Brush Up on Your Boating Skills

Using navigation charts aboard a vessel on Lake Weir in Ocklawaha, Florida.

Brush Up on Your Boating Skills

Becoming a safer boater is good. Becoming a more competent and confident boater is better yet.

By Steve Griffin

Boating as an on-water activity may have a season, long or short depending on where you live. But boating as a pursuit and a lifestyle can extend year-round.

Yes, that’s because you can explore and enjoy boating even when you’re not on the water. Coursework, particularly the many nationally recognized courses available, lets you dip deeper into boating now, and safely enjoy being on the water later.

Emergency procedures, safety regulations and navigational skills all can be acquired and mastered on land and year-around, in classrooms or online. Classes are geared to all ages and skill levels.

At first blush, learning about rules and emergencies might not sound appealing, but standing at the helm, confident one is abiding by the law, operating safely and ready to face any challenges, that’s a heady thrill.

Need one more nudge? Your boat insurance carrier may well offer a discount to those who successfully complete a boating-safety course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and recognized by the US Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard, US Coast Guard Auxiliary, US Power Squadrons, and NASBLA are among agencies and groups that can guide you to, or even provide, courses offered by them or commercial providers. Another good bet is your state’s boating-safety agency.


New or newish to boating? Popular basic courses provide a solid base of knowledge and skills. 

In eight to 10 hours, you can learn about required and recommended safety equipment; proper boat operation; dock lines and ropes (including the fascinating world of knots and their uses); weather and tides; boarding, loading and trimming a boat; and more. There are even special sections on operating personal watercraft.

Sound intimidating? On the contrary, it dramatically reduces those awkward uncertain moments we all hate.

Part of the training is how to share the waterways with others. Boating doesn’t provide conventional highway-style lane markers and traffic signals, after all, but there are established rules for moving across the water smoothly, even in heavy boat traffic. (“The Rules of Navigation,” available under “Regulations” at, sorts it all out.)

Maybe most important, a basic boating course covers responsible operation, including always wearing a life jacket, avoiding operating a boat under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and matching speeds to waterway and traffic conditions.


Becoming a safer boater is good. Becoming a more competent and confident boater is better yet. 

Year-around, but especially during the offseason, classroom instruction can remove some mystery—and insert some mastery—of advanced navigation and charting. 

Never have boaters at every level had such a choice of affordable, precise and reliable electronics available to help them navigate and operate their boats. And yes, operation of these devices gets simpler all the time. Still, a daylong or multisession course can help you put it all together at the helm.

You can also acquire the skills to noodle out navigation on your own, should someday you need to.


If your boating adventure will take place across state or national borders, you’ll want to know the educational requirements of your destination.

As I read through Ontario’s fishing-rules booklet, I learned that to operate any boat in Ontario, I must have completed a boating-safety course. But since I was born before July 1996, my home state of Michigan had never required one of me.

Similarly, I was heading to Indiana soon to test-drive a boat, and a quick survey of that state’s rules showed that anyone without an Indiana driver’s license needed to have a boat-safety certificate to be lake-legal there.

Saving grace? This province and state, like most, accept approved course completion from other states and provinces. Before long, I was working my way through Indiana’s NASBLA-based course, and could legally drive a boat in either jurisdiction and many others. 

And here’s the kicker: I learned several new things about boating, and refreshed some other knowledge that had become foggy. It was a great investment of a few hours and a couple of twenties.

The NASBLA website ( reports that nearly all US states and territories have boating-safety education laws, and there is often more than one way to satisfy the requirement. Check with state or provincial boating authorities for up-to-date information on requirements and how to meet them. 


So, maybe you’ve stayed with this entire discussion and arrived at its end convinced you don’t need any of these expertise extenders? 

Just maybe, then, you might explore becoming an instructor and sharing your experience and knowledge. It’s one more way to enjoy boating even when you’re not on the water. Contact one of the groups or agencies listed here.

The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons®, or your state boating agency’s Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to “Boat Responsibly!” For more tips on boating safety, visit

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