Written by Robert Talley, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.
For the most part, we go out on the water to get somewhere or to just have fun. Either way, a successful and enjoyable trip includes having good equipment and knowing how to use it, knowing where to go and what to stay away from and being ready for emergencies. An annual vessel safety check is an excellent way to prepare for time on the water. It is completely free and voluntary, will help ensure compliance with regulations and might help avoid a tragedy.
To help you get a better idea of what exactly happens during a vessel safety check, you can ask yourself the following questions.
Is the boat registered with the state or documented with the federal government? Registration numbers or vessel name and hailing port should be easily visible on the hull. Federal regulation calls for a vessel’s registration numbers or, if federally documented, the vessel’s name and hailing port need to be permanently attached to the hull. The size and placement of these markings are important so the vessel can be more easily identified and may help locate a missing vessel.
Is there at least one life jacket for every person onboard while underway? Life jackets must be Coast Guard approved and of the correct size and type for the passengers onboard. They must be in serviceable condition and stored so they are readily accessible. Bright colors are best. Attach a whistle to each device. Adjust them to fit passengers before leaving the dock and make sure passengers know where they are kept. Of course, the Coast Guard recommends wearing your life jacket at all times and having your passengers do the same.
Are there at least three unexpired flares or other approved visual distress signals? It is important to know that pyrotechnic devices like flares have expiration dates. Be sure to carry at least three unexpired flares, keep them dry and have them easy to access and ready to take with you if you need to abandon your vessel. Should you need to use them because you are in danger, use expired flares first. Never aim aerial flares at another vessel or rescue aircraft but fire them when and where you think they are most likely to be spotted by other vessels to improve the chance of being seen.
Are there enough fire extinguishers aboard? They must by U.S. Coast Guard approved for marine use, have sufficient charge and be in good and serviceable condition. They should be strategically mounted in galleys, companionways and where fire might block a path of escape. Wherever fires are most likely, be ready with an extinguisher!
What do you have aboard for fire control? To help prevent fires, vessels with inboard gas engines must have approved backfire flame control devices to safeguard against flames escaping from the carburetor. Use a blower for at least four minutes after fueling with gas to clear gaseous fumes out of the engine compartments before starting the engine. And, speaking of fire safety, batteries should be secure, have contacts covered and not be overloaded.
What kind of lights do you have aboard your boat? Make sure navigation lights are working before leaving the dock and have spares bulbs available. These are required at night and anytime there is reduced visibility such as fog. Navigation rules also call for sound producing devices to accompany your navgation lights. You need to know the rules regarding different required sound signals to alert other vessels to your location and vessel activity.
What else do I need to be safe on the water? Have at least one working marine radio. Make sure the bilge pump is working and there is a bucket as a backup. Have an anchor with enough line for the area and conditions. Have marine charts and a compass. Know the area you are boating in and check weather and sea forecasts before getting underway.
At the end of the day, a vessel safety check verifies the equipment aboard your boat meets the federal and state regulations. These are only the minimum items required for safety on the water. The check also focuses on being prepared through better equipment, planning and knowledge. Learn something new whenever you can through classes and conversations. Stay Safe!