Keeping Boating Safety Top of Mind

The Sea Tow Foundation in cooperation with its North American Sober Skipper Advisory Council announced the winners of the National Boating Industry Safety Awards in December. The awards were established in 2019 to recognize top boating safety programs and campaigns within the for-profit segment of the recreational marine industry.

Top Marine Retailer Award
The Top Marine Retailer with One to Three Locations was won by Bridge Marina, Inc. of Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey. Bridge Marina, Inc. is a small company but has a host of services and amenities that all function better when safety is at the forefront. With this in mind, the marina created its Build a Boater program. “There’s an immense amount of safety involved in putting people on the water so we implement safety programs into all of our services,” Ray Fernandez, general manager of Bridge Marina said.

For the boat rental side of the business, safety starts at the outset. Not knowing the skill level of his renters, Fernandez limits the size and horsepower of the boats he offers as well as the activities that he permits on his boats. To further assure a safe outing, all renters go through an orientation whether they are first time boaters or seasoned captains, new customers or returning. The orientation covers everything from lifejacket wear to navigation to understanding tides. Fernandez believes he has one of the best boat rental safety operations in the country and admits it’s challenging to emphasize the risks in boating while not scaring people away. He believes that rentals are a gateway for potential boaters to become lifelong enthusiasts so he’s cognizant of the fine line of emphasizing fun but pushing the safe boating message.

The safety protocols and training for members of the boat club is similar to the training for the rental business. But unlike the renters, boat club members have access to unlimited types of boats, but they are also offered unlimited training. Each member gets an initial 3 to 4-hour session or more if they are new to boating, and as members they can request additional on-water training at any time. “We understand that those who most enjoy boating know what they’re doing. We want them to be comfortable so they get out on the water more often,” Fernandez said.

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The training isn’t just for non-boat owners. When Bridgewater sells a boat, they take the new owners out on the water for an orientation where they learn to operate and drive their new boat. Even seasoned skippers may not be comfortable behind the wheel of a new vessel, so this extra training increases their comfort level with the boat, in turn, making them better boaters.

Since Fernandez and his trainers were already busy on the water, they decided to just offer their courses to the general public. That expanded even further in 2020 when they formed a partnership with BoatUS to jointly offer and teach boating courses to New Jersey boaters. Fernandez estimates they did about 30 sessions last year and have plans to greatly expand and do upwards of 200 sessions in 2021.

“Safety training is just as integral to what we do and we find it really hits the mark for boaters though it’s often not their top interest when they think of getting on the water. I remind them the training isn’t for me it’s for them. It’s a rare person who doesn’t appreciate what they learned even if they resist the training when they hear we require it,” Fernandez said.

Top Marine Marketing and Outreach Award
The Top Marine Marketing and Outreach Award was presented to Freedom Boat Club for their continued safety efforts through the Boat Safe, Have Fun initiative.

“This award was really a validation of something we’ve been doing since 2004. Many of our members have minimal boating experience when they sign, but regardless of experience, every member attends a 4-hour classroom and on-the-water class to increase their confidence,” said Nick Gosselin, director of marketing for Freedom Boat Club.

He said members appreciate the introduction and many sign up for more classes later on to further increase their skills. Freedom offers unlimited training under US Coast Guard certified trainers. Gosselin explains that putting time and money into member training pays off. Primarily because training, along with just providing skills, gives boaters greater confidence so they are likely to use their boat more often and recommend the club to their friends. It boosts member retention, which sits at 94 percent, and sparks member referrals that accounted for 930 new members from August 2019 to August 2020. Additionally, fewer incidents mean more boats on the water. Boats damaged in an accident could need service that takes them out of rotation for customers, although the Club makes every effort to get boats back up and running or replaced quickly.

Freedom logged just one incident for every 30,000 boats last year. As some of the boats are out a few thousand times a season, often at a pace of two trips a day, that rate is astoundingly low. “We take pride in the effort we put in to help keep our members safe on the water and the fact that our rates are so low is testament to the work we do,” Gosselin said.

Along with boater training, the Club’s standard operating procedures are for staff to confirm all safety equipment is on board and operational before a member takes out a boat. Then, even though the member has been trained, they are provided a 5 to 10-minute safety briefing as a refresher and to provide safety information for their guests. “It’s similar in fashion to what they do on airplanes before takeoff,” Gosselin said.

In support of the Sea Tow Foundation’s Sober Skipper program, staff also makes sure every boat has a designated sober skipper aboard. The designee is expected to follow the Designated Lookout Initiative of the program, which highlights the Four S’s or “See It. Say Something. Slow Down. Go Straight.”

Freedom doesn’t keep quiet about its safety program. They promote it every day with staff wearing shirts that display safety themes and messages. There are sunscreen dispensers at many of the Club’s locations and teams practice wrist-to-wrist onboarding and offboarding. To reach members as well as a much wider audience of boating enthusiasts, they use social media posts, newsletters, and videos. With 253 locations to date, the Club has a key role to play on spreading the safety message.

Additional Awards
Other award winners included Top Powerboat Manufacturer Award, Sea Ray Boats; Top Marine Media Outlet Award, Rapid Media; Top Marine Retailer with More Than Three Locations was awarded to MarineMax. Top Gear & Equipment Manufacturer Award had the highest scoring submission of all the awards this year and it went to FELL Marine.