UPDATE: The U.S. Coast Guard just released a report that the boating fatality rate was down almost 13% in 2012 compared to 2011. Seven out of ten people who drowned were on boats less than 21 feet long, and in 17% of the boating deaths alcohol was listed as an important factor.
A lot of words have been written about boating safety, and a lot of safety equipment is marketed and purchased. But, the most important piece of safety equipment is free. It is located between your ears.
Safety begins first thing in the morning when you hopefully wake up well rested and thinking clearly. Sounds simple, but how many times have you forced yourself to get up early, skipping breakfast and that eye-opening cup of coffee, in order to catch the tide or make a lot of miles? Sure, we all do that, but when you are rushing things go wrong. You can't find your boat shoes, so you put on a pair of flip-flops and slip on the deck, turning an ankle. Or, you pull away from the dock in a rush and leave a line trailing over the side that eventually gets wound up in your prop. You head out of the harbor without checking the weather forecast, and you miss the threat of thunderstorms. You get the idea--being in a rush and not following your normal routines are the enemies of safety.
Probably the single most important thing you can do each and every time you go out is to check the weather report and plan your trip around it. My routine involves always checking the marine weather on the VHF radio prior to firing up the engine, and checking it multiple times throughout the day--weather can change quickly. I keep a small notepad and pen or pencil next to the radio so I can note down important things in the forecast.
Simple, inexpensive things like that notepad and pen can be important safety equipment too. I use it to note down the times when I pass buoys or important turning points, just in case the GPS goes out. I use it to record Coast Guard warnings, or to note a latitude/longitude position if I hear a MayDay call. One really important piece of equipment to keep near the helm is a water bottle--stay hydrated properly and that piece of equipment between your ears works better.
It goes without saying that alcohol is the enemy of proper functioning of that safety gear between your ears. On my boats there is no alcohol consumption allowed while underway, or during a lunchtime stop. We enjoy our evening cocktails only after safely in harbor with the anchor down or tied up to the dock, but even then it is important to imbibe in moderation--you never know when you will need your wits about you during an after-dark anchor drill when a thunderstorm rolls through. The tricky part is controlling any guests you have onboard, particularly ones who may not be used to boats and being around the water. I will never forget the grim news one morning that a body had been found floating in a marina near where I keep my boat. It was someone I knew vaguely. Apparently he got up in the middle of the night after a lot of partying and just fell overboard, and nobody noticed him missing until the next morning.
The point being that your mindset is the most important safety tool you can bring onboard. Don't assume that you and your crew are safe because you have purchased all the latest safety gear. I was reminded of this when my son was about five years old. We were on a wharf getting ready to board our dinghy to return to the boat. I was putting my son's lifejacket on him when somehow he wriggled free, popped out of the lifejacket and flipped over the side of the wharf into the harbor. Needless to say, there was a moment of panic as I dropped my camera and other gear and jumped over the side after him. But, my son had already had swimming lessons and was used to being in the water. By the time I hit the surface he had already grabbed ahold of a dinghy and was pulling himself out of the water. Lesson of the story--put your lifejackets on before you need them, and that means before you head out onto the docks. Second lesson of the story--our mindset had always been that we wanted our children to be "waterproofed" before we went boating, so we had spent a lot of time teaching them in the water to minimize dependence on safety equipment that might or might not be there when needed.
So, yes, get the best safety gear and use it, but it won't do you any good if you don't turn on the gear between your ears.