Memorial Day is the unofficial kickoff of summer, and flocks of lake lovers migrate to Smith Mountain Lake to celebrate the first holiday of vacation season. From water sports, like wakeboarding and waterskiing, to sipping Virginia wine and lazily lounging on the dock, Smith Mountain Lake offers a host of activities to keep residents and tourists alike busy all summer long.

With 500 miles of shoreline to explore, many visitors spend majority of their daylight hours perusing Smith Mountain Lake in their watercraft of choice. Whether you’re an experienced captain or a rookie first mate, it’s important to take the time to familiarize yourself with basic boating tips to ensure a safe Smith Mountain Lake experience.

Here are five boating safety tips to get you started:

  1. Know the Law: There are rules and restrictions for operating a personal watercraft (PWC), just as there are rules to driving a car on the road. Persons between the ages of 14 and 15 must complete a boater safety course before operating a PWC, and operators of motorboats that are 10hp or higher must take the course as well. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, and may result in hefty fines or accidents. The website for Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is a great online resource to help educate you on current boating laws in Virginia.
  2. Be Safe in the Water: Knowing how to swim is a lifesaving skill not only for yourself, but for those around you. And while wearing a lifejacket is critical for boating safety, knowing how to swim is equally as important. Sign up with your local YMCA for swim lessons and make sure you have the appropriate number of lifejackets on board your PWC for all of your passengers. If children will be on board, make sure their lifejackets fit properly.And don’t forget about your pets. Contrary to popular belief, not all dogs are excellent swimmers.
  3. Keep Alcohol Off the Boat: It is illegal to operate a boat under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Your risk of being involved in an accident doubles, and you become a risk to everyone in the water. It’s irresponsible and illegal.
  4. Plan Ahead: Making lists and prepping materials may not be as enticing as letting the wind whip through your hair on the open water, but being prepared will allow you to face any unforeseen issues with confidence.Make sure you have plenty of fuel, and map out nearby marinas just in case you need to make an emergency stop. Check your lights and horns to see if they are in working order. Devise a float plan in case of an emergency, and check the weather to for thunderstorms or downpours. A comprehensive pre-departure list can be found here.
  5. Use Common Sense: Always be vigilant when boating. Never assume that everyone on the water is an experienced captain, or that you know everything there is to know about boating at Smith Mountain Lake. Appoint a backup (an Assistant Skipper if you want to be technical) who also knows how to operate the watercraft should the Captain become unable. If you see storm clouds on the horizon, stay at home. And even if you’ve had one drink (or are too tired to drive a boat safely), then give someone else the wheel and sit this one out.