Federal and state regulations require that boaters have certain basic safety equipment on their vessel, starting with enough properly fitting U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation devices (PFDs) for everyone on board. To help verify you have the required safety equipment, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary provides a handy Virtual Vessel Safety Checklist of federally mandated items for boats of different sizes and types. Be sure also to consult your state’s boating safety regulations for any additional items that might be required locally.
In the unlikely event an emergency should happen while you are out boating, these basic safety items should help you to handle the situation quickly and effectively. However, there are other products, systems and services you might consider having on hand as well, in order to add an extra layer of protection. Here is a list of recommended items.
- Anchor. There are plenty of small boats that do not come with an anchor, although some states require them for boats in a certain size range. In the event of an emergency, an anchor with enough rope and/or chain to deploy at a sufficient scope for the depth of the water in your boating area can help to hold your boat safely in place until help arrives.
- Portable bilge pump. A “de-watering device” can come in handy to drain the bilge if it fills with rain, springs a minor leak or you accidentally forget to put the plug back in when you go boating. (It’s been known to happen!)
- Chart. With today’s advanced digital navigation technology, many boaters rely on a multifunction display or a charting software app for their tablet or smartphone to help plot their course. But a physical chart can be an invaluable backup. In addition, a chart can give you the “big picture” of your boating area, which a small screen can’t provide.
- Diver down flag. If anyone is going to snorkel or scuba dive from your boat, a diver down flag is an essential tool, required by law in some states, to warn other boaters to stay away from the area while divers are in the water. A diver down flag is a 20-by-24-inch red flag with a white diagonal stripe that must be flown from the highest point on your boat. Once the flag is deployed, boats are required to make a reasonable effort to stay at least 100 feet away from your boat in a river, inlet or channel, or 300 feet away in open water.
- Emergency Engine Cut-Off Switch (ECOS). In 2019, federal law began requiring boat manufacturers to install an ECOS in recreational motorboats less than 26 feet in length. In April 2021, a corresponding law took effect that requires operators of a boat equipped with an ECOS to wear the link, typically a coiled cord that clips to the driver’s belt or PFD. In the event the operator should go overboard, the link will break, automatically shutting off the engine and preventing a runaway-boat situation. If your boat does not have an ECOS and it was built before January 2020, it is not required to have one, but it’s a good idea to consider having one installed.
For an added level of security and convenience, you can consider upgrading to the 1st Mate® Marine Safety & Security System. This high-tech system utilizes wireless communication between wearable fobs, an engine hub and your mobile device, adding the capability for overboard alerts and theft deterrence to the traditional ECOS function.
- First-aid kit. A medical kit is a commonsense item to bring along when boating or on any outdoor adventure. Having one on board can give you peace of mind and help you to stay out on the water longer.
- Spotlight. Many of today’s new boats come equipped with a suite of LED lighting that includes courtesy lights to illuminate the cockpit and walkarounds. But a portable spotlight can be an important piece of safety equipment if you are planning to go boating after dark. In addition to lighting up dim areas on board, you can use it to light the way in a marina or boat ramp ashore. Look for one that has a red-light option, so it won’t interfere with the driver’s vision while the boat is underway.
- Knife. Having a sharp knife on board can prove invaluable if a rope or line should foul your boat’s propeller and you need to cut it free, or to sever the anchor line if the anchor won’t break loose. But even if you never need to use your knife in an emergency, it’s a good bet it will come in handy for things like cutting cheese and meat for snacks on board.
- Paddle. This only pertains to boats that you can propel with a paddle or oar, but if you have a small craft, this humble tool can help out in a pinch.
- Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). A smaller sibling to the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), which alerts the Coast Guard via satellite communications if a large boat or ship is in distress, a PLB is designed for personal use. In an emergency, such as a man-overboard situation, you simply press the button and the device will send your GPS position to the authorities for a speedy rescue.
- Pet PFD. If you bring your dog or cat along with you when you go boating, it’s just as important to outfit them with a properly fitting life jacket as it is to have them for your human crew. Pick a PFD with a handle that you can use to pluck your pet out of the water if the need arises.
- Snorkel mask. If you set an anchor during your trips to the sandbar or a quiet cove, it’s a good practice to dive down and make sure it’s set correctly so the boat won’t drift. A snorkel mask can help you see the anchor and rope more clearly underwater. Plus, it’s fun to have a set of masks on board for exploring the underwater world.
- VHF radio. Most boats under 65 feet, 7 inches are not required to be equipped with a VHF radio, and today, owners of smaller boats tend to rely on their cellphones instead. Since boaters don’t always remember to fully charge their phones and occasionally travel out of range of cellular service, however, a VHF radio can be a much more reliable means of communication in an emergency. The Coast Guard monitors channel 16, the international distress frequency, 24/7/365. In addition, a VHF can put you in touch with other boats in the area, increasing your chances of a fast rescue.
- Weather app. Staying on top of changing weather conditions when you are boating is one of the most important tools in any boater’s safety arsenal. Not only should you check the weather forecast before you leave the dock or ramp, but you also should bring along a means of getting updated forecasts. A VHF radio comes with weather channels you can monitor. In addition, there are many weather services with easy-to-use smartphone apps you can download today.
Most days you spend out boating are blissfully trouble-free. But it’s smart to be prepared for emergency situations just in case. Having a full complement of safety items on board brings peace of mind that you will be able to respond to any crisis that should arise in a timely and effective manner.