Before Frank Jennings' boys were in kindergarten, they knew how to call in a Mayday from the boat's radio. They'd learned every inch of their dad's boat, including where all the emergency gear was stored.
He wasn't being overcautious. A U.S. Coast Guard chief petty officer, he'd seen too many boating disasters that could have been avoided by some simple safety measures. He'd seen instances where young children had saved their parents by using the radio.
With 75 million Americans expected to take to the waters this summer in all kinds of boats, it's time for a few basic safety lessons.
Start with insisting that the kids wear life jackets. Just having them in the boat isn't good enough.
"It's like having a seat belt in the car and not wearing it. It won't do you any good," says David Pilvelait, spokesman for BOAT/U.S., the nation's largest organization of recreational boaters.
If the kids balk at wearing them, tell them that 80 percent of the people who die each year in boating accidents drown because (( they weren't wearing life jackets. Members of the Coast Guard always wear them in moving boats, says Mr. Jennings.
"A life vest will keep a child afloat until someone can fish him out," he explains. It will also keep an unconscious person's head above water. And because the life vests are bright colors, they make a child -- or adult -- in the water easier to spot.
Parents and kids who plan to be boating this summer would do well to take a low-cost safety course beforehand. (Call BOAT/U.S. at  336-BOAT to find an approved course.) There are some 18,000 offered around the country.)
That goes for some lessons on operating boats, too.
Here are some other tips:
* Teach the kids to stay with the boat if it capsizes. They should try to get on top of the boat, where they'll be less cold than in the water.
* Always get a weather forecast before getting under way. Change your plans if the water is too rough or a storm is approaching.
* If the kids are heading out alone, insist that they stay within
sight of shore and keep your eyes on them.
That's true if the kids are hitting the beach too, lifeguards say. "We get 200 lost kids a week just at our one beach," says Bill Richardson, retired Huntington Beach, Calif., marine safety captain and president of the 8,000-member U.S. Lifesaving Association.
Mr. Richardson's biggest concern: kids -- and adults -- who swim in areas that aren't guarded. Just as boaters need to check conditions before heading out, Mr. Richardson says kids must be lTC taught to ask lifeguards about always-changing water conditions when they first arrive at the beach. "There are different hazards at different beaches," he explains. "The best way to get that information is from the lifeguards."
Lifeguards worry most about the 8-to-10-year-old set on the beach. They're risk-takers," he explains, "and they're more potentially likely to get into trouble."
To keep that from happening, the Lifesaving Association encourages youngsters to take part in the Junior Lifeguarding programs across the country. (Write the U.S. Lifesaving Association, P.O. Box 366, Huntington Beach, Calif. 92648, for information about local programs.)
Some other beach safety rules:
* Never let the kids swim alone.
* Never let them dive if they can touch the bottom or can't see it.
* If they're riding the waves, they should put their hands out in front of them to protect their head and neck.
* Get off the beach the minute you see lightning. "Lightning can strike on the beach as well as in the water," explains Buzz Moock, who oversees a staff of 65 as head of the Cape May, N.J., beach patrol.
* Swim parallel to shore, not back to it, if you get caught in a strong rip current or undertows. These currents tend to be narrow, lifeguards explain, so it's possible to swim out of it but nearly impossible to fight it back to shore.