Boating Safety Blog
Disclaimer:   I am not a spokesperson for the US Coast Guard. For an official interpretation of regulations you must contact the US Coast Guard or other organization referenced..   More..... 

Boating Safety

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Safety Equipment: There are some items of safety equipment that you are required by Federal and State law to carry on your boat.  Some of these items may vary depending on the type of boat, and from state to state. For instance, the safety equipment needed on a canoe is not the same as an outboard motor boat or a sailboat.  Some states may require an anchor, or a paddle. You need to determine what items apply to your boat and make sure they are always on board and in a good usable condition.  See Federal Requirements For Recreational Boats

Check with your state boating law administrator for state requirements.

Lifejackets: Probably the single most important item of safety equipment you will carry.  All boats are required to have lifejackets for everyone on board.  Lifejackets must be in good usable condition and of a size appropriate for the wearer.  In other words, adults need adult sized lifejackets and children need child sizes.  You should assign specific lifejackets to a person, have them try it on, and adjust it to fit.  Lifejackets are more comfortable that way,  they won't come off in the water, and you will be more willing to wear them.  I always recommend wearing your lifejackets when you are on the boat. That way you don't have to look for them and put them on in an emergency.

Children under 13  must wear lifejackets in open boats and when on deck in boats with cabins.  See  This is the law in most states, and in states where it is not the law, the US Coast Guard requires it.

Lifejackets must be:

1.  (in the USA)  U. S. Coast Guard Approved.

2.  The proper size and fit.

3.  In good serviceable condition

4.  Readily Accessible:

Lifejackets must be readily accessible!  That is the law. This does not mean still in plastic bags, and/or stored in a locker that is hard to get at.  Keep them where you can reach them from where you are sitting.  Under your seat is a good place.  But better yet, wear them! Lifejackets are useless unless worn. It is almost impossible to get them on when you are in the water.  If you don't wear them put them on at the first hint of a dangerous situation. Inspect them regularly for wear and tear.  If they have rips, tears, oil stains, mold, mildew and so on, replace them. This is cheap life insurance.

Attach a whistle and a light or light stick to every lifejacket.  The whistle is for attracting attention, and the light is there so rescuers can see you at night.  These are not required by law, but are a smart thing to have. They make it much easier to find you at night.

The color of the lifejacket is important. This is a pet peeve of mine and not a matter of law.  But lifejackets should be a bright highly visible color.  They do come in all sorts of colors or fashionable color schemes. Hunters can get them in camouflage and I have seen them in blue jean and forest green.  Think about it.  If you are in the water do you want rescuers to see you?  How are they going to see camouflage,   or blue? International Orange was invented for a good reason. It is the most visible color to the human eye and does not occur in nature.  That is why hunters are required to wear it.  Lifejackets on commercial passenger vessels are required by law to be international orange.  Orange is best, but there are also other bright colors, yellows, pinks, reds, and others.  So you can still look fashionable and been seen. 

Types of lifejackets.  There are 5 different types of flotation devices:  Types 1, 2,  3 and 5 are  wearable lifejackets.  Type 4 is a device to be thrown to a person in the water,  such as a life ring or buoyant cushion. The buoyant cushion can also be sat on so it is immediately to hand.  For those who will be kayaking see

Type 1:  These are the bulky orange life vests typically seen on commercial passenger vessels. They have the most buoyancy, have a buoyant collar designed to keep your head out of the water and are bright international orange.  Most recreational boats don't use these, but they can. Lifejacket Tyoes


Type 2:  The horse collar type vest sold in almost every store with recreational products, and they are inexpensive . They have 20 pounds of buoyancy and are designed to keep your head out of the water.  Unfortunately they are rather uncomfortable but are usually the type included in what boat sellers call a US Coast Guard Safety Package.  I don't like them but they are better than nothing. Children typically hate them.


Type 3,  A buoyant vest that fits like a jacket.  This is the type most boaters buy.  They are comfortable and easily worn. They have 20 pounds of buoyancy but do not have a collar to keep your head out of the water.  If you go in the water and are unconscious they will not turn you you face up.

Type 4:  This is a thrown device, usually a seat cushion or buoyant ring.  It should be kept ready and have a line attached to it.  Some jurisdictions even require that a line be attached.  It does little good if you throw the device to some one, miss, and then cannot retrieve it, or you throw it to them, they grab it, and then you have no way to pull them back to the boat.

REACH, THROW! Don't Go!  Often when someone falls in the water someone else immediately jumps in to save them, especially when the person in the water is a child.  Don't!  All too frequently the life saver then drowns.  Try to reach them with a boat hook, oar, paddle or your hand if close enough.  Throw a flotation device to them, or a rope, or anything that floats that they can hang on to.  Going into the water should always be the last choice.  Children should always have on a lifejacket.  See Red Cross pamphlet on water safety.

Type 5:  Special purpose devices:  A flotation device usually designed for a specific sport or use, such as the devices worn by whitewater kayakers.  This includes work vests and some hybrids life vests.  They use both built in flotation and inflatable bladders.

Inflatable Devices.  These are either Type 3 or Type 5 depending on how much flotation they provide, and whether or not they will turn you face up.  Read the label.  More info on flotation devices at

Other flotation devices: Anything that floats can be used as a flotation device. There have been rescues of people clinging to beer coolers, seat cushions,  portable fuel tanks, and other things that float.  These do not count as flotation devices under the law, but keep in mind that they are there.  In an emergency whatever floats can save your life.  Also, remember that most boats under twenty feet in length have built in flotation.  Stay with the boat! Almost everyone who tries to swim to shore drowns.  Cold water kills!

Note: The U. S. Coast Guard is changing the above types, and going back to using word definitions such as life jacket, life vest, inflatable device, and so on.  They are still the same devices just the names have changed.  See the USCG Brochure

Stability:  Stability is the ability of a boat to stay upright, and to recover when rolled one way or the other.  On small boats, usually less than 20 feet, the human load is a big component of stability.  As the length of a boat gets shorter the human load becomes even more important.  This is why boats are rated for weight capacity and number of persons.  Shifting of weights (load) and persons can either help to stabilize the boat, or rapidly destabilize the boat, leading to capsize.  Standing up in very small boats, say 12 or 13 feet in length, canoes,  or very narrow boats can almost immediately destabilize the boat.  Sudden movements to one side or the other can also result in water entering and the boat swamping and capsizing.  Here is a link to a pamphlet the Coast Guard produced in the 1970's.  Some of the information, such as the capacity labels shown, and the rule of thumb for calculating number of persons,  are dated and no longer used, but the rest of the information is still excellent.

As I said above, the capacity labels shown in this pamphlet were those required in the early 70's.  They have changed.  See Warning Labels on

Also persons capacity is now calculated using a much different method than the one shown in the pamphlet.  The formula, Length times breadth divided by 15, is a very old rule of thumb and it was only to be used for small outboard boats under 20 feet.  It was never intended for other types of boats.  If you want to see how it is done see but this is not intended to be done by boat owners.  It is for manufacturers.

Fire extinguishers:  Boats with gasoline engines and that have any space where gasoline fumes can be trapped are required to have a fire Fire Extinguishersextinguisher. The size and type of fire extinguisher depends on the size and type of boat.   For instance; a completely open outboard powered boat with a portable fuel tank and no enclosed spaces where fuel vapors can be trapped is not required to have an extinguisher.  But it is still a good idea to have one.  Fire extinguishers must be US Coast Guard Approved (in the USA) and of the right size and type. Type means they are suitable for a certain type of fire.  Most small boats with a gasoline engine carry one B-1 type B:C Fire extinguisher.  B-1 refers to the size of the extinguisher.

Here is a link to the rules for size and types of fire extinguishers you must have; said, if you have gasoline, propane, diesel or any other flammable liquids or gases on board, it only makes sense to have a fire extinguisher. 

However:  A very important thing to remember is a small extinguisher of the size required will be expended in a few seconds.  So you need to know how to properly use one, and you may need more than one.  See,  Also it doesn't hurt to buy a larger size than required.  If you have a fire on board  first call for help.  If you do not put it out right away with the available extinguishers then it is time to abandon ship. Large vessels with inboard engines can install automatic fire fighting systems that activate automatically when the temperature rises rapidly, and suppress the fire. These systems range from small single bottles that work for single engine boats, to large complex systems for large yachts. Each system needs to be sized for the size of the engine compartment.

For more information on boat fires see; https://newboatbuilders.comboating/fires.html

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