Identifying Local Hazards

Boaters should not get complacent about local waterways and their hazards because they constantly change. Before each trip, they must become familiar with any existing or new hazards that may interfere with their boat’s operation.

Boaters must have a continuous, systematic process of identifying and managing risk. This process includes detecting hazards associated with weather and environmental conditions, assessing risks, and implementing controls. The wind, sea state, tides, and currents affect steering; low and high tides can reveal (low tide) or hide (high tide) sandbars and other submerged objects; reduced visibility limits visual navigation, and the state of the atmosphere (such as lightning) can affect electronic navigation and communications.

Review the local nautical charts for obstacles such as overhead barriers, cables, rapids, tides, currents, and other hazards in the area of travel. Make sure you stay away from any swimming areas as well. Swimmers can get hurt even in kayaks and canoes.

Nautical Charts

nautical chart

Groundings account for fatalities, injuries, and millions of dollars of property damage every year. Preventing running aground is an important boat operator competency. Following proper procedures in the event of a grounding can reduce or eliminate fatalities, injuries, boat damage, damage to submerged objects, and responses by public and private entities for rescue and salvage operations.

Boaters should also be aware of the impact of the tides on their activity. In some locations, tides can rise or fall 30 feet or more, creating currents in narrow areas, and slower water in open bays. The lunar phases and topography of an area will dramatically impact the strength and direction of tidal currents.

It is common for boaters to use electronic devices for navigation, including GPS receivers, cellphones, and mobile applications that include chart overlays. Despite the rise of technology, nautical charts are still an important safety tool for boaters. A nautical chart illustrates the coastline’s characteristics and shape, the water’s depth, and the location of all aids navigation. Since all waterways, including lakes, rivers, and oceans, are constantly changing, nautical charts are updated continuously. Boaters rely on them for safety because of their accuracy.

For the safety of boaters, the National Ocean Service (NOS) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) produces a variety of nautical charts that are both created and maintained. Among their offerings are nautical charts in a variety of formats and scales that should be used. NOAA Nautical Charts are available directly from the NOS Distribution Branch or through any authorized agent. There are more than 1,700 NOS agents around the country. 

Boaters may contact the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office at 1-(888) 990-6622 or visit the website at for a list of local agents.
As major storms and waves can alter the coastline, boaters should obtain the most current chart details. The US Coast Guard publishes updated chart information weekly in the “Local Notice to Mariners,” which can be accessed online at

It is important for boaters to know how to find information on local hazard conditions and not become complacent with his/her knowledge of local hazards. Hazards are ever-changing in every type of water system (i.e. lakes, ponds, rivers, oceans, etc.). Types of hazards to investigate should include both man-made (i.e. low-head dams, overhead cables, bridges, heavy boating traffic) and natural hazards (i.e. rapids, sudden winds, tides, sand bars, currents, white water, waves, etc.).

Examples of reliable sources for this information include printed and electronic charts, maps of local waterways, smartphone apps, knowledge from local sources such as marina staff, professional mariners, etc. Always check for the latest updates to published information and supplement with local knowledge.



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