Boating on Michigan’s Great Lakes, inland lakes, and rivers is wonderful summer fun, and a big part of the reason our state is known as the Water Wonderland. According to, in 2021, Michigan had 808,059 registered recreational boats in the state, third most in the country behind Florida (987,769) and Minnesota (830,073). 

While recreational boating provides an immense amount of summer fun, boaters need to take boating safety seriously. Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources documents that in 2020, there were 31 boating fatalities, 74 boating injuries, and over $2.2 million in property damages in our state. A day of boating fun, whether it’s cruising, water skiing, fishing, or any other on-the-water activity, can become a matter of life and death in mere moments for any number of reasons. That’s why Michigan boaters need to prepare for any emergencies on the water. 

To prepare for - and hopefully prevent - any boating emergencies, it’s best to break your preparation into three phases: 

  1. Preparations before setting out 
  2. Safety practices while on the water 
  3. Preparations when returning to shore

Let’s explore each of these in turn.

Preparations before setting out:

Do a complete safety check of the boat before leaving shore. The following steps are recommended by Coast Guard Foundation:

  • Have your operator’s license with you (if born after July 1, 1996)
  • Have your registration or documentation for the boat on board and readily accessible
  • Have Coast Guard approved life jackets suitable for each person on board, in good condition, easily accessible
  • Have throwable flotation aids immediately available
  • Be sure fire extinguishers conveniently placed, fully charged, in good condition
  • Have visual distress signals (e.g., flares) with current expiration dates
  • Test to be sure the horn is working
  • Be sure to have a bell (if required) on board
  • Ensure your anchor and anchor line are appropriate to the area, depth, and conditions
  • Make sure your compass is properly adjusted
  • Be sure your charts for the area are up to date
  • Have all appropriate navigation tools
  • Have at least one boat hook
  • Inspect all mooring lines and fenders to ensure they’re in good condition
  • Be sure to have paddles or oars
  • Have a tool kit and spare parts that might be necessary (light bulbs, fuses, etc.)
  • Make sure the bilge free of fuel vapors and excess water
  • Be sure your fuel supply full
  • Check the fuel system to ensure it’s free of leaks
  • Check engine oil & transmission fluid levels to ensure they’re correct
  • Be sure your battery is fully charged and the fluid level is full
  • Check that all electronic gear is in good condition
  • Inspect engine drive belts to ensure they’re tight and in good condition
  • Be sure all navigation lights are working
  • Inspect steering and shift mechanisms to be certain they’re in good condition
  • Check the outboard motor mountings (if appropriate) to be sure they’re tight 
  • Make sure grab rails and lifelines are in good condition

The Coast Guard and other water safety proponents strongly recommend leaving a float plan with someone you trust or with your marina, describing your vessel, your trip details, and your projected return time. It’s also a good idea to have an ample supply of water, food and snacks, towels and blankets, and sunscreen. Because the weather on Michigan lakes can change quickly, extra layers of clothing are also recommended. 

Safety Practices on the Water:

By all means, enjoy your time on the water with family and friends, whether cruising, fishing, day-tripping, or any other on-the-water activity. But while you’re having fun, be sure to stay alert for any situations that could turn into a problem, and encourage everyone to follow recommended safety practices:

  • Whether cruising or anchored, make sure that everyone on board is wearing a properly fitting, U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket at all times
  • Follow all navigation rules such as maintaining a safe speed for the locale, being alert and watching for other watercraft
  • Keep a safe distance from fishing boats and boats towing skiers, water boards, or water tubes
  • If towing water skiers, have a spotter (other than the pilot) who is attentively watching the skier(s) for any falls or mishaps
  • If you’re cruising on the water, even at slow speeds, make sure passengers - especially children - keep their arms and legs inside the boat at all times
  • Be responsible about alcohol. Never drive a boat under the influence. Nearly one quarter of all boating fatalities (23%) are due to alcohol
  • Be sure your location is known. With today’s modern technology - cell phones, geo positioning, satellite phones, emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRB), marine radios, and personal locator beacons - you should be able to keep family members and friends informed as to where you are on the water
  • If a passenger falls overboard, do not panic. Their Coast Guard-approved life jacket will keep them afloat and visible. Do the following:
  • Shout “Man Overboard!” 
  • Instruct other passengers to keep their eyes on the individual. 
  • Keep the person in sight as you approach from downwind, 
  • Reduce your speed to idle, place the engine in neutral, and allow the boat to drift toward them. 
  • Throw them a flotation device as soon as they’re in range. 
  • When close enough, retrieve them. If it is a child, a qualified adult may go into the water to assist with the child’s recovery.

Preparations When Returning to Shore:

After a day full of fun on the water, the last phase is your return to your dock or slip. The first rule of docking, just as in all the other phases, is safety. Many serious accidents can occur when docking a boat, so it’s best to use the same circumspect and cautious attitude you used throughout your boating day.

There are significant differences between mooring at a dock and tying up in a slip. A dock is one long structure open on three sides. A slip is a U-shaped structure with one open side for entrance. They call for specific steps and different techniques when you approach them to tie up at the end of the day. As a side note, learning to dock or tie up in a slip is a skill that takes practice. You will very likely experience many frustrations the first few times you attempt it. Don’t be discouraged. It will become easier with time.


Whether docking or entering a slip, the two most important factors to consider are current and wind direction. On a lake, current isn’t usually a factor, but wind direction and speed is because the wind will use your boat’s freeboard (the portion of the boat above the water) like a sail and push it either towards or away from the dock, that’s why it’s always best to dock upwind, if you can. Regardless, you have to use speed and angles to offset the wind’s effect, especially in stronger winds.

When you return, alert all passengers that you’re coming in to dock. Be sure they are seated and are not blocking your view of the dock. Have one or two passenger assist by positioning your fenders and getting docking lines ready. 

There are four basic steps when docking:

  1. Line up your approach to the dock, using a shallower or steeper angle, depending on the wind and current.
  2. Come in slowly, using your engine to offset the effect of the wind or current. 
  3. When you are close enough to the dock, kick the engine into reverse, and turn the wheel toward the dock so it will draw you in.
  4. As you close the distance to the dock, you or your passengers should grab the line(s) and tie up securely.

Once your boat is safely docked, passengers may disembark one at a time, slowly and carefully, making sure their footing on the dock is steady and secure before stepping out of the boat.

Pulling into a Slip:

Unlike an open dock, a slip is enclosed on three sides, so it’s very similar to pulling your car into a garage, except, of course, you’re on water. Like pulling up to a dock, you need to be aware of the wind and current. Some things to remember:

  • Always approach the slip slowly, don’t rush. It’s much easier to avoid mishaps.
  • Use the wind to your advantage as an aid in docking in the slip if it’s blowing toward the pier.
  • Stop and start over, if you need to. There are no demerits for not making it into the slip on your first pass.
  • Whether you’re docking by yourself, or you have passengers to assist, remain seated until you’re close to the arm of the slip you’ll be tying up to. When standing up, be sure to maintain your balance. You don’t want anyone falling overboard.

Docking a boat in a slip isn’t easy, but once you acquire the skill through experience, it will be very useful and come in handy throughout your boating years.

By exercising a modicum of caution and preparing for any eventualities you might encounter during your boating excursion, you’ll have peace of mind, as well as an enjoyable day of fun on Michigan’s Great Lakes, inland lakes, and rivers for you, your family, and friends.