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Water Safety

Safety on the water is everyone's responsibility. Though many of the waterways within the Chesapeake region are suitable for beginning boaters, there is also plenty of broad open water that demands respect. Sections of the rivers can funnel wind and develop nasty, choppy seas. Remember that accidents can happen on any type of water.

Whether you are paddling a kayak or piloting a trawler, it is important to build your boating skills, keep your vessel(s) in good operating condition, and review your safety guidelines before every trip.

For Beginners

  • If you are new to boating and want to explore the Chesapeake Bay region by water, consider taking day trips with a canoe/kayak outfitter or a tour boat captain first.
  • If you want to explore in your own boat, take a boating safety/operation course. In fact, your state may require you to do so before venturing out. Many boating safety courses are offered throughout the country, for all types of recreational boaters, and for boaters of all ages. The U.S. Coast Guard provides a list. While you’re at it, take courses in CPR and first aid.

Planning Ahead

  • Learn your boat’s capabilities and weaknesses. Spend time in your boat, beginning in calm waters. Learn how to “make her happy” in a range of sea conditions. Build redundancy into her operating and safety systems, whether they are an extra paddle or a handheld VHF radio.
  • Study a good map or chart of the water trail section you plan to explore. If you expect to carry a handheld or fixed-mount GPS, save several key waypoints in it for important navigation markers and points of interest.
  • Know where your trip will take you and where you can find a safe harbor or takeout in case of mishap or bad weather. Make sure you understand how to identify and avoid any hazards marked on your map or chart.
  • Plan your day(s). Allow ample time to complete your trip under daylight hours, taking weather and water conditions into account. Even if you have to alter your schedule, having an initial plan will help you figure out how to finish your trip safely.
  • Check the weather, before you go and during the day while on the water. Check the forecast on television and/or online beforehand, including checking the current data available through the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS).
  • Carry a VHF radio—handheld or fixed-mount—with bands for receiving forecasts from NOAA’s National Weather Service while on the water. Where cell phone coverage is available, call the CBIBS buoys (1-877-BUOYBAY) for near-real-time wind, wave, and current conditions in their locations.
  • Check the tides and currents. They are especially important if you are paddling or rowing or trying to make a tight schedule under sail or power.

Gear Tips:

  • Always wear a properly fitted, U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket that is appropriate for your vessel.
  • Dress for the day and be prepared to get wet. If the weather is cool, dress warmly in layers and bring an extra set of dry clothes sealed in a dry bag for emergency use. If it’s hot, find ways to avoid heat exhaustion, like taking breaks in shade and drinking plenty of water.
  • Always wear boots or shoes to avoid foot injuries, which are painful and liable to become infected. If you are going to wade and want to wear sandals, make sure you choose models that offer protection for your toes and the tops of your feet as well as the soles.
  • Use sunblock!  Skin cancer is a real danger but easily preventable with sunblock, appropriate clothing, and common sense.
  • Wear a hat on bright, warm days as well as cool ones. Remember that wool and pile vests, sweaters, and jackets retain their insulating qualities even when wet. In cold weather, wear pile or neoprene gloves, especially those that cover (and insulate) the blood vessels on the undersides of your wrists. Take along a windbreaker or rain gear, including pants or bibs with suspenders to keep your lower body dry.
  • Carry at least one signaling device on every trip: a flashlight or strobe, flares, horn/whistle, cell phone, VHF radio, bright flag, or mirror.
  • Biting insects can be vicious during the warmer months. Bring repellent.
  • Other essentials: a first-aid kit (know what’s in there, understand how to use it, and keep it stocked), plenty of drinking water, and sunscreen and lip balm.

Safety Tips:

  • Avoid canoeing or kayaking alone when possible. Two people can solve a lot of problems that one person can’t.
  • File a float plan with family or friends. Include where you expect to go, when you expect to return, and whom to call (the U.S. Coast Guard is a good first choice) if you don’t return as planned.
  • When paddling or cruising designated water trails, read important safety information and refuge rules. Those rules are there to protect both you and the waterway you are exploring.
  • Explore water appropriate to your skills. If you are a novice paddler or cruise, start with low-risk waterways.
  • Learn to recognize water hazards, such as shoals; crab pot buoys; bridge piers; high-speed boat traffic; strainers (downed trees or branches reaching into the water).
  • If you capsize, stay with your boat unless doing so poses immediate danger. You’ll be much easier for rescuers to find.
  • When paddling in a group, assign a lead and sweep boat. Both boats should be manned by experienced paddlers. No one passes the lead boat or falls behind the sweep.
  • Stay in your canoe/kayak if it becomes stuck on an obstruction. Try shifting your weight carefully as you push off with your paddle or pole.
  • Remember that kayaks and canoes are not easily seen by other boaters. Try to stay out of the shipping channels, and be as predictable and visible as possible.
  • Never paddle farther from shore than you are prepared to swim.
  • During fall and winter, waterfowl hunters are activeon or near many Chesapeake waterways. Check before arriving for exact dates and seasons.

River Classifications:

  • Class I: (Easy) Moving water with small disturbances on the surface and a few small waves. There is little to no danger to swimmers.
  • Class II: (Novice/Beginner) Faster moving water with easily avoided rocks, holes, and waves. Danger to swimmers is still slight but care must be taken.
  • Class III: (Intermediate) Fast moving water containing various rocks, holes, currents, and waves that require skillful maneuvering to avoid. Swimmers could be at risk and may require help.
  • Class IV: (Advanced) Strong rapids, large waves, big holes, unpredictable currents, and dangerous obstructions requiring multiple maneuvers to get through or around. Swimmers are at risk and will require help to be rescued.
  • Class V:(Expert) All of the characteristics of Class IV with the added danger of being longer and containing more continuous features that may not be avoided. There is serious risk to swimmers and others may be of no help.
  • Class VI: (Unrunnable) Only a team of experts who carefully plan every aspect of this expedition would have hope of surviving these rivers and rapids.

General Tips:

  • Respect private property when boating. Land only on public areas or spots where you have permission to be.
  • If under power, remember that you are responsible for your wake. A high wake can capsize small boats and damage fragile shorelines.
  • Don't litter or pollute the water. Use the Leave No Trace ethic.
  • Don't cut living trees or harass animals.
  • Be careful with campfires. Use camp stoves when possible.