Safe Boating Tips

A refresher for New and experienced boat owners, and Captains

By Ted Widen

As of 6-20-23

When taking out guests on your boat, you are responsible for their safety. Here are some good tips to follow if you are new to boating or a seasonal boater that has not been on a boat in a while.

All boaters should take a look at this document at the beginning of each season, even if they are longtime boaters some people forget some of these things during the long winter break.

New to Boating

I highly recommend you take a boating safety class or watching a lot of videos online before heading out. Just think about how much class room and behind the wheel training you did to get a driver’s license. Driving a boat is more difficult, with no painted lines on the surface of the water and winds that can push you all over the place. You need to know the rules of the water, plus winds, waves, and a lot of congestion in different areas can make it challenging and very dangerous.

Before you head out

Make sure you have enough fuel for your trip and a little extra, empty your waste tanks, make sure you have food and drinks on board, make sure your water tanks are full. Bring the proper clothing, raincoats if it may rain.

Drinking and Driving

Don’t even think about it, if you get caught it’s a much bigger deal than driving. It will cost you a lot of money and you are risking the lives of everyone on your boat and other boats. If you plan to drink hire a captain for the day or stay at the dock.

Floatation Devices

Before you head out make sure you have enough floatation devices for everyone on the boat and a few more just in case.  You can never have too many.

Phone Chargers

Make sure you have a way to charge your phones on your boat as well as those of others. You need a working phone to check the weather, for your navigation app, and anchor alarm not to mention call for help if you need to.

Avoid Collisions

Your number one job when driving is to not get into a collision with another boat.

Sailboats have the right of way when under sail.

Docking Your Boat

If you are new, hire someone to train you how to do it properly. The bottom line is to practice on a calm day, practice doing it for an hour going in and out of your slip and from different directions. Try doing it by going in forward and reversing in. Always go as slow as possible, never go more than at idle speed. Know the wind direction before you begin the docking process, by looking at flags or the top of a sailboat they all have wind direction arrows.  Come to a full stop before you get to your slip, see what the wind or currents do to your boat. Use little clicks in and out of gear to turn and move your boat as slowly and in a very controlled manner. The slower the better on calm days. The second you rev your engines that’s when things get ugly. If its windy you better know what you are doing.

Here are some good YouTube videos to watch

Docking videos: 

How To: Berth in windy conditions | Motor Boat & Yachting

Physics of twin engines:

Dock Lines

You should have at least 4 or 5 lines holding your boat at the dock. A bow line, two stern lines or back lines, and at least one spring line to keep your boat from smashing into the end of your dock.


Buy the right size fenders for your boat and use enough of them. Don’t leave them hanging when you leave your dock. Most boats only need 3 or four fenders especially if you know how to tie your boat to your dock properly.  They can bounce around and fall off the boat.

Going through the Chicago Lock

Make sure everyone has a life jacket on before going into the lock. Make sure you have at least 3 fenders out just below your rub rails on the side you are locking on. Grab the white lines hanging from the lock walls. Have one person in the front and one person at the back of the boat. Make sure they hold on tight to the lines and NEVER tie them to your cleats.

Making turns

Boats don’t have turn signals, before you start to make a turn please look on the side and behind you to make sure nobody is coming up on your side that you could collide with.

Safety Equipment

VHF Radio, Flares, Fire Extinguishers, First Aid Kit, Throw Ring, PFD’s, Flashlights

Boating at Night

If you are new to boating don’t drive at night. Chicago has a lot of unmarked break walls that you can run into at night. Plus lots of boaters forget to turn on their navigation lights and it’s easy to collide with them. You need to know the waters you are boating in like the back of your hand before you attempt to do this.  Make sure all your navigation lights work. Make sure your spotlight on your boat is fully functional, if not buy a hand held one.

Marine GPS

Hopefully, your boat comes with a good and or modern GPS, make sure you learn how to use it.

If you don’t have a good GPS system onboard buy an iPad and install the Navionics App for $14 a year it’s well worth the money. It’s the same maps that are in a Garmin or RayMarine GPS for a lot less money. You can use the app on an iPad or your phone. I used it to take my boat from Chicago to Florida via the inland river system, I could not have made it without it.


If you plan to boat at night and or go to the fireworks at Navy Pier it’s a great idea to have your radar on. Make sure you know how to use it properly. You need to know how to change the range and the sensitivity.

Markers & Buoys:

Remember the green & red buoys by entrances of harbors and openings in break walls remember: RRR, Red on the Right when Returning. If you are coming back to a harbor and only see one light, remember which side you need to be on it to go through the opening.


Check the weather before you go out. Are there any storms in the area forecasted during your trip? Check wind direction, waves heights and water temperature. Let the guests know if the water is too cold to swim in so they aren’t shocked, jumping in the water.

In Chicago, in the middle of the summer, the temperature has been in the 80s and the day you are supposed to go out the temperature drops into the ’60s most likely that means you have a north east wind that has cooled off the area and it has brought big waves to Chicago, so don’t be surprised to hear that the lake has 6’ waves.

There are several apps I recommend plus the NOAA website for the Chicago:

Important Weather websites:

Chicago Marine forecast

Chicago water temperatures

Wilmette Buoy – Water Temp, Wind, Waves, and Live Photos

Weather apps:


Weather Bug

Windy Day Boating

If the winds are over 20 MPH and you are new to boating, please don’t leave your dock. If you have 2 motors and you are experienced then maybe go for it. New boaters with one engine, save yourself some aggravation and stay put.

When winds are 25+ MPH, it’s considered a small craft advisory – don’t leave your dock.  It makes it very difficult to get the boat back in the slip at the end of the day. Boats that are backed in are relatively easy to get out of the slip on a windy day. It’s getting it back in that is the challenging part. The bottom line is you need to decide before you take the boat out if you’ll be able to get the boat back in the slip. With high winds, the average powerboat turns into a sailboat. You can get pushed around by the wind making docking very difficult and very dangerous. You can cause a lot of damage to your boat and the boats around you if you’re not careful, and that could cost you a lot of money.

A small craft advisory is winds over 24 MPH – at these wind speeds it’s pushing the limits of the average boater.

A gale warning is winds over 39 MPH. Never go out if there is a gale warning.


When the winds are out of the north or north east the waves can be very big, especially if there is a small craft advisory or winds over 20 MPH so be very careful not to go out with waves that are over 4 feet. If the winds are out of the west at say 15-20 MPH the lake could be flat especially if you stay near the shore.  If the winds are out of the east or northeast you could have some nice size waves.


I can’t tell you how many boaters have no clue what the proper amount of chain to put out is. Both long time boaters and even captains. In order to anchor properly, you must know the depth of where you’re anchoring. You must know how much space you need between boats in the area. Understand the scope of the anchor chain that needs to be out during different wind and weather conditions. How much chain or line do you put out? The standard number is 5 to 7 times the depth of the water. Thus if you’re in 10 feet of water on a calm day, put out 50 feet of chain/line, and on a rough day with heavier winds, you’ll use at least 70 feet of chain. The average depth of the Playpen is 12 feet, so make sure you are putting out at least 60 feet of Chain/line. The only way you know how much chain/line you put out is if it you have a chain counter on your boat or you marked your chain or line properly. It’s very important that if you have not measured your chain/line, you need to mark it. That means you need to take the chain off the boat at the dock while keeping it dry. I put one mark at 25 feet, two marks at 50 feet, three marks at 75’ and so on. Most anchor lines are about 150’ long.

Setting your Anchor

Once you have put out the proper amount of chain/line for your depth, put the boat in reverse for at least 30 seconds to make sure it’s holding.  If you keep moving then, move back forward and try and resetting it. Watch this video from Boat US – Boat Anchoring Made Simple

Anchor Alarms

Use an anchor alarm to make sure you don’t lose your anchorage.

Apps: Anchor Pro. It’s a free anchor alarm, it tells you when you have moved from your spot.

Use a snubber on your windless, so you don’t break your windless.

Learn how to properly tie off a line to a cleat.

Learn your basic “figure 8” knot with a half hitch to lock it in place.

Never over-tie a line.

Never boat too close to shore or a break wall.

You must be far enough away from shore when boating so that if you were to lose power you have enough time to drop your anchor and set it before being pushed onto the shore.  I like staying at least a block away from the shoreline or break walls. When in the playpen at least 100 yards away from the break walls.

Never back up more than a few feet in the playpen or anywhere where people might be swimming

Before heading out with guests:

If the driver/captain does not have a mate, it’s important to train at least two guests that hopefully have boating experience to help out.

When returning to the dock, make sure you tell all of your guests to be seated and be very quiet so you can give directions to the people helping out and not have any distractions. The music must be turned off completely.

4 things to teach your boating guests before you leave the dock.

  1. How to untie each of the lines that are keeping the boat on the dock and how to release them all and leave the dock safely.
  2. How to anchor the boat with or without a windless
  3. How to drive the boat explaining the transmission and throttle controls just in case the driver can’t do it.
  4. How to return to the dock. Who stands where and grabs what line and when.

It’s very important to teach a couple of people how to handle the boat God forbid the captain can’t. Simply explain how the throttle control works, how the transmission control works, and how to kill the engines. If the boat has autopilot, you must explain to them how to turn it off so they could steer with the steering wheel. Lastly, how to use the ship-to-shore radio to call for help in an emergency, or to just use their cell phone.

Before you leave the dock spend five or 10 minutes going over this with your guests that will be helping out the captain. And make sure you explain to them that if they are drunk when you need their help, they need to let the Captain know so you can find somebody else to replace them. They will be of no help and put everybody at risk if they happen to have had a few drinks, too many.

I hope this helps you to be a better and safer boater.

If you have any questions you can ask me or any other experienced captain.


Ted Widen