Lake Superior Safety Information

Boating on Lake Superior

As more people turn to the waters of Lake Superior for fishing and boating, the importance of boating safety can't be overemphasized.

Lake Superior, the Twin Ports harbor and lower St. Louis River offer a variety of boating experience not found elsewhere on Minnesota waters. Yet, this exciting contrast of quiet backwaters, the busy international seaport and awesome inland sea requires a mastery of small boat seamanship, a thorough knowledge of piloting rules and equipment regulations, a sharp eye for the weather and the lifelong habit of safe boating practices.


Commercial Shipping
One of the many fascinating aspects of Lake Superior is the large vessels that ply the lake with cargoes of taconite heading to the steel mills down the lake or grain heading to foreign ports around the world. While they can be interesting to watch we can't overemphasize that large commercial vessels deserve every bit of respect you can give them. These 20-60,000 ton ships are difficult to maneuver, require a long distance to stop and produce a wake large enough to capsize smaller craft that venture too close. Tugs and other commercial vessels also deserve the respect of the small boat operator.

The Weather
Veteran users of the lake will tell you that when the weather turns for the worse, Lake Superior can become extremely hazardous for vessels of any size. Even in moderate weather, the lake is no place for an inexperienced or unprepared boater.

The weather can and does change suddenly on the Lake Superior and it's no place for any vessel during a storm. Even skippers of ocean-going freighters have learned to respect Lake Superior storms.

Here are some points to remember regarding weather:

  • Check the forecast before you head out and periodically during your cruise. At the very minimum you should have a portable AM radio aboard for forecast purposes. Even if you can't receive a station, the static that comes with an approaching storm will serve as a warning. Ideally you should have a VHF-FM two-way marine radio, as there are continuous weather broadcasts on its weather channels. The Coast Guard also broadcasts specific storm warnings over marine radio. A cell phone can help in a pinch, but cellular reception is spotty or non-existent along portions of the North Shore.
  • Bad weather on Lake Superior usually comes from the west or southwest. Be especially watchful in these directions.
  • Watch for lightning in addition to rough water. Remember, your boat will be the tallest point in the immediate area and could easily be hit. Sailboats are even more vulnerable.
  • Not all weather-related boating hazards come with storms. Fog can be a silent threat to boaters and is not uncommon on the lake. (June is a particularly foggy month on Lake Superior.) Never set out in a heavy fog. If you are ever trapped in fog, however, it's important to have a good compass and charts on board and know how to use them.
  • Another problem in reduced visibility is being "seen" by the radar of larger vessels and avoiding a collision. To be seen, a small boat should use a radar reflector. You can buy one or make your own using aluminum foil or any other large metallic object.


Navigating from one point on the lake to another need not be complicated. Here are some simple tips:

Obtain the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) charts of the area you'll be using and learn how to use them. They are available for purchase from the National Ocean Survey, NOAA Distribution Division (C44) Riverdale, MD 20840, or locally through many marine dealers. A catalog of Great Lakes charts is available free of charge.

GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) units have come down in price to the point where nearly everyone can afford one. But don't make the mistake of putting all your navigational eggs in one basket. Batteries go dead and electronics and satellite coverage can fail.

Always carry a compass and chart and know how to use them. A good marine compass is a must and you should be familiar with its use. However, compass deviation is common at certain locations on Lake Superior due to local iron ore deposits. You should inquire locally before heading out to determine if the area you will be using has such disturbances.

Aids to Navigation (ATON)
Aids to Navigation (ATON) Navigational aids are signposts to guide the boater. They generally consist of buoys (lighted and unlighted) and fixed lights. You should consult other sources for complete information on all aids to navigation, but here are a few general rules.

Channels are often marked with red and green "companion" buoys. They are called companion buoys because they are usually seen together. Red buoys and markers are always kept to your starboard (right) side when returning to shore or moving upstream (generally to the west on Lake Superior); and if numbered use even numbers. Green buoys are kept on the port (left) and display odd numbers. You should always stay between the red and green buoys. The numbers on the marker will also be on navigational charts so you can easily double check your position.

A red and white striped buoy topped with a red ball marks the center of a channel and should be passed closely on the right side.

Scuba Divers

The crystal-clear waters of Lake Superior make it a prime destination for scuba divers from all over the world. Divers are required to use the warning flags prescribed by law and boats not involved in the diving operation are required to keep 150 feet away and divers must stay within 50 feet (measured horizontally) from the red and white divers' flag required by state law.

On Lake Superior, a rigid replica of the federally required international code "Alfa" flag, not less than 1 meter in height (3.3 feet) must also be displayed from the diver's boat. The Alfa flag must be visible 360 degrees around the vessel and it indicates that your boat is restricted in maneuverability - it doesn't pertain to the diver. If the divers have entered the water from shore, they won't be displaying the Alfa flag, just the red and white state divers' flag.

Staying out of Trouble

Simply having the proper equipment may not be enough to keep you out of trouble on Lake Superior. Of course you want to check the weather report before heading out on Lake Superior, but there are also some things you can do to say clear of trouble once you get on the lake.

"Head Seas"; meeting waves head on
Most larger boats have a bow designed to take waves and as long as the trim and speed are properly set, they can be handled by an experienced operator in moderate to semi-severe conditions. However, open-bow boats, sometimes called "bow-riders" are at greater risk to scoop up water while meeting waves than closed-bow boats.

In heavy weather, the passengers and heavy objects like gas cans and coolers should be moved towards the centerline and as low in the boat as possible to help lower the boats center of gravity.

By zig-zagging or "tacking" through heavy waves at 15 to 45 degrees, you can lessen some of the pitching (bow and stern moving up and down) to rolling (side to side motion) which will make the ride a little more comfortable and let you run at slightly high speed. Too much rolling can induce sea sickness (yes, it is possible to suffer sea sickness on Lake Superior!) so you'll have to use your own common sense and good judgment as to what angle to take into the waves.

Too much pitching in high waves can lead to "pitch-poling". This is where the bow rides so steeply up or down a wave that it the boat actually tumbles end-for-end (remember the climactic scene in "A Perfect Storm"?)

If you tack when the waves are coming from behind you, the zig-zag course will keep the waves at your stern quarter and lessen their effects.

Heaving To
When the waves get so bad that you and your boat are taking too much of a beating and can not make headway, you should consider "heaving-to". This is a maneuver where you head right into the waves or at a very slight angle with just enough speed to keep your ability to steer (called "maintaining steerage").

Conditions of reduced visibility are one of the greatest challenges you can face on Lake Superior. Fog, rain, snow or haze make it essential for you to be seen and heard and to see and hear other boats around you. Here are some tips to help you make it back home though "thick conditions".

If conditions allow it, consider anchoring until visibility improves. Put up your radar reflectors, be sure your anchor lights are on and have at least one person watching and listening for other boats that might not see you.

Avoiding Collisions
You need to be traveling at slow enough speed where you can stop or maneuver in time to avoid other boats, rocks, floating hazards and structures. It is best if you can assign one or more of your passengers to keep a steady lookout forward. Be sure to tell them what they are looking for and to sound off nice and loud if they see - or even think they see - a hazard in your path. By stopping occasionally to listen and running the engine at low RPMs the rest of the time, you may also be able to hear fog signals, waves breaking, other boat engines and so on.

Radar is a great tool that should be used in reduced visibility conditions. However, it is not a replacement for keeping a sharp lookout. Put up radar reflectors as high as possible to enable other boats and commercial vessels to see you as far away as possible.


In time of emergency, a good marine band, VHF-FM two-way radio is worth every penny of your investment. But if you don't own a radio, there are several accepted methods for seeking help such as shooting off emergency flares or blowing rapid blasts of a horn or whistle. Another method is to stand in the bow of the boat, stretch your arms out to the sides and raise and lower them as if flapping. (Don't just wave; you may only get a friendly wave in return.)

Engine Breakdown - One of the most common emergencies is engine failure and most breakdowns result from lack of proper preventive maintenance. Attempt to make repairs yourself or seek assistance from craft around you. After exhausting these possibilities, signal for help.

Boat Sinking - If your boat swamps or springs a leak, in most cases it will still float even when full of water, so stay with it. (You should know your boat's flotation capabilities before venturing out; check with the manufacturer or dealer.)

First, find out where the water is coming from. Attempt to plug leaks with anything handy - a towel, shirt or cushion - and begin to pump or bail. If this fails, signal for help. Most boats today have built-in flotation, so staying with it makes sense. You will be easier to spot by search teams and will be able to keep more of your body out of the cold water. Researchers have found that cold water saps body heat about 25 times faster than air of the same temperature so keep as much of your body out of the water as possible.

Hypothermia (exposure) is an ever-present danger on Lake Superior. It is a lowering of the body's core temperature caused by immersion in cold water (less than 70 degrees F.) or, out of the water, by a combination of wet, cold and windy weather. If your inner core temperature drops more than 20 degrees F., death will soon follow.

Except for shallow bays and beaches, the water temperature in the lake seldom reaches 55 degrees F, (13 C) even during the hottest summer weather. Should you fall in, even at this temperature, your survival time without a life jacket would, on the average, be less than two hours. There are certain steps you can take to increase survival time:

  • Wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket when you are on the lake. We can't overemphasize that wearing a life jacket will give you a better chance of survival after an accident. (Life jackets are now designed to be practical and stylish, some as fishing vests and full-sleeved float coats.) If you do fall in, a life jacket will not only float you, but will help retain body heat, particularly the vest and full-sleeved models using polyvinyl foam for flotation. Brightly colored life jackets, especially yellow and orange, are much easier to spot from the air or from a distance than more muted colors.
  • If you do fall into the water, try to climb back in or on top of your craft. The more of your body you can get out of the water the better off you are. Water saps body heat much more quickly than air of the same temperature. In addition, you will be easier to spot by anyone searching for you if you are on a large object floating in the water.
  • If you can't climb back in your boat and you are wearing a life jacket, curl your body by tucking your knees and keeping your arms closer to your sides. This will decrease loss from the three highest heat loss areas of the body, the head, ribcage and groin, and double your survival time.
  • Do not swim unless there is no hope of help arriving and you are less than a mile from shore. The average swimmer wearing a life vest isn't capable of swimming much more than a mile in 50-degree water before succumbing to hypothermia.

Treatment for Hypothermia
If you rescue someone who has been in the water for any length of time, use care in rescue to avoid being pulled in yourself. Seek treatment for them immediately unless they have only been in the water for a few minutes. Replace their wet clothing with dry.

If the victim is conscious, give hot, sweet drinks. Under no circumstances should alcohol be used, since it speeds up the heat loss of the body.

If semi-conscious or worse, try to keep the victim awake. If there is difficulty in breathing, insure an open-air passage. Administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation if breathing stops altogether.

Treat hypothermia victims gently. Research reveals that rough handling can cause ventricular fibrillation, a condition in which the heart's ventricles contract in rapid and unsynchronized rhythms and cannot pump blood into the body leading to death.

Re-warm the victim by the best possible method, utilizing body-to-body contact in a sleeping bag with several people to alternate as "re-warmers. If using body to body re-warming, there should be two re-warmers, making a "sandwich" with the victim as the middle. A heated room or boat cabin or, if possible, a warm (not hot) 105 degree-110 degree F bath, leaving the limbs out. The idea is to rewarm only the torso of the victim first. If the arms and legs are rewarmed at the same time, cold blood trapped in the extremities can rush back to the heart causing ventricular fibrillation. Seek immediate medical attention for all but the most minor cases of hypothermia.

If a storm hits and you are unable to reach shore, some emergency procedures to remember are:

  • Put on your life jacket (you should really wear it all the time).
  • Head for the closest shore.
  • The bow of the boat is designed to take waves, so head into them at an angle.
  • Reduce your speed to keep headway and lessen the pounding on the boat.
  • Seat all passengers as low and as close to the centerline of the boat as possible.
  • Keep the boat free from water by bailing or using a bilge pump.

If your motor fails, trail a sea anchor on a line from the bow to keep it headed into the waves. A bucket or a shirt with neck and sleeves knotted together will do in an emergency.

Use simple rescue techniques to avoid endangering yourself. Often a rope, life jacket, oar or the boat itself (be careful of the propeller) can be used to easily rescue someone who has fallen overboard. Only as a last resort should you enter the water to retrieve a victim and then only with when wearing a life jacket.

First put on your life jacket if you don't have them on already. Keep the fire downwind. If the fire is aft (to the rear), head the boat into the wind. If the fire is forward, put the stern or back of the boat into the wind. This keeps the fire from spreading. Act promptly to extinguish the flames. Aim the extinguisher at the base of the fire, while sweeping back and forth.

Float Plan
This plan for boaters is similar to the flight plan filed by airplane pilots. It need not be formal or lengthy, but should contain such items as name, boat number, whether you have a radio on board, where you're going and when you'll return. It is designed to help the Coast Guard or other search-and-rescue units locate you if you're overdue. Leave the plan with the marina operator, or relative or friend and tell them who to call if and when you are either overdue or an emergency arises.

Considering the number of persons involved and the fairly low rate of accidents, boating and fishing on the Great Lakes are basically safe pastimes. But that doesn't mean that you couldn't have an accident through your own or someone else's ignorance of these basic safety rules. As a boater or fisherman, you have an obligation to yourself, your passengers and other boaters to increase your basic knowledge through boating classes and other publications and programs.

Visual Distress Signals - Federal Requirement

*Lake Superior is the only body of water in Minnesota that requires Coast Guard approved Visual Distress Signals (VDS). There are a number of different types of VDS including pyrotechnics; smoke, hand held flares, aerial flares and parachute flares), electronic (flashing light that automatically signals "SOS" and flags.

Pyrotechnic devices must be Coast Guard approved, in serviceable condition and readily accessible. They are marked with an expiration date. After that date they may still be carried as extra equipment, but they are no longer counted toward meeting the visual distress signal requirement since they may be unreliable. Pyrotechnics are acceptable for both day and night use, and a minimum of three a required.

Non-pyrotechnic devices must be in serviceable condition, readily accessible and certified by the manufacturer as complying Coast Guard requirements. They include:

Electronic devices, which are acceptable for night use only, are basically a strobe light that automatically flashes the international distress signal of "SOS" (. . . - - - . . . ) and the orange distress flag which is good for day use only

Requirement by boat size and type:

Boats with no motors regardless of length:

  • Day Use - none required
  • Night Use - three required

Less than 16 feet:

  • Day Use - none required
  • Night Use - three required

Open sailboats less than 26 feet with no motor:

  • Day Use - none required
  • Night Use - three required

Over 16 feet - needs both day and night even if only using boat during daylight hours.

  • Night Use - three required

Requirements Satisfied With:

Day Use
Any combination of three or more pyrotechnic or one orange distress flag (at least 3 x 3 with a black square and ball on an orange background) or three orange floating and/or hand-held smoke distress signals

Night Use
One USCG approved electric distress light


Meets both Day and Night requirement (any combination adding up to three)
Three red hand-held distress signals or
Three red parachute flare distress signals or
Three red hand-held rocket-propelled flare distress signal or
Three red aerial pyrotechnic flare distress signal (gun-type)

The Head

The proper term for a toilet on a watercraft is "head" or Marine Sanitation Device (MSD). Porta-potty type heads are allowable as well, so long as they are installed to prevent waste from spilling or being dumped into the lake.

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