Ontario is home to four of the five Great Lakes – Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario. With over 250,000 square kilometers of freshwater coastline, the Great Lakes provide endless opportunities for boating, fishing, and other recreational water activities. However, the massive size and unpredictable conditions of the Great Lakes can also make them potentially dangerous for boaters. Practicing proper boating safety is absolutely crucial when navigating these large bodies of freshwater.
All boaters in Ontario are required by law to follow certain safety regulations. All power-driven boats under 4 meters in length must carry an approved personal flotation device or lifejacket for each person on board. Boats over 4 meters must have an approved throwable flotation device as well. Anyone being towed behind a boat (waterskiing, wakeboarding, tubing, etc.) must wear a lifejacket. Children under the age of 12 are required to wear a properly fitted lifejacket at all times on any recreational boat.
In addition to having lifejackets and throwable devices, all boats must be equipped with the required safety equipment such as a sound signaling device (horn, whistle, etc.), navigation lights for nighttime operation, a fire extinguisher, bailer or manual water pump, and anchor. The specific safety equipment required depends on the size and type of boat. It’s important to check Transport Canada’s Safe Boating Guide to ensure your vessel is properly equipped before heading out on the water.
Specific Boating Safety Risks on the Great Lakes
Table of Contents
- Specific Boating Safety Risks on the Great Lakes
- Equipment Risks
- Alcohol is Prohibited when Operating a Boat
- Regulations or Guidelines for Boating Near Commercial Ships
- What Are the Common Marine VHF Channels Used for Communication Between Freighters and Ports?
- Frequently Asked Questions ( FAQs)
1. Weather Risks:
The Great Lakes are known for their unpredictable weather, which can quickly turn a pleasant boating trip into a dangerous situation. Storms can develop quickly, with strong winds, heavy rain, and lightning. The water can also become choppy or rough, making it difficult to navigate. It’s important to regularly check the weather forecast before heading out on the water and to be prepared for changing conditions.
Storms can develop quickly on the Great Lakes, with strong winds, heavy rain, and lightning. These storms can be particularly dangerous for boaters, as the winds can create large waves and the lightning can pose a risk of electrocution. It’s important to regularly check the weather forecast before heading out on the water and to be prepared for changing conditions.
b. Choppy or Rough Water:
Even when there are no storms, the water on the Great Lakes can become choppy or rough, making it difficult to navigate. This is particularly true in areas with strong currents or near shore lines, where the water can become choppy quickly. It’s important to be aware of the water conditions and to take appropriate precautions, such as slowing down or taking a different route.
Fog is another weather risk that boaters on the Great Lakes should be aware of. Fog can develop quickly, reducing visibility and making it difficult to navigate. It’s important to have proper navigation equipment, such as radar or GPS, and to know how to use them in case of fog.
The temperature on the Great Lakes can also pose a risk for boaters. The water temperature can be quite cold, even in the summer months, and hypothermia can set in quickly if you fall into the water. It’s important to dress appropriately for the weather conditions and to have a plan in place in case someone falls into the water.
e. Wind Chill:
Wind chill is another factor to consider when boating on the Great Lakes. The wind can make the air temperature feel much colder than it actually is, which can be dangerous for boaters. It’s important to dress appropriately for the weather conditions and to have a plan in place in case of hypothermia.
f. Lake Effect Snow:
Lake effect snow is another weather risk that boaters on the Great Lakes should be aware of. Lake effect snow occurs when cold air passes over the warmer waters of the lake, causing snow to form. This can create hazardous conditions on the water and make it difficult to navigate. It’s important to regularly check the weather forecast before heading out on the water and to be prepared for changing conditions.
Whitecaps are another weather risk that boaters on the Great Lakes should be aware of. Whitecaps are formed when the wind blows against the waves, creating a foamy, white crest on the top of the waves. This can make it difficult to navigate and can be hazardous for boaters. It’s important to be aware of the wind and wave conditions and to take appropriate precautions, such as slowing down or taking a different route.
By being aware of these weather risks and taking appropriate precautions, boaters on the Great Lakes can help ensure a safe and enjoyable boating experience.
Cold Water Risks:
The water temperature on the Great Lakes can be quite cold, even during the summer months. The average water temperature in the summer is around 60°F (15°C), but it can be much colder in deeper water or early in the season. Hypothermia can set in quickly if you fall into the water, so it’s important to take steps to protect yourself.
Hypothermia is a serious medical condition that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. The symptoms of hypothermia can progress rapidly, from mild confusion and shivering to loss of coordination, drowsiness, and eventually loss of consciousness. If you fall into cold water, hypothermia can set in within minutes, so it’s important to take steps to prevent it.
b. Life Jacket:
A properly fitting life jacket is essential for protecting yourself from the cold water. Make sure your life jacket fits snugly and is Coast Guard-approved. It’s also a good idea to wear a life jacket even when you’re not required to, such as when you’re fishing or cruising in calm waters.
c. Dressing Appropriately:
In addition to wearing a life jacket, it’s important to dress appropriately for the weather conditions. This means wearing layers of clothing, including a wet suit or dry suit, to help trap warmth. Avoid cotton clothing, as it will absorb water and make you colder. Instead, opt for synthetic materials or wool, which will help keep you warm even when wet.
d. First Aid Kit:
It’s important to carry a first aid kit on board your boat, especially when boating in cold water. A first aid kit can help you treat minor injuries, such as cuts or scrapes, that can become more serious in cold water. Make sure your first aid kit includes items such as bandages, antiseptic wipes, pain relievers, and any medications you may need.
e. Signs of Hypothermia:
It’s important to know the signs of hypothermia so you can recognize when someone may be in trouble. The signs of hypothermia include:
- Confusion or disorientation
- Slurred speech
- Drowsiness or loss of coordination
- Pale, cool, or blue-gray skin
- Fast or weak pulse
- Shallow breathing
If you notice any of these signs, call for medical help immediately and try to keep the person warm until help arrives.
f. Cold Shock:
Cold shock is another risk associated with cold water. Cold shock occurs when your body is suddenly exposed to cold water, causing your heart rate and breathing to speed up. This can lead to panic and confusion, making it difficult to stay afloat or swim to safety. To prevent cold shock, enter the water slowly and gradually, and avoid sudden immersion.
g. Swimming in Cold Water:
Swimming in cold water can be dangerous, even for strong swimmers. The cold water can cause your muscles to become numb, making it difficult to swim effectively. It’s important to be aware of your limitations and to avoid swimming in cold water unless you’re a strong swimmer and have proper protection, such as a wetsuit or dry suit.
By being aware of the cold water risks and taking appropriate precautions, boaters on the Great Lakes can help ensure a safe and enjoyable boating experience.
Currents and Waves Risks:
The Great Lakes are known for their strong currents and waves, which can make it difficult to control a boat. The currents can be particularly strong near the shore, around islands, and in narrow channels, and can quickly sweep a boat off course or into dangerous areas. Additionally, waves can be large and unpredictable, making it difficult to navigate and increasing the risk of capsizing or swamping.
a. Strong Currents:
The Great Lakes have strong currents that can make it difficult to control a boat. These currents can be caused by a variety of factors, including wind, storms, and changes in water levels. Some of the most dangerous currents are found near the shore, where the water is shallow and the current is stronger. It’s important to be aware of the currents and to take appropriate precautions, such as staying away from dangerous areas and using a GPS device to help navigate.
In addition to strong currents, the Great Lakes are also known for their large and unpredictable waves. These waves can be caused by wind, storms, and changes in water levels, and can quickly become dangerous for boaters. Waves can be particularly hazardous in narrow channels, where the water is shallow and the waves can become trapped and amplified. It’s important to be aware of the wave conditions and to take appropriate precautions, such as slowing down or taking a different route.
c. Rip Currents:
Rip currents are a specific type of current that can be particularly dangerous for boaters. Rip currents occur when water is pushed away from the shore and creates a strong current that can quickly sweep a boat out to sea. Rip currents can be difficult to spot, and can be particularly dangerous for swimmers and small boats. It’s important to be aware of the conditions and to take appropriate precautions, such as staying away from areas with rip currents and using a GPS device to help navigate.
Navigation is another important factor to consider when boating on the Great Lakes. The lakes are large and can be unfamiliar to boaters, making it easy to get lost or disoriented. It’s important to use appropriate navigation tools, such as GPS and maps, and to be aware of the water conditions and hazards.
Weather is another factor that can affect the currents and waves on the Great Lakes. Storms can quickly develop, creating strong winds and waves that can make it difficult to navigate. It’s important to regularly check the weather forecast and to be prepared for changing conditions.
f. Boat Design:
The design of your boat can also affect its handling in rough waters. For example, a boat with a deep-V hull is better suited for handling rough waters than a boat with a flat bottom. It’s important to choose a boat that is appropriate for the conditions you will be boating in.
g. Operator Experience:
Operator experience is another important factor to consider when boating on the Great Lakes. Inexperienced operators may not be familiar with the water conditions and hazards, and may not know how to handle a boat in rough waters. It’s important to gain experience and to take the time to learn how to handle your boat in different conditions.
By being aware of the currents and waves risks and taking appropriate precautions, boaters on the Great Lakes can help ensure a safe and enjoyable boating experience.
The Great Lakes are busy waterways, with many ships, boats, and other watercraft sharing the water. It’s important to be aware of your surroundings at all times and to follow navigation rules and regulations to avoid collisions and other accidents.
a. Larger Vessels:
One of the most significant traffic risks on the Great Lakes is the presence of larger vessels, such as freighters and tankers. These vessels are massive in size and can be difficult to maneuver, particularly in narrow channels and harbors. It’s important to stay out of the way of larger vessels and to be aware of their blind spots.
b. No-Wake Zones:
No-wake zones are areas where boats are prohibited from creating a wake, which can be hazardous for other boats and swimmers. It’s important to be aware of no-wake zones and to slow down or avoid them altogether.
c. Navigation Rules:
Navigation rules and regulations are in place to ensure the safety of all watercraft on the Great Lakes. It’s important to be familiar with these rules, including the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) and the Inland Navigation Rules. These rules cover topics such as right-of-way, speed limits, and navigation lights.
Speed is another factor that contributes to traffic risks on the Great Lakes. It’s important to be aware of the speed limits in different areas and to slow down when necessary, particularly in crowded areas or when weather conditions are poor.
Distractions are a common risk factor in boating accidents on the Great Lakes. With the abundance of technology and other stimuli present while boating, it can be easy to lose focus on the water and the surrounding environment. Distractions can come in many forms, including but not limited to:
i. Cell Phones:
Cell phones are a significant distraction while boating. Texting, browsing social media, or taking calls can take your attention away from the water and increase the risk of accidents. It’s important to keep your phone in a safe and secure location, such as a waterproof case or a designated phone holder, and to avoid using it while operating the boat.
Music can also be a distraction while boating. Although listening to music may enhance your boating experience, it’s important to ensure that the volume is not too loud and that you can still hear important sounds such as sirens, horns, and other warning signals.
iii. Other Boaters:
Other boaters can also be a distraction, especially when they are not following navigation rules or are operating their vessels recklessly. It’s important to stay alert and aware of your surroundings at all times and to be prepared to react quickly in case of an emergency.
Fishing is a popular activity on the Great Lakes, but it can also be a distraction while boating. Fishing lines and tackle can get tangled in propellers or other boat parts, and fishing from a moving boat can be dangerous. It’s important to designate a specific fishing area and to ensure that all fishing gear is securely stored when not in use.
v. Snorkeling and Scuba Diving:
Snorkeling and scuba diving are popular activities in the Great Lakes, but they can also be distractions while boating. It’s important to ensure that all divers are properly trained and equipped, and that they are aware of the location of the boat at all times.
Wildlife, such as sea gulls, can be a distraction while boating. Sea gulls, in particular, are known to fly close to boats and can create hazards for boaters. It’s important to be aware of your surroundings and to avoid feeding wildlife to prevent them from becoming a distraction.
By being aware of these potential distractions and taking appropriate precautions, boaters on the Great Lakes can minimize their risk of accidents and help ensure a safe and enjoyable boating experience.
The Great Lakes have many hazards, such as rocks, shoals, and debris, that can damage your boat or put you and your passengers at risk. It’s important to be aware of these hazards and to take appropriate precautions, such as staying in designated navigation channels and avoiding shallow water. It’s also a good idea to carry a depth sounder and to regularly check your boat’s hull for damage.
Your boat and its equipment can also pose risks if not properly maintained or used. It’s important to regularly inspect and maintain your boat’s engine, fuel system, electrical system, and other equipment. You should also make sure that you have the proper safety equipment on board, such as life jackets, flares, and a first aid kit.
Finally, human error can also pose a risk when boating on the Great Lakes. It’s important to be aware of your own limitations and to take steps to mitigate them. This includes being aware of your own physical limitations, such as fatigue, and not boating alone. It’s also important to be aware of the limitations of your boat and its equipment, and to not push yourself or your boat beyond what you are capable of.
By being aware of these specific boating safety risks on the Great Lakes and taking appropriate precautions, you can help ensure a safe and enjoyable boating experience.
Alcohol is Prohibited when Operating a Boat
Alcohol and boating definitely don’t mix. Operating a boat while impaired is just as illegal as drunk driving a car. Penalties include heavy fines, license suspensions, boat impoundment, and even jail time. Some key points to remember:
- Do not operate any boat while impaired or intoxicated
- The legal blood alcohol limit for boaters is the same as for drivers – .08 BAC
- Police can stop and test boaters for impairment at any time
- If convicted of impaired operation, you will lose your driver’s license in addition to boating penalties
Weather conditions on the Great Lakes can change rapidly, creating dangerous waves and storms. Always check the marine forecast before leaving the dock and avoid boating in hazardous conditions. If you do get caught in a storm while on the water, turn on your boat’s navigation lights, put on lifejackets, head for the nearest shore, and drop anchor to ride it out. Be prepared for cold water by wearing an immersion suit or drysuit. Hypothermia is a serious risk if you end up in the frigid waters of the Great Lakes.
Be very cautious navigating busy shipping channels and give commercial freighters a very wide berth. Their massive size and limited maneuverability mean they cannot stop or alter course quickly. Never cut in front of a large commercial vessel. Avoid boating near docked freighters as well, since they generate huge wakes when departing that can swamp smaller recreational boats.
Always file a float plan with someone on shore before heading out on a boating trip. Let them know your planned route, expected return time, boat description, and who is onboard. Make sure to contact your float plan person once you are safely back on land to avoid false search and rescue missions. Having clear communication and sticking to your float plan is a core principle of safe Great Lakes boating.
The Great Lakes offer some of the best freshwater boating opportunities in the world. But their massive scale requires extra caution. Following safe boating practices, using common sense, never operating while impaired, wearing lifejackets, and checking weather conditions can help ensure you return safely from a fun day on the water.
Regulations or Guidelines for Boating Near Commercial Ships
There are some specific guidelines and regulations for boating around large commercial vessels on the Great Lakes:
- Give all freighters and cargo ships a wide berth. Stay at least 1 mile away from these large vessels whenever possible.
- Never cut in front of a freighter or cross its path. These large ships cannot change course or stop quickly due to their massive size and momentum.
- Avoid passing in front of a docked freighter. When departing their slip, large freighters can generate huge wakes and draw in water from the sides. This can swamp smaller recreational boats.
- Use caution when navigating busy shipping channels. Recreational boats should steer clear of commercial traffic in narrow channels.
- Freighters and cargo ships have the right-of-way over smaller boats. Stay out of their path and never impede their navigation.
- At night, keep a sharp lookout for the navigational lights of commercial vessels. Avoid crossing in front of these lights.
- If you must cross in front of a freighter, do so at a 90-degree angle and move quickly out of its path. Never cross directly in front of a large ship.
- Obey warning signals from commercial vessels such as whistle blasts indicating their intention to turn or depart dock.
- Monitor marine VHF channels for communication between freighters, ports, and locks. This can help avoid close encounters.
Following these guidelines and giving working commercial vessels plenty of room is vital for safely sharing the Great Lakes with large freighters and cargo ships.
What Are the Common Marine VHF Channels Used for Communication Between Freighters and Ports?
Here are some of the key VHF radio channels used by freighters, ports, and other commercial traffic on the Great Lakes:
- Channel 16 – International distress, safety and calling channel. Monitored by all vessels.
- Channels 12 and 14 – Primary channels used by ships to communicate with ship traffic controllers and harbormasters at locks, bridges, and ports.
- Channel 13 – Bridge-to-bridge navigation channel used between ships to coordinate movement and passing.
- Channel 6 – Intership safety communications between fleets and workboats.
- Channel 10 – Port operations channel used by ships and harbormasters for non-distress port entry/exit.
- Channel 7 – Commercial intership channel for communication between freighters and cargo vessels.
- Channel 11 – Vessel traffic system channel used by ships to talk with vessel traffic service centers.
- Channel 5A – Great Lakes wide area weather channel broadcasting marine forecasts.
- Channel 22A – Coast Guard liaison and maritime safety information channel.
Monitoring channels 12, 13 and 16 is most important for understanding freighter and commercial ship movements and intentions when navigating near them. Having a VHF radio tuned to these channels allows recreational boaters to stay aware of large vessel traffic.
Frequently Asked Questions ( FAQs)
All boaters must have a valid boating safety certificate.
All boaters must wear a life jacket when operating a boat or being towed behind a boat.
Boats must be equipped with the proper safety equipment, such as a fire extinguisher, first aid kit, and visual distress signals.
Boaters must obey all boating regulations, such as speed limits and no-wake zones.
Boaters must be aware of the weather conditions and plan their trips accordingly.
Boaters must be prepared for emergencies and have a plan in place.
The Great Lakes are large and can be dangerous, especially in bad weather.
The water can be cold, even in summer, and hypothermia can set in quickly.
There are strong currents and waves on the Great Lakes, which can make it difficult to control a boat.
There are many ships and other boats on the Great Lakes, so it is important to be aware of your surroundings.
There are also many hazards on the Great Lakes, such as rocks, shoals, and debris.
Get a boating safety certificate.
Wear a life jacket at all times.
Be aware of the weather conditions and plan your trips accordingly.
Be prepared for emergencies and have a plan in place.
Obey all boating regulations.
Be aware of your surroundings and watch for other boats, ships, and hazards.
Use caution when operating your boat in bad weather or at night.