Safety First

You learned the "Rules of the Road" before you sat behind the wheel of a car—and you should do the same before taking the helm. Learning the basics of boat operation and boat safety is best done before your first trip to the marina or launch ramp. As of September 15, 2009, Transport Canada regulations require all operators of any recreational boat with a motor to have a Pleasure Craft Operators Card. The following resources will help you learn more about boating education and safety:

Mandatory Safety Regulations

The Office of Boating Safety provides a comprehensive listing of the equipment that is required on your boat.   Safe and responsible operation of your pleasure craft is a key ingredient for a good time. Whether you are operating a canoe, sailboat, powerboat, paddleboat or personal watercraft, the right equipment provides peace of mind and if something goes wrong, it may save your life. The Small Vessel Regulations identify the minimum equipment required on board your pleasure craft according to vessel length. You may want to bring along additional items depending on your type of vessel, activity and environment. Go prepared. Make sure equipment is easily accessible and can be properly used by everyone on board. Ensuring that all equipment, whether it is lifesaving or navigation equipment, is in good working order is not just common sense — it is the law. Download a PDF of Transport Canada's Boating Safety Guide which includes minimum safety equipment required for your boat.

To determine the length of your pleasure craft, refer to its manufacturer’s product information or measure it yourself (from the forward end of the foremost outside surface of the hull shell to the aftermost outside surface of the hull shell). Minimum equipment requirements do not apply to beach and pool toys measuring less than 2 m (6’7‘’) in length that are not designed to be fitted with a motor. Remember, operating a propeller-driven surfboard is against the law in Canada. If you are renting a vessel and will be operating it for recreational purposes, these carriage requirements apply to you. If you are using your boat as a non-pleasure craft or are carrying passengers for remuneration, this is considered commercial vessel operation and you should visit and contact a Transport Canada Centre for applicable regulations.


Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) or lifejackets come in many shapes, colours and materials. Some are made rugged to last longer, while others are made to maintain body heat in cold water. No matter which one you choose, make sure there is one that is the right size for each passenger on the boat and is suitable for your planned activities and the water conditions you anticipate. Spending a little time now can save your life later.

Always look for a label stating that the lifejacket has been approved by Transport Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard, Fisheries & Oceans Canada or any combination thereof before you purchase and make sure you understand the regulations and requirements. Also ensure you properly maintain whatever lifejacket you choose.

Boating With Kids

Boating is a great way to spend time with your children. There are many tasks that can be assigned to youngsters to teach responsibility and being out in nature provides endless lessons for the young boater. Nonetheless, if youngsters are going to be joining you, there are a few features to at least consider before making your purchase.

  • When boating with youngsters, consider a boat that has a cuddy cabin. Runabouts, bowriders and deck boats, even some centre console fishing boats are sometimes equipped with a small cuddy cabin to offer refuge for the kids if they need a nap or are getting too much sun.
  • Buy a good life jacket or life vest with a collar that turns a child face up in the water. It must have strong waist and crotch straps, a handle on the collar, and preferably be a bright yellow or orange colour for good visibility.
  • Attach a plastic safety whistle to the life jacket and teach the child how to use the whistle.
  • See Also: Boating Courses

Navigation and Finding Your Way

The subject of navigation takes up volumes. As a beginner, you'll likely use "eyeball navigation" (meaning that you use your eyes and take note of different landmarks in order to help you to sail to and from a destination). But it helps to be able to use a compass, read a chart, and understand common aids to navigation.

  • The magnetic needle on a compass always points to magnetic north; it tells you which way your boat is heading in relation to magnetic north. The compass card shows the 360 degrees of a circle, with steering marks usually every 5 degrees.
  • A navigation chart is like a road map for the water. Charts come in different scales; you'll want to use one that shows the area in considerable detail (1:20,000 is a good scale). A compass rose on the chart shows both true and magnetic north.

Here are some of the other things you'll see on a chart:

  • The rule of thumb in Canada for following buoys is, starting from the sea toward a harbour, "Red, right, returning"—leave red channel buoys to starboard as you enter a harbour or return upstream. Buoys with green and red horizontal stripes (called bifurcation buoys) mark the junction of two or more channels. There are many lighted (flashing) buoys and others that make noise with a bell, gong, or whistle. These characteristics are marked on the chart; for example, "Fl R 4sec BELL" is a bell buoy with a red light that flashes every 4 seconds. Unlighted daybeacons, located in the water or on land, also mark obstructions and harbour entrances.
  • Charts also show water depths: white for deeper water, light blue for shallow water, and green is used to show marsh areas or no water at low tide. Depths at low tide are shown at frequent intervals. In addition, charts locate tall conspicuous objects that are easy to identify from the water - for example, church steeples, radio towers, and flagpoles. 

Coastal piloting and navigation are fascinating subjects; the more extended your boating, the more expert you need to be. Electronic position-finding systems, such as loran and GPS (the satellite-driven Global Positioning System) have simplified the navigator's task.