The vast majority of recreational boats sold in the USA (about 95%) are small and inexpensive pleasure crafts. Since so many people are using small-sized boats than big boats, Are small boats safe or dangerous? OR you don’t need to worry about safety in small boats? Let’s see in a detailed way.
Small boats can be dangerous due to their lightweight and less stable nature. But, taking some safety precautions such as checking the weather prior, avoiding rough waters, avoiding improper boat loading, etc. and making a few changes to the way you ride the boat will dramatically reduce the risks.
NOTE – Small boat = less than 15 feet or around 15 feet in length (mostly) and regardless of the propulsion system (manpower or motor). Although sometimes people consider a boat less than 20 feet as a small boat. Generally, it is up to your vision, for the most part.
If you carry many people and equipment in the boat, you may feel a 30 feet boat as a small boat. Similarly, if you are alone in a 12 feet boat with very less equipment, it may feel like you are doing FINE. However, many people will not feel comfortable sitting in a small boat (less than 15 feet) due to the risks such as falling overboard, capsizing, etc.
I want to mention here that it has nothing to do with the boat length; it’s with the water’s nature. If the waters are choppy, then even a big boat will not do well. (The one limitation is sometimes sitting on a tiny boat (less than 10 feet or so) can sometimes be dangerous even though if you are in calm waters).
For example, when you are in a Jon boat, you are on a skinny, light platform that has a lot of contact with the water with minimal grip for the greatest part. When that inherent problem is combined with many other contributing (external) factors, it is very easy to get into that totally unforgiving trip.
If you keep some positive attitude while using a small boat, you will have a much better chance of surviving the inevitable stress situations that occur far more often than we think. So, for the most part, it depends on the water’s nature you are boating in; choppy or calm.
And it is crucial to know about your boat, such as how much weight it can handle in the worst cases, how big of waves it can handle, etc. It’s also important to know about yourself, such as what weather you are comfortable in, how big of waves you are comfortable in, know where you are confident in, etc.
Knowing all those things will give you better clarity about yourself and your boat and the type of weather you and your boat can handle. That being said, we will now dive into the SAFETY for small boats in a detailed way.
Check this small video on SAFETY for a small boat to know all the required essentials along with a proper explanation in a detailed way.
Are small boats safe in choppy waters (big lakes, oceans, seas, etc.)?
This is one of the main reasons that concern many people about small boats. Are small boats safe to be used in choppy waters such as big lakes, oceans, or seas?
Small boats are dangerous (not safe) to be used in rough waters. Being small in size and weighing less can make a boat less stable and making it easily get affected due to external (contributing) factors such as bad weather, water’s choppiness, and other boat wakes, etc.
Most small boats lack stability; however, many may argue that some small boats (Jon boats) are more stable than others, but comparing that with big boats can actually result in domination from big boats. Even after following appropriate measures while boating in a small boat, it may not do well in rough waters.
For most small boats, bows are low (freeboard area), which can take the water if any big wave or wake from another boat hits the boat. You need to tackle it well to prevent the boat from sinking. Along with that, if the weather is bad (water is choppy), it can sometimes be hazardous.
So, you don’t have to worry about all those problems if you didn’t take a small boat in rough waters or during bad weather. Stability also decreases further with the increase of choppiness of the water. So, it’s better to avoid rough waters.
Some of the things to observe while using a small boat
We will now see some of the minor details to check (observe to be precise) around you while using a small boat in the waters to prevent the majority of risks and dangers. Observing minor changes in the weather and the wave patterns will mostly help you get out prior to that incoming signs of bad weather or choppy waters.
1. Observe the wave patterns
There won’t be any big swells or any huge heights in waves in normal or calm waters. So, it makes us very easy to recognize (distinguish) between the rough or choppy waters vs. calm or normal waters. It’s crucial to look at the wave patterns in the waters often while boating.
- The interval between waves is important because even though the waves may not be too high, if the boat doesn’t have time to recover from one to the next, you will probably face a very bumpy (uncomfortable) ride, and it can be hazardous sometimes.
- The height of the waves is also important because if the wave’s heights are too high and if any big wave hits the boat, it can easily take that water since the freeboard area will be less for a small boat. If big waves added up with less interval among them, it would become more dangerous.
Those two are the most common wave patterns (you may find in the waters) you need to check, and mostly you can easily recognize those wave patterns. If you don’t see any sign of those wave patterns, you will most probably do FINE using a small boat even in big lakes or open waters.
It’s highly recommended to install a bilge pump on your boat if you often go boating in big lakes on a small boat. Since a small boat’s bows are very low and open, it can easily take water if any wave hits the boat. So, having a bilge pump prior will remove all that incoming water out of the boat quickly.
2. Observe the wind patterns
Wind pattern and wind speeds are the most essential things to check while boating in big lakes or open waters, or oceans, regardless of the boat you are using. Because if there are lighter winds, you most probably won’t see any upcoming bad weather signs, such as gales, storms, big waves, etc.
- Knowing the wind direction is important because whether you have a headwind, following, or a beam wind makes all the difference in the wave patterns. And some hulls handle one and not the other. Sometimes, it can decide your route (since it’s tough to move against the wind).
- Knowing the wind speed is also important because if the wind speed is low, there won’t be any big waves, and similarly, if the wind speed is high, there will be big waves. If you want, you can take a small anemometer with you to measure the wind speed.
A small change (increase) in the wind speed will increase the choppiness of the waters. So, knowing the wind direction and speed prior will give you some certainty (signs) of any incoming gales or storms.
Here is a small breakdown of the wind speed vs. wave height. Those are average (approximate) values.
- 10-knot wind: < 2-foot waves
- 15-knot wind: 2-foot waves
- 20-knot wind: 2-3 foot waves
- 25-knot to 30-knot wind: 4-foot waves
- 40+ knot wind: 4 foot to 6+ foot waves
By looking at the wind speed in the anemometer, you can roughly tell what would be the wave height and compare it with your boat to conclude whether your boat can handle those waves or not. Anemometer would help you a lot in deciding whether your boat can handle the waves or not.
3. Make a note of safe places (cove)
This is another essential thing to do while boating, making a NOTE of some safe places (cove to be precise) in the lake where you often boat (it doesn’t mean you to write it down on a piece of paper). If any gale picks up and if you aren’t able to reach the boat ramp quickly, you can stay there for some time until the storm or gale passes away.
- Cove (a small indentation or recess in the shoreline of a sea, lake, or river). These places can sometimes be beneficial. If you are fishing far away from the boat ramp and suddenly a small gale picks up, you can steer the boat to the cove and stay there until the gale passes away.
- If you are boating in a massive open lake, you most probably may not find any cove in the middle of the lake. If it is not wide open enough, you can find one, and simply remembering the cove location in the lake will help you a lot.
Similarly, you can find some safe places in the lake. Since the cove is like a U-shaped projection kind of thing in the lake’s shore, they try to reduce or slows down the winds a bit. Staying there for some time (until the gale passes away) will definitely cut down the risks of danger to some extent.
Remembering all those places in the lake can sometimes help you in preventing risks. You should always have a plan in mind if things get crazy, sudden weather changes (gale or storms). All of a sudden, if a gale pops up, you can take shelter in the cove or any plan like that.
4. Stay away from other boats
Staying away from other boats (especially big boats) is also an essential thing to do. Generally, if you don’t go boating in crowded areas, you probably need not worry about this; otherwise, you need to be careful around other boats if you go boating in crowded areas.
- Boats create wakes. You might be minding your own business in the middle of the lake, and if any boat goes by slowly in the middle of the lake, it creates wakes. If you’re lucky, it just tosses you out of your seat; it can capsize the boat if you’re not so lucky.
- So, better go for boating in places where there are fewer recreational boaters around you, so you shouldn’t have to deal with wake hitting your boat while fishing or any. If it’s a big lake, there gotta be somewhere where you can get away from the crowd.
So, try to avoid boating in crowded areas. If the other boats are small, you are FINE; otherwise, better stay away from them to avoid those wakes. But, try to stay somewhat close to the people, so you can signal them for any help if anything bad happens to you.
5. Boat related things
Those (wave patterns, wind patterns & speed, and wakes) are external contributing factors that can affect you (mainly) and your boat. We will now see some of the things you are (maybe) doing that can affect yourself while boating.
- Boat weight is the essential thing to check since small boats are very light boats; it can only handle very few weights. So, carrying extra weight on the boat will definitely increase the draft and making the boat more susceptible to risks.
- If the boat’s weight exceeds its maximum limit, the boat can tilt sideways and sometimes capsize. It’s vital not to carry any unnecessary equipment on a small boat. These boats are very light and can easily capsize than other boats if the weight is not distributed evenly on a boat.
- Suppose that if you have a 14 foot Jon boat, at max 2 people can comfortably sit in the boat and some equipment. Adding any additional weight to the boat will definitely make the boat less stable, which increases the likelihood of capsizing if any wave or wake hits the boat.
Related post – Check my article on How to prevent boat capsize to know some of the vital measures to take to avoid capsizing of a boat entirely.
6. Check the objects that are kept on the boat and outside in the water
The essence of this check is to avoid any puncher on an inflatable boat or dingies. Although puncture chances are less, but by taking some precautions prior may help you out one day.
- Ensure that the surroundings you are boating in have no sharp objects such as floating wooden logs or any stacks of rocks. An inflatable boat or dinghy will most probably not get punctured due to logs or stacks, but frequently rubbing and hitting the sharp edges of the logs or rocks may result in wear off (puncture) down the line.
- If you go boating in those places, try to avoid any close contact with the logs or rocks. Even if you go in shallow waters and get in contact with the ground oftentimes, it can hurt the boat in the long run. So, better avoid those things prior.
And finally, try not to keep any sharp objects inside the boat like fishing hooks or any. Try to keep all the tools in the tackle box and ensure that the box is closed. So, checking the surroundings regularly both inside the boat and outside the boat can be beneficial.
Finally, those are some of the things you need to check (observe) to prevent any risks and dangers while using a small boat. Not exceeding the boat’s weight and checking the weather before the trip and while boating is crucial than any others.
Safety tips while using a small boat
We will now see some of the safety measures you need to take while using a small boat.
1. Check the weather before starting the trip
- Checking the weather before starting the trip is an essential thing to do. However, the weather may be good before starting the trip, and it can change during the trip. So, simply checking the weather before the trip isn’t a solution; you need to check it often while boating as well.
- By checking the weather often while boating, you will get to know about the weather changes prior. Then you can reach out to the shore before the gale or storm hits you up.
2. Wear a life jacket (PFD)
- Wearing a life jacket is one of the crucial things to do while operating a boat, especially while using small boats because these boats are very light, freeboard area is also less and less stable compared to other motorboats. So, better be prepared by wearing a life jacket.
- And every person onboard needs to wear one. Simply wearing a life jacket isn’t sufficient; it should fit you as well (meaning it shouldn’t be big or small to you), and it should be approved by USCG as well. So, a life jacket is crucial in the boat to have.
3. Don’t overload the boat
- Since small boats are very light boats, it can only handle very few weights compared to same-sized other motorboats. So, carrying extra weight on the boat will definitely increase the draft by making the boat more susceptible to risks. If the boat’s weight exceeds its maximum limit, the boat can tilt sideways and sometimes capsize.
- And this can be easily prevented by loading the boat properly without exceeding it’s maximum limit and avoiding uneven loading. Mostly try not to carry any unnecessary equipment on the boat. So, keep an eye on the volume of weight you are carrying on the boat.
4. Take all the safety equipment
- Taking all the safety equipment while boating is essential, especially if you use a small boat in the waters. Some big lakes can whip up some pretty big swells, gales, storms, even the wake from other boats can be dangerous to both craft and humans.
- If that is the case near you, you need to take personal safety devices very seriously. If you take the boat on any “BIG” lakes, just make sure that you have spare shear pins, tools, anchor, oars, sound & visual signaling devices, lifejackets on, and practice smart decision-making.
Related post – Check my article on Required safety equipment for a boat to know all 31 safety equipment you may need based on the type of waters you are boating in.
5. Better avoid rough waters
- When you are on a small boat, you are on a skinny, light platform with a lot of contact with the water with minimal grip for the greatest part. When that inherent problem is combined with many other external contributing factors, it is very easy to get into that totally unforgiving trip.
- Small boats are very likely to get wrecked by the waves and bad weather since they are very light. So, by not using the boat in rough waters, you can avoid many risks and dangers.
Related post – Check my article on safety tips for boating rough waters to know some of the vital safety measures to take while boating in rough or choppy waters.
Those are some of the safety measures to be taken while using a small boat in the waters. By following some basic safety measures, you can avoid most of the risks and dangers. For small boats, not using them in rough or choppy waters is a vital safety measure than any others.
Related post – Check my article on Safety tips for boating to know the most vital safety measures to take while boating to prevent the majority of the risks.
This post’s key takeaway is not to use any boat, especially small boats in rough or choppy waters. Whether small boats are safe or not has nothing to do with the boat length or lake’s size; it is with the type of waters you are boating in. If the lake’s water is calm (not choppy), it is absolutely FINE to use a small boat even in big lakes or open waters.
Wind changes the water conditions. If the wind blows fast, the water turns choppy and vise versa. So it’s all about the wind speed and direction (for coastal boating in lakes or rivers, wind against the tide and wind with the tide is a big factor, too).
Whether you have a headwind, following, or a beam wind makes all the difference, too. And some hulls handle one and not the other. You need to know about your boat as well, what it will handle (what type of waters your boat is capable of handling), and, more importantly, how you will handle it. The skill of the captain is 90% of the equation.
And finally, have a plan in mind if something goes crazy (sudden change in weather). As mentioned earlier, look for safe places (cove or any) in the lake where you often boat. If something happens suddenly, you can go there for shelter until the gale passes away.