Safety Check

The U.S. Coast Guard requires specific safety equipment for all vessels regardless of length or power. All too often and over time it ends up being left in the garage, falls out of date or simply gets neglected after a few years owning the boat.

Next time out, spend a few minutes poking through the compartments, holds and hatches and take a safety inventory, starting with personal flotation devices or PFD's. One is required for each person aboard. Most states require children under age 13 wear a (properly fitting) PFD at all times while on deck. My kids have never fallen overboard but do have the distinction of falling off the dock! So, they get to wear it from the car too. Lucky them.

An easy way to ensure you're always covered is to have the same number of PFD's aboard as the maximum passenger capacity rating placard. PFD's can be any combination of the not so stylish and very uncomfortable blaze orange "key hole" (Type I, II) devices or the more comfortable Type III ski vest style device. Wearing a PFD is always required while riding on or operating personal water craft or being pulled behind a boat while skiing or tubing. Also consider that most boating fatalities are the result of drowning because a PFD wasn't worn. They really do save lives.

Every boat is also required to have a (Type IV) "throwable" PFD. With smaller boats these are often a square "seat cushion" variety with nylon handles. Larger vessels will carry a ring or horseshoe type buoy. Keep it "readily available" so that it can be tossed to someone that falls overboard.

Distress signaling for day and night is another safety requirement. Three, handheld flares is the most common method of fulfilling both. Flares are only good for 42 months from the date of manufacture (and stamped on the side) so be sure to check the dates. An orange distress flag and automatic SOS signal light can be used in lieu of flares and are safer with small children aboard.

All vessels need an efficient "sound producing device." Electronic, compressed gas or mouth-blown horns can all meet this requirement. Horn signaling is required by law in specific limited visibility and navigation circumstances, such as dense fog or narrow river channels for crossing and overtaking.

Outboard boats over 26 feet and all inboard engine boats need a type BII fire extinguisher. If you have a BBQ or galley, it's a good idea to have an extinguisher near the engine compartment and another where you cook. Also, I don't recommend buying a no-gauge boat store cheapie to simply meet minimum requirements. On that very slim chance it would ever be put to use it, you definitely want it to work.

Double check that your engine compartment ventilation ducting is free from obstructions like spider webs and leaves. If in doubt, use the exhaust side of a shop vac or a leaf blower to clear it out. Also ensure the ventilation blower always works without hesitation and use it every time before you turn the key. Gas fumes and sparks don't mix well on boats.

Finally, check the running lights, red and green forward and white aft. Be sure they shine brightly and always turn them on at dusk. Taking a few minutes to perform a safety inventory will not only ensure Coast Guard compliance, but a safe day on the water as well.

If you are unsure of just how you stand, contact our local Power Squadron unit for a free safety inspection. For one or two missing items, consider your dockside chandlery before shopping at a big box boating store. Boat safe and have fun.

Jonathan Bloom is a USCG licensed Master and ASA certified sailing instructor. He can be reached via

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