Waterfront and Boating

This is an excerpt from the Special Needs and Disabilities Inclusion Toolbox being developed by the National Special Needs and Disabilities Committee (NSNDC). The Toolbox will replace the 2007 Scouting for Youth with Disabilities Manual.

Sailing Logo

Every willing Scout should have opportunity to get in and onto the water and have fun. Opportunities for recreational time on the water are especially important for Scouts with disabilities so they can enjoy camp, try new things, and cool off on hot days.  While techniques discussed here can be applied to watercraft instruction time like merit badge classes, this module focuses on the less structured recreational time.

The waterfront program area has a natural advantage over other camp program areas. The most widely effective accommodation for Scouts with disabilities in boats and in open water is wearing a personal flotation device (PFD).  Since PFDs are required for almost every activity in a natural body of water, no extra equipment or planning is required for many Scouts with special needs or disabilities.

The waterfront program area is  more complex than some other program areas. There is a wide variety of watercraft that can be used and there may be aquatics play structures and fishing areas located in or near boating areas. Non-powered craft include canoes, kayaks, rowboats, paddleboats, small sailboats, and standup paddleboards. Motor powered craft include “Jet Ski®” personal watercraft (PWC), motorboats, and pontoon boats. Each type of watercraft has its own procedures and sequences for launching, propelling, steering, and landing that need to be taught and adhered to.

Since passing the BSA swim test is a prerequisite for the watercraft merit badges, we tend to assume that a Scout that can pass the swim test can do everything else it takes to operate a watercraft.  The swim test is not a clean dividing line.  Some people who could not complete the swim test, like a person with lower body paralysis, could successfully paddle, row, sail, or drive.  There are also people who can physically complete the swim test and all the actions needed for boat handling, but need extra instruction or time to learn the skills of boating or need a mature person in the boat as a buddy to assist with decision making.


Some Scouts have disabilities that are more obvious, like many physical disabilities, blindness, deafness, or Down syndrome.  For every obvious disability you encounter, there will be several Scouts with less obvious special needs like learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, or anxiety disorders.  Camp is exciting and challenging, and over the course of a multi-day camp session, Scouts with disabilities may tire out or act out more as time goes on.  Some Scouts with milder special needs may start camp without needing accommodations but begin to need them later on.

The Scouts that come to participate at the waterfront do not often identify themselves to the staff as having a special need.  The key thing to remember is, if a Scout is making errors in following instructions or rules,it could easily be due to a special need or disability rather than lack of knowledge or disobedience.  If you take a little time to interact with the Scout directly, you can get a sense of whether and what kinds of extra help will be needed.

If you have a question or concern about an individual Scout and want to know more about him or her, reach out to the adults from the Scout’s unit.  First, look around your program area. In some instances, a family member, caregiver, or unit leader is discreetly watching their Scout from a distance.  Feel free to approach them while someone else on your staff watches over the Scout.  Otherwise you will have to track down an appropriate adult.  If you won’t be able to leave the waterfront during “business hours,” you can try to catch the Scout’s unit leaders at the next mealtime or use your camp commissioners to reach out to the leaders and ask them to come to see you at the waterfront.

Swimming logo

Mobility Access to the Water’s Edge

It is rare for a camp to have a wheelchair accessible path all the way to the water’s edge.  Users of wheelchairs and crutches often need vehicle transportation from the central area of the camp to the waterfront. Local conditions, like the steepness of the shoreline, vary too much to give specific advice, but it is worthwhile to think through in advance how the waterfront staff will generally transport such a Scout from the last accessible point to the water and into a boat.  If the Scout must be physically carried, take guidance from the Scout, family member, or caregiver on the most comfortable and safe way to do so.

Wheelchairs and other mobility equipment need to be shaded or covered while the user is in the water.  Direct sun can make the surfaces hot enough to burn.  This is particularly important because some people with physical disabilities also have nerve conditions where they cannot feel heat and/or pain and will not know they are being injured.

Including Nonswimmers and Beginner Swimmers

For activity afloat, those not classified as a swimmer are limited to multiperson craft during outings or float trips on calm water with little likelihood of capsizing or falling overboard. They may operate a fixed-seat rowboat or pedal boat accompanied by a buddy who is a swimmer. They may paddle or ride in a canoe or other paddle craft with an adult swimmer skilled in that craft as a buddy. They may ride as part of a group on a motorboat or sailboat operated by a skilled adult.

From Safety Afloat – Point 3 – Swimming Ability

To restate this in the affirmative, Scouts of any ability level may go out in small boats.  They do not have to pass the BSA swimmer-level test first.  They may learn to paddle, row, and operate boats if they are willing and physically able to do so. With precautions, Scouts may go out in boats even if they cannot paddle, row, or pedal.

As we will discuss later, you may need to make individualized adjustments to allow a Scout or adult with a special need or disability on the water.  Some examples are:

  • Equipment modifications like adding backrests, securing the Scout into the seat on larger boats, increased flotation aids, etc.
  • An increased level of skill for the Scout’s buddy.  This could be aquatics skill, demonstrated by merit badges or certifications, or it could be maturity and decision-making.
  • A three-person buddy group where one of the buddies could focus attention on the Scout with the disability after an overturn.
  • Improving the supervision ratio for the activity as a whole, using aquatics staff and other qualified adults and or support boats.

Be creative. These adjustments might require deviations from BSA Aquatics rules and procedures or deviations from the traditions of the camp.  Remember that there is a decision framework (flowchart) in the BSA Aquatics Staff Guide for you to use to meet the objective of safety when not every rule can be followed.  It is reasonable to compensate for one rule that needs to be relaxed by making another procedure more restrictive.