While Memorial Day weekend is often thought of as a signal for the beginning of South Carolina's boating season, boaters already are taking advantage of the warm spring days. Anglers are out in numbers. Skiers and tubers are already braving the chilly water temperatures. Others are enjoying an afternoon cruise.

South Carolina has some 3,000 miles of coastline, 8,000 miles of rivers and 460,000 acres of lakes, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. But even with that vast amount of water, with more than 339,000 boaters registered in South Carolina, our waterways can become very crowded.

To break it down a little closer to home, SCDNR's 2021 statistics offer insight. The largest number of registered boats in the state are found in Charleston County, where there are 27,246 boats and another 1,409 personal watercraft. Berkeley County has another 13,446 boats and 1,077 PWCs and Dorchester County adds another 7,453 boats and 596 PWCs.

Major metropolitan areas with nearby lake access such as Lexington County and Lake Murray have 23,969 boats and 3,190 PWCs; Greenville County with Lake Hartwell add another 17,373 boats (plus Anderson with 13,897 boats). Horry and Georgetown counties have a combined 26,556 registered boats.

The thought of all those people out on the water, many of them no doubt newcomers to the area eager to take advantage of the great boating opportunities, should make you think: How many of them are familiar with basic rules of the road on the water? Do you know the rules? Do you know which side you should pass on when overtaking another boat or which side you should pass on when you are meeting another boat?


Jet skis and people riding tubes can make area waterways extremely busy during the boating season. Provided/Ann Braswell

I wouldn't presume to give a a comprehensive lesson in boating safety in this space; that belongs with the regular boating safety classes offered by SCDNR (dnr.sc.gov/boating) or organizations such as America's Boating Club.

"It's surprising how many boaters don't know (the Rules of the Road for Boating). People are used to driving a car, but some of the rules aren't the same," said SCDNR spokesman Greg Lucas. "When people are going around in circles pulling a tuber, what do you do? I can't imagine what it's like in a constricted waterway like the Intracoastal Waterway."

The SCDNR Law Enforcement Statistics note that there were 201 recreational boating accidents reported in 2021, the highest number over the past 10 years by a large amount. And there were 21 recreational boating fatalities last year, half involved drownings. Which brings up a point that has been repeated and repeated for years on end — always wear your life jacket.

"I know people get tired of us saying to wear a life jacket just like they get tired of hearing the highway patrol telling you to wear your seat belt," Lucas said.

"We just had a really said accident on Lake Murray that was fishing and boating related. An older couple had rented a house and they were out fishing near the home they rented. This older gentleman (78) was doing something on the boat and not too far from the dock he fell overboard. He couldn't swim and didn't have his life jacket on. His wife tried to pull the boat around to throw a cushion but he went down and she could not get to him.

"She called 9-1-1 but it was too late. If he had just had a life jacket on, it would have just been a morning's mishap but it turned into this incredible tragedy. Think about how it affects families, their children, grandchildren and their friends. Apparently he knew he was not a strong swimmer. It's so sad and tragic."

It is a federal requirement that all boats must have a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device for everyone onboard or being towed. Boats 16 feet or longer must carry a Type IV throwable device, and in South Carolina any person under 12 years of age must wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved Type I, II, III or V PFD when on board a boat less than 16 feet long.

Other required safety equipment include a portable fire extinguisher aboard boats less than 26 feet if the boat is carrying passengers for hire or if the construction permits the entrapment of flammable vapors or if it has a permanently installed gas tank, including gas tanks that use any type of fastener that would hamper the immediate removal of the tank from the boat. Additional extinguishers are required in boats larger than 26 feet.

Boats under 39.4 feet must carry an efficient sound-producing device, a whistle or horn. If your boat is being operated between sunset and sunrise, you must have navigation lights. Boats operating in coastal waters are required to carry flares.

Boat operators in South Carolina under the age of 16 must complete an SCDNR-approved boating course to operate a boat or PWC with a 15-horsepower motor or greater, unless accompanied by an adult age 18 or older.

A federal law that became effective in 2021 requires boat operators to wear what is commonly referred to as a kill switch (engine cut-off switch) when at planing speed. The device will automatically shut off the engine if the lanyard becomes disconnected.

Lucas noted that SCDNR law enforcement personnel will be conducting boating safety inspections throughout the state over the Memorial Day holiday.

"It lets everybody make sure they have everything they need onboard without risking getting a ticket," Lucas said. The inspections are voluntary and take only a couple of minutes.

All inspections are held from 10 a.m.-noon. Locations include: May 28 - Johnnie Causey Landing, ICW, Horry; Lake Murray Dam, Lexington; Ebenezer Park, Lake Wylie, York. May 29 - River Forks Boat Ramp, Lake Hartwell, Anderson; Cypress Garden, Berkeley; Alex Harvin Landing, Lake Marion, Clarendon; Easterling Landing, Lake Robinson, Darlington; Molly Creek Landing, Lake Wateree, Fairfield; Greenwood State Park, Lake Greenwood, Greenwood. May 30 - Lemon Island Boat Ramp, Beaufort; Wappoo Cut Landing, ICW, Charleston; Dom Landing, Lake Thurmond, McCormick; Twelve Mile Landing, Lake Hartwell, Pickens.

America's Boating Club

America's Boating Club Charleston will hold boating safety classes June 4 and June 18 at 1376 Orange Grove Road, Charleston. Classes begin at 9 a.m. and end around 4 p.m. Successful participants earn the S.C. Department of Natural Resources Boater Education Card. The cost is $25 for adults and youth 12-18 are free. Call 843-312-2876 or email lynes@tds.net.