As a first time boater, what should I consider before heading out? I want to be ensure that I am prepared. Any links to checklists would be helpful where I can find additional material.
Great question! Check out this article -> https://www.westmarine.com/WestAdvisor/Safe-Boating-Checklist
You can never be too prepared for an emergency and you should consider the specific conditions you may encounter before you head out on your voyage including:
Water temperature: Few environments in the world are as dangerous to humans as cold water. If you operate your boat in the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes or in other cold-water regions, bring gear that protects you and your crew from hypothermia.
Poor visibility: High quality navigation lights, sound signals and radar units can lessen the danger of low visibility conditions like fog or rainsqualls.
Distance from help: If your cruising route includes the coast of Mexico, Bermuda or a trip to Hawaii, you'll be far from the convenience of your local boating supply store and far from the security of the US Coast Guard. The need to be self-sufficient is greatly increased away from inland and coastal US waters.
Rapidly changing weather conditions: Many boating areas are subject to squalls or other fast moving weather systems that can stir up trouble in a hurry. Boats operating in these areas should have gear aboard which can be used defensively, like larger anchors, lightning detectors and grounds, mainsail reefing equipment, drogues and sea anchors.
Rough seas: Many areas, like San Francisco Bay in the summer, have consistently strong winds and heavy chop. That makes for great sailing, but also raises equipment requirements for sailboats and powerboats alike.
I agree, always be prepared. Even consider having a Satellite Messenger, such as: