Boat Education / June 3, 2021

Sun safety for boaters

Sun seekers: pay attention to sun safety for boaters

When thinking about boating safety, often the first things that come to mind are life vests, flare guns, and marine radios. Sun protection factor, or SPF as it’s more commonly known, are three words that might rank lower on a boaters checklist if it makes the list at all. Unless there’s a family of vampires taking a midnight cruise on a pontoon boat, the bulk of Canadian boaters are cruising and adventuring during daylight hours between 10 am and 4 pm: prime time for the sun’s powerful and harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation rays. Factor in the UV rays bouncing off the water, the risk for sunburn, and other ailments have increased.

Sun safety for boaters has become a hot enough topic that the recently concluded International Boating and Water Safety Summit featured a presentation from US Dermatologist, Dr. Rina Vaid. A long-time boater, Dr. Vaid also treats many boaters for skin cancer. In 2020, the Canadian Cancer Society estimated 8000 Canadians will be diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer, and an estimated 1300 Canadians will die from it. Wouldn’t it be great for boaters to reduce their chances of developing skin cancer? According to Dr. Vaid, skin cancer is easily preventable when we are dedicated to using the correct protection.

Layers of protection for sun safety

Whether cruising the oceans, or the lakes, and rivers of BC, Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec, boaters in Canada are surrounded by the sun’s UV rays. reminds us that even the gleaming, white boat interiors and exteriors transform into super UV ray reflectors every time we spend time on our boats, increasing our exposure yet again. Boaters need to take advantage of every layer of protection available to prevent sunburns that cause long-term damage to the skin.

Topical sunscreens

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, we should look for a sunscreen that is broad-spectrum, offering both UVA and UVB protection, is also water-resistant and has an SPF of 30 or higher.

The eight elusive spots

It’s common to miss a spot or more when applying sunscreen. Most of these spots we can do ourselves, so let’s not forget them! Even if you plan to wear your lucky fishing hat, or going for a “French Riviera” look wearing a sun hat worthy of Grace Kelly, you should still apply sunscreen, remembering to cover the following areas, at least 30 minutes before heading out on the water:

  1. Side and back of neck
  2. Upper chest
  3. Lips….use SPF 15, or higher lip balm
  4. Tops of our hands
  5. Tops of our ears
  6. Tops of our feet
  7. The midriff

When applying sunscreen, spread it evenly. The Canadian Cancer Society recommends the average adult needs about two or three tablespoons of sunscreen to cover their body, and a teaspoon to cover their face and neck. This is about the size of a golf ball to cover your body every time.

Sunscreen should always be applied first, before other applications like insect repellant and make-up, and should be re-applied every two hours.

Our skin isn’t the only thing that needs protection

Selecting an eco-friendly sunscreen will also help protect the delicate ecosystems of Canada’s waterways. Even non-boaters should choose an eco-friendly sunscreen to use on every trip to the beach. Snowbird boaters heading south to destinations like Mexico, Hawaii, or the Florida Keys should know that sunscreen ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are contributors to coral bleaching and death, are banned. Other sunscreen ingredients to avoid include PABA, parabens, and phthalates. Where ever you plan to boat, investigate the rules and laws of the local areas, strictly adhere to them to help preserve and protect the natural habitats. For examples of eco-friendly options, a link to Hawaii’s list of eco-friendly sunscreens is available below in the resource section.

Protective clothing and sun safety for boaters

When you upgrade your boating wardrobe with Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rated clothing, you can give your skin a break from the sun. Find shirts, shorts, pants, and jackets, hats, swimsuits, and gaiters at your favorite boating boutique. Brands like J Crew, Patagonia, Lululemon, Columbia, The North Face, and even Lily Pulitzer all offer key pieces with both style and UPF protection.

On-board sun shades

If your boat is outfitted with a Bimini top, go ahead and use it! If your boat doesn’t have a Bimini top, don’t worry, they are relatively easy to install, and are available for purchase as an after-market part, or as an upgrade when buying a boat. Check with your local marine supplier for Bimini top options. Having a refuge on board from the bright sunshine gives boaters another option, and your passengers need options! If adding a Bimini top is not possible, consider bringing a beach umbrella that will offer a shady place to fish under, picnic under, and relax under. Always remember to only deploy the umbrella when the boat is stopped, and stow the umbrella before moving on.

Too much of a good thing

Consider the effects of too much sun on your state of mind and well-being. The last thing anyone wants is a passenger (especially the boat operator) that’s completely drained or worse, from too much sun.

Heat exhaustion symptoms include:

  • Moist/warm skin, headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and fainting.
  • Heatstroke symptoms include:
  • Dry/hot skin, severe headache, bizarre/aggressive behavior, stroke, seizures, and rapid, shallow breathing.

In both cases, the first step for treatment is to remove the passenger from heat. This is another reason why a boat equipped with a source of shade is ideal. For further information regarding heat-related emergencies, visit the Red Cross link below.

Other sun-safe accessories

Protecting our eyes from sunburn caused by harmful UV rays is critical. Look for sunglasses with polarized lenses, as they will significantly reduce the glare from both the water and brilliant, white fiberglass interiors. Always wear your sunglasses during UV rays primetime hours and secure them to your body with a sunglass strap, because every day, another pair of sunglasses or hundred are washing up on shores around the world.

Yes, we know these are more items to have to pack, but outfitting the family with water shoes or flip flops will protect everyone’s tootsies from the baking hot boat deck. Boating is about fun and relaxing; minimize the potential for “owies” wherever you can.

And finally; boaters, especially in BC and Alberta, planning to explore high-altitude lakes will be even more susceptible to sunburn. The EPA advises UV exposure increases about four percent for every 1000 ft. gain in elevation. Kayak and canoe enthusiasts planning to explore Alberta’s world-famous Moraine Lake take note; its elevation is 6181 feet; a little higher than the even more famous, Lake Louise (5679 feet).

With so many options available, we can prevent the long-term effects of sun damage like pre-mature aging and skin cancer, as well as reduce potential heat-related emergencies out on the water. Now’s the time to add sun safety to your safe boating checklist for an even more enjoyable boating season.

Resources for sun safety for boaters

International Boating and Water Safety Summit
Canadian Cancer Society: sunscreen 101
Key West Votes to Ban Popular Sunscreen Ingredients To Protect Coral Reef
Hawaii: reef-safe sunscreens
Travel and leisure: sun-protective clothing first-aid tips for heat-related emergencies
Government of Canada: sun safety sunglasses highest elevation lakes Canada

Sunny places to explore

Claim your calm with three fantastic boating destinations in BC

Our top picks for boating on the best Canadian lakes


Photo courtesy: Photo by MAX LIBERTINE on Unsplash 


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