The United Safe Boating Institute (USBI) has produced a popular
pamphlet titled "5-Tons and No Brakes," which gives excellent
instruction and hints for houseboaters. For the many Arizonans who
enjoy this boating activity, a summary of the USBI material follows.
Houseboating Is Fun
Houseboating has become a popular vacation and weekend activity
as the boat can literally be your home afloat ó but a home that
moves. However, although houseboating is a comfortable, leisurely
way in which to enjoy the water, there are things you should know
About Those Brakes
So, youíve handled a sailboat or a cruiser, have you? Well,
thatís very different from handling a houseboat, which averages 35
feet in length, goes between 15 and 20 miles an hour, and weighs
about five tons.
Having "no brakes" means that if you err, you may be the cause of
a hull-banging and paint-scraping experience ó not to mention what
can happen to what youíve hit. Remember, reversing your engine
is the only braking mechanism that you have for your houseboat.
And, Then Thereís Docking
Docking can be a real thrill, especially if you forget about not
having brakes. Ten thousand pounds of boat will not stop short when
power is cut. Nosiree.
Itís best to approach the dock when power is cut, while heading
upstream or into the wind, since the big boat is
easier to control that way.
Use only enough power to maintain steerageway (minimum speed with
control). Remember, speed times weight can equal a horrible crunch:
at only two miles an hour, your houseboat can damage a dock as well
Approach the dock at no more than one mile per hour. Practice
working with minimum speed needed to maintain response before your
Keeping Your Bearings
Unlike smaller motorboats, a houseboat needs plenty of room and
time to maneuver. In fact, handling a houseboat requires practice:
Going through tight spots like locks or into slips requires skill,
quick action, and physical strength ó for fending off ó on the part
of at least two crew members.
The average houseboat operator is not a professional pilot, and
great care is needed to be able to master the vessel in all
Remember, when you turn the wheel of a houseboat, the stern
is the first to react. Thus, if the wheel is turned to the
right, the stern swings to the left; this may seem strange at first
because an automobile responds in just the opposite manner.
Before getting underway, review operating and safety procedures
with all passengers. Locate safety equipment and have a
backup who can operate the boat if you become ill or injured.
Some Rules Of The Road
Read and understand government regulations concerning the
waterway on which you will be traveling. Know the marking systems
and the signaling rules. Here are some basic rules:
- approaching an oncoming boat, keep to the right,
- know proper maneuvering signals and use them, and
- signal when approaching a blind bend in a river.
In The Still Of The Night
A new houseboater should tie up for the night at a marina or,
with permission, at a private pier. A novice might not know whether
a cove or quiet inlet will be safe.
The boat can be left high and dry if the water recedes out of the
inlet during the night because of the tides. Locks and dams on
rivers can also cause changes in the water elevation. A peaceful
river can become roaring torrent after a hard rain upstream.
If at dusk you canít reach a dock, anchor out of the main channel
or tie up to trees near the bank. When about 75 feet from your
anchorage, drop the stern anchor from the rear deck.
Be careful not to foul your propeller. When the stern anchor is
secure, move in closer and tie the bow line to some fixed object on
the shore, or secure the bow anchor into the shoreline.
Remember, two anchors are required to moor your houseboat
adequately. Be sure the anchors you have are of sufficient weight;
the ownerís guide for your boat will give weight details for
The riskiest operation on a houseboat, strangely enough, is
refueling. Smoking, naturally, is taboo during the refueling, and
all electrical appliances and lights should be turned off. Pilot
lights on any appliances should also be turned off.
If the boat has built-in fuel tanks, keep all doors and windows
closed to prevent heavier-than-air gasoline vapors from seeping
inside cabins and the engine compartment. Fill all portable tanks on
Ventilate before starting the engine. The blower should always be
run for a few minutes and until all gas odors have left the engine
First Aid: Be Ready
A houseboat without a first-aid kit aboard shows very poor
planning. Keep a well-stocked first-aid kit handy and remember to
replenish supplies as they are used.
At least one crew member should know first aid. First-aid
training should be an essential part of training for all
In An Emergency
Be sure you have the right size life jacket for each person on
board. Fit your life jacket snugly and know how to adjust it.
Remember too, that because there may not be time to put on life
jackets while still on the boat, you and your crew will have to
learn how to put them on in the water. That takes a bit of practice.
If you and your crew are not good swimmers, think about wearing
life jackets while underway.
If Thereís A Fire
Be sure you have the proper size fire extinguishers (minimum
size, five pounds) and know how to use them. Fire extinguishers are
required by law to be on board.
With an engine-compartment fire, the chance of explosion is
present. If a fire does break out in the engine compartment, turn
off the engine at once.
Fire in the galley is dangerous but preventable. Most galley
fires are caused when a landlubber-cook puts too much food in a pan
and forgets about the pitching and rolling of the boat.
Use as little fat as possible and be sure that curtains near the
stove are tied away from the flame.
Keep the victim in sight at all times. Throw a floatable item
(PFD, Personal Retriever, large plastic bottle, thermos jug, ring
buoy, etc.) to the person overboard and bring the boat around.
Never reverse, as the propeller may strike the victim. Approach
the person slowly and carefully in a manner that keeps the victim
upwind of the boat.
Whenever possible, cut the engine until the person is back
ĎThe Silent Killerí
An alarming number of carbon-monoxide deaths involving houseboats
have occurred because gasoline-powered generators with
through-transom exhaust systems were left running, and the exhaust
fumes became trapped beneath the swim platform while passengers were
on the platform or swimmers were in the water.
Turn off both your engine and your generator when people are
swimming near your houseboat.
Towing Is Stressful
Although it is perhaps a bit embarrassing, at times it may happen
that you have to be towed. If you are being towed, remember that the
towline is under great stress, and if it breaks, it can whip and
cause serious injuries.
Be sure that all crew members stay away from the line while your
boat is being towed. Many people will not tow you unless you provide
the line, so be sure to have a stout towline aboard for such
If You Abandon Ship
You and your crew must know where the nearest life jackets and
life preservers are and how to use them. If it becomes necessary to
abandon your houseboat, remember these vital instructions:
- wear your life jacket,
- go overboard on the windward side,
- stay clear of the propeller, and
- conduct a head count.
There are five "no-noís" stressed in the USBI pamphlet: no water
skiing, no tinkering, no operating under the influence, no swimming
near the propellers, and no wake.
The first, no water skiing, stresses that although some
houseboats are powerful and fast enough to pull skiers, doing so is
dangerous because the big boat is not maneuverable enough.
It is also a time-consuming nuisance to come about and retrieve a
spilled skier. In addition, the large wake produced is not only
discourteous to other craft but also can be dangerous.
The second, no tinkering, advises not to tinker with the fuel
system or the electrical and control systems. If something goes
amiss, ask a qualified technician to help.
Third is the obvious: Donít even think about drinking
alcohol and operating your houseboat. As skipper, you have to
keep you wits about you at all times while youíre underway.
Even one drink (combined with sun, waves, and other elements
associated with boating) can impair your senses. Your passengers and
your vessel are your responsibility, and alcohol and drugs have been
proven to be the cause of most boating accidents.
Fourth, swimming near propellers is asking for disaster.
Never forget the danger to swimmers that boat propellers can
inflict. Shut off your engines when approaching swimmers and keep
swimmers away from your stern.
Fifth and vital advice is no wake. Watch your wake because
you may upset small boats, paddle craft, and damage others at docks,
even a great distance away. Remember, you are legally responsible
for any damage caused by the wake of your craft.
Some Final Thoughts
Finally, USBI offers these important thoughts in their pamphlet
"5-Tons And No Brakes."
Arrange to take your houseboat out for a half-day or full-day
cruise before taking your vacation. This additional "hands-on"
experience will better prepare you for your cruise.
If you will be using patrolled waterways, register your itinerary
with friends or your marina, leaving emergency telephone numbers and
other important information. Also, file a float plan with someone.
Donít hesitate to ask for help if you need it. Your houseboat is
your key to Americaís and Arizonaís waterways, which are enjoyable,
relaxing, and very beautiful. Leave them as you found them, free
from clutter and litter.
Handy telephone numbers to keep on the boat include doctor,
police, local boating authority, Coast Guard station, marina, and
emergency telephone contact.
USBI member organizations include the American Red Cross, the
Coast Guard Auxiliary Association, Inc., the United States Power
Squadrons, the United States Sailing Association, and the Canadian
Power and Sail Squadrons.
Editorís Note: This monthís cover photo is of two of Lake Time
houseboats and is provided courtesy of Dave Tate, Lake Powell
Magazine, (800) 440-6507. Lake Time suggests enjoying "a Lake
Powell houseboat vacation on your very own luxury houseboat and
share the cost of boat ownership with an exclusive group of owners."
They stress that their houseboats are the safest on the lake as
they feature the "dry stack exhaust system, which eliminates
carbon-monoxide fumes at the swim decks."
Lake Time may be contacted at (800) 572-5701, (928) 645-3509 or
by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.