandemic still raging strong across the country (and around the world), 2021 will still be a year heavily defined by the pandemic. But that doesn't mean we can't carve out safe ways to enjoy ourselves.

The National Marine Manufacturers' Association reported that May 2020 recreational boat sales reached their highest number since 2007. The highest growth happened in personal watercraft, saltwater fishing boats, and jet boats, which accounted for 41% of new boat sales. And it's not just ownership--peer-to-peer boat rentals were up 74% compared to the same period last year.

As the pandemic alters the way we travel and unwind, recreational boating has become increasingly attractive as a safe way to get fresh air and sunshine. That said, even if you're only on a boat with your family, it's important to take the appropriate safety precautions--for the pandemic and for your own safety on the water.

Here's how you can boat safely during the pandemic.

Boating and Social Distancing

Social distancing, or keeping a safe distance from others to limit the potential spread of the coronavirus, is one of the most important safety measures you can take to protect yourself against the virus (other than wearing a mask, of course). That's why boating has become so popular during the plague year--it's an activity that keeps you and your family at a healthy remove.

However, it's important to remember that the time between getting out of the car and being on the water involves a lot of potential interaction. As a responsible boater, you need to take precautions to ensure your family stays safe.

Limiting Guests

First and foremost, you have to limit your guests. While you likely miss spending time with your loved ones, your boat is not the place to be social.

That means you should boat with your household only (i.e. only the people you quarantine with at home). No guests, no friends, no neighbors, no family members, even if they've also abided by strict quarantine. The safest option is to avoid it altogether.

You should also take testing precautions before you head out on the water.

While the test used to detect COVID-19, RT-PCR, is not commercially available, average people can take other steps to check for the coronavirus. Your safest bet is to get tested and cleared before heading out on your boat.

However, limited test availability means you may not be able to get tested if you're asymptomatic. A good alternative is to invest in a good pulse oximeter, a device that measures oxygen saturation in your blood. Someone in the early stages of COVID pneumonia (including a drop in blood oxygen due to fluid in the lungs) may not have any difficulty breathing (a nasty trick of the virus), but a pulse oximeter can detect an unusually low oxygen saturation.

Practice Social Distancing Within Your Boat

You're not out of the woods once you're on board!

For the sake of safety, your household should treat your boat as if it's a public place (especially if you rent your boat to others). That means all the usual rules of going out in public apply: wear a mask, engage in social distancing, and engage in proper hygiene practices.

If you have running water on board, that means stocking up on plenty of soap. Since soap works on a molecular level to tear virus particles apart, it's the most effective hygiene technique to protect yourself against COVID-19. Just make sure to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. If you're sick of “Happy Birthday”, here are songs to sing while washing your hands.

If you don't have running water, reach for an alcohol-based hand rub (or hand sanitizer) with at least a 60% alcohol concentration.

Practicing Social Distancing on the Marina

Unfortunately, if you dock your boat in a marina, you're going to have to pass by other people to get to your vessel. This is when safety precautions are extremely important--you may not be exposed to other people on the vessel, but you could be in the marina.

To that end, you should always maintain at least six feet of distance between yourself and anyone else in the marina. Always wear a mask, even if you're six feet apart.

Once you're on board, always maintain a safe distance between your vessel and others in the marina (a good safety protocol regardless of a global health crisis). Avoid rafting with other boats--now is not the time to be social!

If you can, try to avoid interacting with public utilities, including fuel pumps, railings, and locks. But if you can't avoid them, always use proper hygiene immediately afterward to minimize risk to yourself and your household. Ideally, you should wash your hands, but if running water and soap are not available, use hand sanitizer. Do not touch your face or any supplies until your hands are clean.

Packing Gear Beforehand

If you decide to go boating during COVID, your primary goal is safety. That means minimizing interaction with other people during your actual boating date.

One of the best ways to do that is be prepared and pack beforehand.

The day before your trip, sanitize and pack all the gear you'll need the following day. That way, it's already set to go and all you need to do is shift gear from your car to your boat. That includes everything from food to sanitation supplies to life jackets, even backup equipment like an LED driver.

Boater's Guide to Boating During the Pandemic Regulation Image

Checking Local Regulations Before Boating

Unfortunately, in pandemic times, the choice of whether or not to go boating isn't entirely in the boater's hands. These days, it's not so much a question of fancy as a practical matter of whether or not the necessary amenities will be open thanks to local coronavirus surges.

In addition, because most workplaces are operating on skeleton crews to keep their in-person staff safe, you're going to have to take extra responsibility for your own safety on the water.

Check on the Open Marinas/Boating Locations Before Making a Boating Plan

As a responsible boater, you know the rules of the water: always make a plan before you head out for the day, always make sure people know where you are, and always make sure you have somewhere safe to dock.

In the era of coronavirus, your planning starts even earlier, because before you can hit the water, you have to make sure your preferred boating location is open for business.

If you dock your boat in a marina, reaching out to them is your first step. Check and see if they're open, what their operating hours are, and if there are any procedural changes due to COVID-19. That way, you don't have to worry about making a boating plan only to find you can't access your boat.

If you own a smaller boat and you're hauling it to a secondary boating location, reach out to them and make sure they're open to the public. Always play it safe and plan to be back well before the area shuts down for the day, and if you can, try to avoid times of day when there's likely to be a crowd.

Inspect Life Jackets in Accordance with Local Regulations

As a responsible boater, you know that a life jacket is your most important safety device on the water. You should never leave the dock unless everyone in your boat is wearing a life jacket. During COVID-19, this is especially important, since other boaters will be more hesitant than usual to approach if they see you're in trouble.

If you're a new boater, take the time to familiarize yourself with the types of life jackets and their uses:

  • Type I (cruising, racing, fishing offshore, or in stormy conditions)
  • Type II (inland day cruising, fishing, sailing, and boating in light craft)
  • Type III (supervised activities, such as sailing regattas and water skiing)
  • Type IV (throwable flotation device for an overboard victim)
  • Type V (restricted special use life jackets designed for a specific purpose)

As always, you should inspect your life jackets before heading out on the water to ensure they're in good condition and that you have the right life jacket for your activity, in accordance with local regulations. Each person on your boat should have a life jacket that fits correctly and is designed to handle their bodyweight.

Inspect Your Boat

Inspecting your boat is another standard safety precaution you should always take, regardless of a global health crisis. These days, though, your local boating division board may be hesitant to schedule vessel safety checks in person for the safety of the inspector and those on board.

Ideally, you should have your local division board schedule a vessel safety check by a certified inspector. For COVID-19 safety, try to schedule it two weeks in advance of your planned boating date so that any potential coronavirus transmission on surfaces will no longer be a concern. Nonetheless, be sure to thoroughly disinfect your vessel after the inspector leaves.

Closer to the boating date, inspect your vessel yourself and give it another thorough disinfection to ensure it's fit to be on the water.

Create a Float Plan

As a responsible boater, you know you should never head out on the water without a float plan. A float plan is simply an overview of your planned excursion that will give authorities and search-and-rescue teams a head-start if you fail to reach your destination.

A float plan includes things like:

  • A description of your vessel
  • Number of passengers on board
  • Destination and route
  • Contact information
  • Timeframe for the outing

You should leave a copy of your float plan with your marina, as well as a family member, friend, or neighbor, all of whom can keep an eye out and let the authorities know to look for you if needed.

Check with the Local Coast Guard

On a related note, make sure to check with the local Coast Guard, search and rescue crews, or local boat towing services.

As noted earlier, many businesses are running their in-person operations on skeleton crews (if at all) for the safety oftheir staff. While there is likely to be someone on the water for search and rescue missions, you should still checkwith the relevant services to ensure they are open and active. They may have reduced hours and additional pandemic protocols that are worth incorporating into your float plan to ensure you won't get stranded in an emergency.

Disinfecting Your Boat

Like we said earlier, you're not out of the woods when you hit the water! Even if you're only boating with your own household, disinfecting your boat is the best way to ensure everyone on board stays safe and healthy. Remember, you likely had to pass through a public marina or dock, and you don't want everyone spreading germs.

Follow CDC Guidelines on Disinfecting Surfaces

When in doubt, always abide by the CDC's guidelines for disinfecting surfaces.

When cleaning, use reusable or disposable gloves. Always wash your hands after removing gloves. Scrub items with soap and water, then use disinfectant, ensuring the area has adequate ventilation. Do not mix products or chemicals, and always label diluted products.

The Importance of Disinfecting Before and After Boating Activities

Unfortunately, you have no way of knowing what you might come into contact with. The safest bet is not to leave it up to chance.

Instead, think of a thorough disinfection as part of your boating process, just like loading your gear or docking the boat. That way, you can handle items on the water knowing that they're clean, and when you come back to your boat for another trip, you know it won't have any lingering germs from the last trip.


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