Millions of Americans hit the water each year, especially in the summer. We're not talking about backyard or neighborhood swimming pools, either. We're taking about skiing, fishing and just plain lounging on the nation's rivers, lakes and coastal seas.

It's not all fun-and-games, though. Anyone headed out on a boat should know how to have a good time safely.

Accidents Happen

One of the US Coast Guard's (USCG) missions is to help make sure recreational boaters stay safe. It keeps detailed records, too. It may surprise you know that in 2009 (PDF):

  • The USCG recorded 4,730 accidents: 736 people died, 3,358 suffered injuries, and there was about $36 million of property damage
  • The vast majority of boating deaths involved drowning, and in 84 percent of those deaths the victim wasn't wearing a life jacket
  • Alcohol use and operator error are two of the biggest causes of boating accidents and deaths

Avoid becoming part of these and other statistics by knowing how to keep you and your family safe on the water.

Safety is the Law

There are many laws you must follow as a boater. Many of these laws are designed to protect you, your passengers and others sharing the body of water you're boating on.

Federal Rules

The USCG's safety rules (PDF) cover many items, and some rules may not apply to you, depending on the type and size of your boat. In general though, most recreational boats must have:

  • One USCG-approved life vest or floating device for each person on the boat
  • A visual display distress signal, such as an electric light for use at night, a special orange flag for day use or flares for day or night use
  • At least one fire extinguisher
  • Navigation lights (if the boat is used from sunset to sunrise)
  • One sound signal device, such as a horn, bell or whistle

Carefully read the USCG's rules to make sure you have the equipment required for your type and size of boat.

State & Local Laws

You need to check the laws of the state where your boat is registered for boating rules, too. (Boat registration is very similar to automobile registration). You can't forget about the laws in the state where you'll be operating the boat, either. Even a county, city or township may have boating laws.

Obviously, state and local laws vary across the country. They may be different and even more stringent than the federal rules. Know these rules before you hit the water.

Next: Safety Tips for Avoiding Accidents & Injuries

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