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Boating 101: Helpful Hints For Staying Safe on Southwest Florida Waters

May 07, 2021 03:21PM ● By CAPT. BRIAN HOLAWAY

A day of boating in the Gulf of Mexico, Caloosahatchee River, Pine Island Sound, San Carlos Bay and the countless waterways around Southwest Florida is the best way to enjoy the area—until you run aground, encounter a sudden squall, bang into the dock, or any number of other mishaps that can befall the casual boater. Here’s some advice for all would-be mariners. 

Dock Lines 

Often overlooked, sometimes absent from the boat and sometimes in a tangled mess, dock lines are essential. If your boat has five cleats (this is where the line attaches to the boat for docking), then you should have five lines at least 15 feet long. The bow lines should be even longer. When approaching a dock you should have all the lines tied to each cleat and ready to go. These preparations before you get to the dock will help avoid confusion and shouting from both the driver of the boat and the person tying the line at the dock. This leads right into the next boating skill... 



As simple as it sounds, communicating with the other people on the boat can be the hardest thing for a captain to do. Before anchoring, docking or any other maneuver, discuss what each person on the boat will be doing to help. When all parties have agreed upon the task at hand, then you can proceed with the plan. This will avoid a lot of unnecessary confusion and mishaps. 


Location, Location, Location! 

Know where you are going and how to get there. This sounds simple enough, but you would be surprised. Believe it or not, I was on a shelling trip walking the beach with my clients when a boat pulled up to the beach and asked, “What island is this?” You have to wonder how did they get “here” when they didn’t even know where “here” is. 


Have a Plan  

Before you leave the dock, look at your chart and visualize where you are going. Look at the navigational markers and landmarks you will be passing on the way to your destination. Always carry a chart of the area you will be boating to; never trust your GPS 100 percent. Even if something happens along the way such as your GPS going out, you will know where you are because you have reviewed the chart ahead of time and you have it on board to refer to if needed.  

Remember that Southwest Florida waters are notoriously shallow, so boaters must be aware of water depth at all times. Charts can help with this if your boat does not have a depth finder. Also know when the tide is going out, or you may find yourself high and dry. 



Weather dictates where I go every day of the year. Which way is the wind blowing? What are the tides doing? What is the forecast when I will be heading back in six hours? You should ask yourself these questions every time you go on the water. Be aware of your surroundings.  

Especially in the summer months in Southwest Florida, you can be on the barrier island beaches with the sky as blue as can be over the Gulf of Mexico, when behind you to the east the sky can be black as coal and full of electricity. Stay tuned in to what is happening all around you. 


Safety Equipment 

Every boater must have the Coast Guard-required equipment on board (you can review boating laws and regulations at A life jacket is required for everyone on board. You may have seven life jackets that came with your boat, but then your neighbors come over to go boating with their friends and kids, so now you have 12 people on the boat and not enough life jackets. The person driving the boat should let the passengers know where the life jackets are located on the boat if needed.  

Keep your eye on the sky and your hands on the wheel. Enjoy safe boating in Southwest Florida. 


Capt. Brian Holaway is a Florida master naturalist and has been a Southwest Florida shelling and eco-tour guide since 1995. His boat charters visit the islands of Pine Island Sound, including Cayo Costa State Park, Cabbage Key, Pine Island and North Captiva.