Rental boat safety best practices

If you rent boats to the public, following these best practices will help you offer a safe, enjoyable rental experience.

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About these best practices

In our goal to identify how anyone who rents pleasure craft to the public could make their business as safe and enjoyable as possible, we interviewed people interested in advancing rental boat safety. People we interviewed included:

  • owners and staff of rental boat agencies and associations
  • enforcement officials
  • insurance providers
  • boating safety practitioners

We found 10 themes that represent best practices across a broad spectrum of rental boat agency activities. Client safety was common to each.

The following tips come from seasoned rental boat agency owners. They explain effective ways to accomplish each of the 10 best practices.


Operate your rental boat business in a culture of safety, with client safety being your top priority.

  1. Let people know that their safety is your number one priority. This contributes to them having an enjoyable, accident-free experience. It also generates repeat or word-of-mouth business.

    Make safety an important part of every aspect of their rental experience. This includes:

    • visiting your website
    • meeting your staff, who are well-trained in safety
    • getting a boat in good condition
    • getting excellent dockside safety briefings
    • having clear and easy steps for getting help if something does go wrong
  2. Make sure you and your staff who provide client services, know and understand your responsibilities and federal, provincial and local obligations.

    Make it a priority to:

    • know and obey the boating laws and regulations that affect both you and your clients
    • stay informed of any changes and updates from season to season
    • be aware of any provincial or municipal requirements and by-laws for operating your business
    • carry the appropriate insurance
    • follow the advice of your insurance broker in assessing and reducing risks in your business
      • Most insurance companies require a business plan and will want to verify the safety measures you have in place to minimize risks
      • Some rental agencies have found it is best to have overall insurance for the business and make additional insurance options available for purchase by the renter


Use client-focused processes and paperwork that help identify and minimize safety risks, and protect your assets.

  1. Don’t open for business until you have an administrative system in place that protects client safety and positions you for long-term success.

    Find the tools that keep things running smoothly when the season gets busy, and that help you determine your staffing needs. For example, you’ll need to make decisions about the length of your rental season, and the number and types of boats you have available for rent.

  2. Establish clear guidelines for your clients. Include them in any promotional materials and your boat rental contracts. Consider guidelines that:
    • require clients to share personal information, such as:
      • name and address
      • cell phone number
      • emergency contact information
    • set proof of competency requirements for all motorized boats (as proof of competency for renters who do not have a PCOC, you must complete with them the rental boat safety checklist. The checklist is recommended for boaters who already have a PCOC card)
    • set minimum age requirements for renters
    • explain payment and/or security deposit requirements for the rental (and whether you accept credit card and/or cash deposits)
    • provide insurance options
    • set terms of the rental period, as well as what you include (for example, fuel, a list of safety equipment) and what you expect from the renter
    • state who needs to attend safety briefings and why these are important
    • explain rental booking procedures and confirmation
    • present specific services, policies or restrictions related to, for example:
      • towing
      • night operation
      • alcohol on board
      • multiple operators
      • lifejacket wear

The two key factors in most boating accidents are not wearing lifejackets and using alcohol. Having a strong policy about both these behaviours is an important way to minimize risks in your rental business.

The records insurance underwriters are most likely to ask to see are:

  1. Have a system that generates a proper and streamlined paper or electronic trail to track client services.
    • Provide a completed contract to the client and keep a copy for your records
    • Note that the renter received an appropriate safety briefing, or completed a rental boat safety checklist
    • Document the details of the rental boat and the safety equipment your agency provided
    • Document a client’s purchase of any onsite insurance on their rental agreement
    • Keep good administrative records on client services, staffing and equipment maintenance
      • This information will:
        • help you review, update and improve your business practices
        • give you peace of mind that you are minimizing risk of incidents and resulting claims
    • staff training records and evaluations
    • staff procedure manuals, including a detailed outline used for client safety briefings
    • completed rental agreements, proof of competency verification and documented safety briefings
    • checklists for verifying safety equipment
    • checklists for boat, engine and equipment maintenance
    • client feedback or client satisfaction survey results


Your staff knows how your boats handle, understands the hazards in local waterways and can explain these important subjects to your clients.

  1. Hire staff whose training and experience compliment the types of boats you offer for rent. While the training and qualifications you require of your staff may vary, depending on their role, they should all possess at least a Pleasure Craft Operator Card.
    • As proof of your staff’s knowledge and competency level, you may prefer they have additional training, such as:
      • certificates issued by nationally recognized boating safety organizations, or
      • certificates issued by marine training institutes
  2. Make sure the staff who maintain the fleet or give safety briefings have a good working knowledge of the boat, especially its handling characteristics. Staff should be confident in handling the boats they will hand over to clients after they give a clear safety briefing.
  3. Hire local staff who:
    • have boating experience on nearby waters, because they can pass that information down to clients
    • understand basic navigation principals
    • understand the various weather conditions that may affect your rental operations
  4. Invest time in staff training before the season starts. Training helps identify problems and issues early on, and helps ensure you provide consistent, credible and safety-focused service.
    • Give a thorough review of everyone’s roles and responsibilities, your performance expectations, and any specific job-related procedures or record-keeping requirements
    • Consider developing a staff training manual that includes all your business procedures and checklists
      • This provides a good base for the training, and for your staff to understand what they need to do in their day-to-day job
    • See if you can complement your training sessions with training videos created by the manufacturer of your specific boat, engine and equipment, or other appropriate sources

Client screening

Screen all clients for proof of competency, experience using the type of boat they want to rent and knowledge of local waterways.

  1. Ask the right questions to help assess if the client can safely operate your rental boat.
    • Find out about their boating safety training, and if they have a Pleasure Craft Operator Card or other training certificates

Remember: having a Pleasure Craft Operator Card means a person has a basic knowledge of boating safety. It does not confirm a person’s boating experience, boat handling skills, or familiarity with local waterways hazards. This is why you need to ask about these things.

    • Ask about previous boating experience and on what types of boats
    • Ask about their knowledge of the local waterways
      • This is especially important if there is a lot of activity on the water
    • Make sure your client is physically able to perform the tasks associated with operating the type of boat he or she wants to rent.
    • If your clients are from overseas:
      • Determine if there are language or special learning needs that require extra attention during a safety briefing
      • Spend extra time reviewing any lateral buoys or markings
      • This is very important because depending on where your client is from, the direction they indicate could be reversed

Safety briefings

Give all clients a basic safety briefing before they leave shore.

  1. Make your clients aware of your safety briefings and their importance ahead of time.
    • Place messages on signs at the rental location, your website, on promotional handouts and advertising, such as:
      • “We provide safety briefings to all renters responsible for operating the rental boat”
      • “For your safety, all renters must complete a safety briefing before leaving shore”
    • Encourage clients to visit your website to review your safety information, as this may save them time at the dock
  2. Tailor safety briefings for each type of boat you rent out. You can give them one-on-one, or in small groups. During the briefings:
    • Show how to operate the boat and use its safety equipment
      • This is especially important if the client has little experience with this type of boat
    • Identify potential hazards in the area clients will use the boat
    • Provide updated weather information
      • If poor conditions exist or are forecasted for the rental period, it’s a good idea to suspend service until conditions improve
    • Review what to do in case of an emergency
    • Explain how to use any communication equipment you provide and any call-in procedures specific to your operation
    • Promote and encourage key client safety behaviours, such as wearing lifejackets and not drinking alcohol
    • At the end of the briefing, you or your staff must be confident the client can actually handle the boat safely and responsibly
  3. Use a checklist as a guideline for all your safety briefings.
    • You may use Transport Canada’s rental safety checklists, or you can design your own, specific to your operation
      • If you design your own, it must meet Transport Canada criteria and address information pertinent to your area of operation
    • If your client does not already have proof of competency, use the Transport Canada rental safety checklist during the safety briefing, as it includes all the items you need to review and/or demonstrate
    • Once completed, the client must carry the checklist on board, as it serves as his or her proof of competency for the rental period
  4. Be prepared to say no.
    • You have the final say in whether or not to hand over a boat to a client
    • If you have any doubts about the client’s ability to handle a boat responsibly and safely, do not rent to that client
    • While turning away a potential client may seem bad for business, seasoned rental agencies have found renting to some clients is just not worth the risk to their companies’ liability and credibility

Local knowledge

Maintain good working relationships with other waterway businesses, users and service providers.

  1. Work to develop and protect good working relationships with other businesses and services on your waterways. These relationships can be:
    • an important source of local safety information
    • an early warning system to help identify and address common issues and concerns
    • a source of advice or help to your rental clients when they are out on the water, docking, fueling, entering or exiting locks, navigating in unfamiliar areas and so on

Example: Trent Severn Waterway, Ontario

  • Rental agency clients receive support and help from lockmasters as they enter and exit the locks
  • Rental agencies receive calls from lockmasters when the winds are too high for their clients to come through, reducing potential damage to boats and locks
  1. Access your local networks to identify information you can incorporate into your safety briefing, such as local:
    • posted vessel operation restrictions (speed restrictions or other)
    • marina “no wake zones”
    • bird nesting areas (time of year nesting-keep clear areas)
    • swimming areas (keep clear or avoid)
    • areas with locks
  2. Use a variety of methods (for example, charts, pictures, videos, maps or custom-made tools) to make it easy for your rental clients to recognize:
    • hazards and buoys
    • recommended areas of operation
    • suggested routes
    • safe pull-outs
    • safe anchorage sites
    • other local waterway information

One rental agency noted that creating a customized brochure with a chart or map showing the best channel, hazards and other key information, greatly reduced regular damage to boats and propellers.

Safety equipment

Give your clients all required safety equipment for each type of boat, with each rental.

  1. Supply all the required safety equipment for each type of boat, with each rental.
    • Verify what minimum safety equipment is required for the type and size of boat
    • Keep an inventory of safety equipment for all the types of boats you have available for rent
  2. Consider providing additional equipment that may make your clients safer and more comfortable on the water This will depend on the type of boat and area of operation.

    The most common “extras” rental agencies mentioned were:

    • Tool kit
    • spare parts
    • extra spark plugs
    • extra flashlight batteries
    • first aid kit
  3. Have a variety of styles and sizes of lifejackets and PFD’s available so clients can pick one that fits well and suits their activity. Your clients will be more likely to wear their lifejacket if it fits well and is comfortable.

Equipment maintenance

Have a system for regularly checking and maintaining the condition of all your rental boats, motors and safety equipment.

  1. Make using maintenance checklists for your boats, motors and safety equipment part of your routine. These checklists can help you keep on top of normal maintenance and identify any new issues you need to address.

    Checklists should include periodic maintenance and safety equipment checks for:

    • pre-season inspections
    • during the season (such as daily, weekly or pre-post rental)
    • end of season inspections

    Keep records of any routine maintenance and repairs.

    Here are the kinds of things most checklists include:

    • ✔ Check the hull and check for cracks or other damage and daily wear.
    • ✔ For power-driven boats, check all electrical, fuel, propulsion and cooling systems and make sure the throttle is operating smoothly and is not sticking or binding.
    • ✔ Make sure the steering is working properly.
    • ✔ Check the oil and fuel levels. A good rule of thumb for fuel is: one-third for the trip out, one-third for the return and one-third as reserve.
    • ✔ Check all hoses and lines for leaks or cracks and replace if necessary.
    • ✔ Make sure all clamps and belts are secure and in good shape.
    • ✔ Inspect, clean and replace spark plugs if necessary.
    • ✔ Check and change oil and water filters if necessary.
    • ✔ Check the battery’s charge and its fluid levels.
    • ✔ Be certain the drainage plug is in place.
    • ✔ Verify the maximum load on your boat and communicate this to clients during the safety briefing.
    • ✔ Refer to the manufacturer’s manual for periodic inspections of the boats, hull and machinery. Make checklists that are relevant to your boats and area of operation.
  2. Collect customer feedback on boat performance and operation.
  3. Check safety equipment for wear and tear following every rental. Repair or replace equipment as needed. This will help ensure the right safety equipment is always ready, available and in good condition for the right boat.

    Here are some things to check for:

    • ✔ All lifejackets are returned in good condition.
    • ✔ Lifejacket straps, clasps and zippers are still functional.
    • ✔ Throw lines, anchor lines and securing lines are still of appropriate length, in good repair and accessible.
    • ✔ Anchors have a chain and are secured properly with a shackle.
    • ✔ Paddles are not cracked and are in an easily accessible location.
    • ✔ If the vessel is equipped with navigation lights, ensure they work and are clearly visible. Have replacement bulbs and fuses available.
    • ✔ Expired marine flares are replaced as required.
    • ✔ Batteries in flashlights, cell phones and any other electronics aboard are replaced as required.

Emergency preparedness

Anticipate and prepare for the types of emergency situations that might arise in local waterways.

  1. Anticipate the potential emergencies that may arise in your rental business and have an appropriate (written) plan in place to respond to these emergency situations.
  2. Here are some helpful considerations when preparing and customizing your emergency plan:
    • Consider different emergency scenarios, such as:
      • breakdown
      • fuel problem
      • injury
      • man-overboard
      • capsize
      • grounding
      • weather delays
    • Identify a boat to be available at all times to respond to emergencies, as well as trained staff who can reach the client and provide mechanical assistance
    • Know your capacity to tow the rental boat back, or leave it secure and bring back the clients
    • Identify and discuss safe pull-out spots with the clients (should they need to pull out, stop or hold up due to weather changes or other unforeseen emergencies)
    • Identify emergency responders for your area (Coast Guard, local police or fire department)
      • Know whether they have boats to cover your area
      • Identify how to reach these emergency responders if a rescue is beyond your boat and/or training
    • Identify a dedicated phone number or VHF radio frequency used for emergencies only
      • Ensure clients can contact it any time during the rental period and expect an immediate response
      • Staff monitoring the emergency number or frequency should know how to capture key information and activate protocols for getting help
    • In remote areas where cell phones or VHF radios are not within range, have a back- up plan for emergency situations
      • You may, for example, pre-establish check-in periods ashore, provide a satellite phone, set a date and time of return, etc.
    • Use a client monitoring system, such as an IN-OUT board, that can help alert you to potential safety problems if a client does not return on schedule
  3. Keep good client records to assist if an emergency arises.
  4. Keep copies of a rental agreement, rental safety checklist and/or other appropriate documentation that includes:
    • name and address of the operator (verify through their ID)
    • number of people on board
    • description of the boat and equipment provided
    • the Pleasure Craft License number or rental boat inventory number, so the boat can be easily found in case of emergency
    • the intended area of operation and expected time and date of return
    • a documented emergency plan for what happens if the renter does not return at the agreed time or place

Emergency communication

Make sure your rental clients have an appropriate device to communicate with you in the event of an emergency, and know how and when to use it.

  1. Make sure the client has a communication tool that provides the best direct link for help in the event of an emergency.
  2. Place emergency contact information in key locations within the boat. For example:
    • with the communication tool you provide
    • on key safety equipment, such as on lifejackets and paddles
    • on the hull of the boat close to the area where the operator will be seated
    • on the rental agreement and, when you’ve used one, the rental safety checklist
  3. For remotely operated activities (those that are not in visual contact), send your clients out with at least 2 reliable forms of marine communication, such as a:
    • distress beacon
    • waterproof VHF hand-held radio
    • satellite phone
    • high-intensity flashlight or strobe light
    • air horn
    • flare(s) and/or whistle
  4. Place cell phones, satellite phones or any other form of non-waterproof device inside a plastic bag or waterproof container so clients can still operate or access them during an emergency on the water.
  5. Always explain how to use the devices and when to use them during the safety briefing. Remember to clearly explain the limitations of any communications devices you provide.
    • Cell phone coverage may be inconsistent in some areas and may not always be available when an emergency happens
    • VHF radio coverage can be very limited on inland waterways
    Note: when cell phones are your agency’s primary communication, you must know which numbers to use in your area to activate rescue services.

    For example:

    • *16 or #16 service to place a distress call directly to the Canadian Coast Guard Communications and Traffic Services
    • 9-11, depending on which agency covers your area

Our best practice promise


We operate our rental boat business in a culture of safety, with client safety as our top priority.


Our client-focused processes and paperwork help identify and minimize safety risks, and protect our assets.


Our staff knows how our boats handle, understands the hazards in local waterways, and can explain these important subjects to our clients.

Client screening

We screen all clients for proof of competency, experience using the type of boat they want to rent and knowledge of local waterways.

Client safety briefings

We give all clients a basic safety briefing before they leave shore.

Local knowledge

We have good working relationships with other waterway businesses, users and service providers who can help and support our clients.

Safety equipment

We supply all required safety equipment for each type of boat, with each rental.

Equipment maintenance

We regularly check and maintain the condition of all our rental boats, motors and safety equipment.

Emergency preparedness

We are prepared to respond to the types of emergency situations that might arise in local waterways.

Emergency communication

We make sure our rental clients have an appropriate device to communicate with us, and know how and when use it.