a boat powering over blue water
a boat powering over blue water

Operator Responsibilities

Company's Coming...

Understanding Your Responsibilities to Guests and Other Boaters

When a guest steps aboard, the typical boat owner is more likely to be thinking more about having lunch or getting underway than worrying about his responsibilities as "Master" of the vessel. But if that guest were to stumble and be injured, you can bet the boat owner would quickly ponder what, if anything, could have been done to have prevented the injury and, heaven forbid, whether he might be liable.

a man readies his boat for the sea

The question of liability is both simple and complex, steeped in more than 3,000 years of maritime legal principles dating back to the Phoenicians. Admiralty law, like land-based legal concepts, starts with the premise that a property owner owes his invited guest a duty to exercise ordinary or reasonable care for the safety of the guest.

Deciding just what constitutes reasonable care can be especially complicated on a boat, which is bobbing, slippery and filled with obstructions. It has a great deal to do with the experience of the boat owner and the boating experience of the passenger and whether the boat owner had or should have had knowledge or notice of some dangerous condition. Additionally, it may depend on whether the owner knew or should have known his guest was unaware of or unfamiliar with the condition.

The duty to exercise reasonable care is rooted in the duty to provide a reasonably safe boat for the invited guest. This does not require that the boat be accident proof. Under the law, the applicable standard of care requires the boat owner to provide a boat that is reasonably safe, not one that is absolutely safe.

A guest also has some responsibility - a duty to exercise care for his or her own safety. A guest cannot simply walk blindly about the boat. But reasonable care does mean that you may be held accountable if you fail to warn a guest, for example, about a ladder you know is unstable.

Here is an example of an insurance claim to illustrate responsibility: A skipper invited an acquaintance to come by and inspect the aging sport fisherman he'd been fixing up for two years. Like most boats that are being restored from the keel up, the old boat was loaded with half-finished projects - wiring, cabinetry, engines, etc. The friend arrived while he was in the engine room puttering with the wiring. After a quick "yoo-hoo," the friend started down into the main saloon but fell when the ladder slipped out from an unsecured fitting.

a damaged boat cabin

The friend wound up in the engine compartment only a few inches from the skipper. The friend's injuries were neither serious nor permanent, but the skipper knew of the hazard and failed to warn his guest, which meant that he may well have been liable if the case had gone to court.

What about a clearly visible hazard such as an uncovered hatch? The law call this "open and obvious" danger, but courts have had trouble agreeing on whether you have to give someone a warning in the face of such a known risk. Some judges have ruled that the duty to warn is not imposed when you have an open and obvious condition since, under a standard of reasonable care, everyone is equally able to see the hazard. Other courts, however, have ruled that your invited guest may not appreciate the risk of what you believe is a readily apparent danger. Even more to the point, however, is the practical reality of ever-increasing numbers of lawsuits. Not only are lawsuits expensive, they are time consuming and take a tremendous emotional toll. Whatever legal comfort you might get in thinking that the danger is obvious, the reality is that the situation in the legal world today instructs you should always err on the side of giving a warning.

As an experienced skipper you know that a boat can pitch suddenly when it goes through a wake or comes about. You know to hang on until the boat is steady again. But these situations may be new and hazardous to a guest.

Clearly then, as skipper, you have the responsibility to warn an unsuspecting guest when you are aware of a hazardous situation on your boat. Further, you have a responsibility to warn guests about possible risks that are unrelated to your boat, but which are all around you: passing boat wakes, severe weather, tidal changes, etc. And, even if you are unaware of a loose railing, wobbly step, etc. or you don't see an approaching boat wake, you may still be liable for any injuries that result.

And finally, operator responsibility extends to those guests and other waterway users that are in the water. Unfortunately, propeller strikes are a common source of injury and even death. As an operator, beware and use extreme caution when people are in the water and turn off your engine anytime a person is in the water and within one boat length of the boat. Also, it is advisable to educate your guests about the dangers of swimming around a boat and how to re-board the boat properly so as to avoid injury.

Remember then, the next time you welcome someone aboard, that an injury is more likely than ever to result in a lawsuit that, win or lose, could cost a fortune. When you also consider the many months of lost time and emotional strain you would live with, it might be wise to remember what a philosopher once said: "Be bold with your caution."

Preparing for a Safe Trip

"When you call the Coast Guard...you are asking them to risk their lives to save yours. The rescuers...value their lives as much as we value ours. It is the duty of those who go to sea to avoid getting into situations that require the aid of the rescue services--heed the season, equip your vessel properly, keep a sharp eye for weather changes... don't expect your ship to do something she can't, pump for your life if you're sinking, maneuver your vessel if you're not. Think ahead. Anything less and you will be asking more of others than you ask of yourself."
"The Abandonment of the John F. Leavitt" by Peter Spectre, WoodenBoat Magazine

When the weather is nice, or time is running short, we often take shortcuts to get onto the water as soon as we can. Most times, things work out just fine and we're soon back at the dock or the launch ramp at the end of the day. But sometimes things go wrong--from an engine running out of gas to conking out--to the tragic deaths of loved ones. (To learn about the unfortunate sinking of the Morning Dew, visit the BoatU.S. damage avoidance magazine, Seaworthy).

Having a safe and enjoyable boating trip begins well before you step aboard the boat. No matter what the weather is before you start your trip, and no matter what your boating experience is--any trip can go differently than you first plan. The following excerpts are taken from Water Wise--Safety for the Recreational Boater, printed by the University of Alaska Sea Grant and available through BoatU.S.

For many people, their only boating experiences come from being a guest on boats such as yours. As a "boating ambassador" the more you can do to put them at ease, the better. Show them around the boat, show them how to use equipment, and what they can expect when they go out on the water. Share your knowledge with them--you will help them be safer on the water, and you will help them enjoy the water that much more.

Seven Factors

Before you step aboard your vessel, there are seven factors that you should think about to ensure a safe trip for you, your crew, and your boat.

1. Know Your Boat

It may seem fairly obvious that you need to "know your boat" before you go out...but think about it--how familiar are you really? Most people only go out on their boats when its sunny and the weather is nice. But what happens when something breaks, or the weather turns bad? Can you handle an emergency? Have you even prepared for an emergency? Some things to think about include:

  • Do you know how your boat handles in rough weather?
  • Can you get around your boat--and find things easily in the dark?
  • Do you know how to access all of the through-hull fittings and remote compartments?
  • Can you easily make minor repairs to the engine or steering systems?
  • Can you easily find and operate emergency equipment such as the fire extinguisher?

2. Who Will Be Aboard

So who is going with you? A trip with five adults would be a great deal different from one with two adults and three preschoolers. Preparing for your guests is not only the courteous thing to do, but the safe thing to do. And don't forget, as the captain you have a legal responsibility to provide for the safety and well being of those you bring aboard. Things to think about include:

  • Do you have a pre-departure or safety "checklist" and have you discussed it with guests prior to departure?
  • Did you inform your guests as to where life jackets and other safety gear are stowed?
  • Do your guests have boating experience?
  • Can your guests take over the boat/operate equipment in an emergency?
  • Do you have spare clothes/raingear for your guests?
  • Do you have enough food and water for your guests?
  • Do any of your guests have medical conditions?
  • Can your guests swim?
  • Do your guests get sea-sick?
  • Will you or your guests be drinking alcohol?
  • Are there hazards that children should stay away from?

3. Where Are You Going

Are you planning a short trip across the lake or harbor? An all-day sailing or fishing trip? Or are you going off-shore for an extended cruise? More importantly, does anyone ashore know your plans? Planning your trip route before you leave will help you determine what additional gear you might need to bring, and may help you realize that the trip may be too dangerous to undertake at that time.

  • Is your route along a busy waterway? If not, you might want to make sure your fuel tanks are topped off, and you have a radio to contact others. Keep in mind that busy waterways are usually just the opposite in the off-season!
  • If you are going to a different port, does it have the facilities necessary to fix your boat, or facilities to treat a sick crew member?
  • Will you be going with other boats, or meeting up with anyone?
  • Most importantly, who have you left a float plan with?

4. Your Environment

Just because it is sunny and calm outside doesn't necessarily mean the trip will go without a hitch. Weather has a nasty habit of changing with little warning. Thunder storms, high winds, fog, and other "weather events" can put a damper on your trip. Unseen factors include the tide and current--will there be enough water to get through a shallow channel? And don't forget water temperature--even if the air temperature is warm, the water may be colder--given enough time, hypothermia will occur in even the warmest of waters. Clothing is your first line of defense against the elements. Dress for the water temperature--not the air temperature! While cotton clothing may be comfortable--especially in warmer weather--synthetic clothing such as POLYPROPYLENE helps retain body heat better. Wearing a hat is also a smart thing to do--they protect you from the sun, and help retain body heat.

  • Are you wearing appropriate clothing for the weather conditions?And do you have spare clothing in case you get wet?
  • Have you seen the weather report for your area? Do you have a radio to listen to the weather report while you are on the water?
  • Have you brought sunscreen to prevent sunburn, and plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration?
  • What is the water temperature--and can you survive for long if you fall in?
  • Can you and your crew handle rough weather? Will anyone become sick or incapacitated?
  • Will you be traveling in the evening? If so, do you have lights, and are the lights working? Do you have nighttime signaling devices or reflective materials on your clothing?

5. Equipment Issues

Properly equipping your boat with the appropriate gear can make a great day even better--and can make a bad day survivable. Proper equipment really depends upon the boat that you are on--row boats on a pond need different equipment than an ocean going vessel. All vessels must adhere to State and Federal minimum carriage requirements. Knowing what kind of trip you are taking, and where you are going will help you determine what extra equipment to bring along.

  • If you are going far from shore or other boaters, do you have (and know how to use) a VHF radio and navigation equipment such as a compass, loran/GPS?
  • Do you have usable, properly sized and fitted life jackets for everyone? While life jackets come in a variety of prices, styles and performance abilities--the life jacket that is worn is the best one to have. How much is your life worth? Over 80% of the people who drown each year weren't wearing a life jacket!
  • Do you have spare parts, lube oil, or gasoline?
  • Do you have extra water, food and clothing for you and your crew?
  • Do you have a first-aid kit?
  • If you are going off-shore, do you have an EPIRB, raft, or survival suits? EPIRBS are available for rent from the BoatU.S. Foundation. Visit our EPIRB page for more information.
  • Do you have even a small survival kit or "ditch bag"? Keeping a small, handy kit stocked with items such as garbage bags/emergency blankets, waterproof matches, cordage, a tarp and first aid kit can keep you going. Offshore kits should have extra food and water, a fishing kit, extra flares/signaling devices and medicines.

6. What Can Go Wrong

Planning ahead means considering what could go wrong, and thinking of how you as the skipper will handle it--or how you crew will handle it if something happens to you! Prudent skippers not only have a plan that they stick to, they also make sure the crew knows the plan, and can act accordingly in case of an emergency. When your guests come aboard, it's time to share information with them about your boat, and about your trip. The information you need to share in this orientation will depend on your boat and how complicated things are.

Finally, make sure that someone ashore knows where you are going, and when to expect you back. Here is a simple float plan, provided to help you determine what information is helpful to rescue personnel. Leave your float plan with a responsible relative or friend--don't file your float plan with the Coast Guard! STICK TO YOUR PLAN!

7. Your Responsibilities

As the captain, YOU are responsible for the safety of you, your passengers, your boat--and those you may come into contact with. This means that even the noise your boat makes or the wake your boat puts out can have an impact on other boats or property--so you are responsible. Your responsibilities are essentially a summary of the previous factors:

  • You are responsible for knowing and adhering to the federal Rules of the Road, and all state and local boating laws.
  • You are responsible for operating in a manner that is appropriate for the conditions--meaning going at no-wake speeds where required, operating at a safe boat speed in congested waters or at times of restricted visibility such as at night.
  • You are responsible for the safety of the people on your boat, and you are required by the Rules to assist others in need if you can safely do so.
  • When operating around swimmers and skiers, and others that may be in the water, you must always maneuver in a safe manner and be aware of the dangers of striking them with a miving propeller. Always place engine in neutral, or more preferably, stop your engine completely before someone moves to re-board the boat.

Boating is a great way to enjoy the outdoors with friends and loved ones--for yourself as well as others. Enjoy the water as much as you can, but remember that others may enjoy it in ways that are different than you. Respect the rights of others, and be a courteous boater, and avoid disturbing others as they too enjoy the water.