Safety on the water is important whether you are traveling for an hour or a year. Though the list of safety items for a short trip in a small pond or river is short (often just a personal flotation device), going offshore may require a bit more planning to be properly prepared. Everyone has their must-have item, but here are some of the biggest.
Before You Go Boating
When planning for any journey, it is a good idea to figure out a route, and stay relatively close to that plan. Even adventurers have a general direction and an expected timeline. Doing this before leaving allows a chance to create a float plan, similar to a backpacking route, and to leave it with trusted friends or family on land to report to the coast guard if you have not checked in or returned by a set date. On this float plan, it is helpful for whoever is searching for you to know your planned route, expected fuel and mooring stops, number of people and physical capability (children, elderly), as well as any medical conditions and essential medications so that if you are gone longer, they can be prepared to assist you in other ways as well. Do not be too rigid with the return time as things happen both good and bad that may extend your journey. No one would want to be caught in the middle of a pod of breaching orcas and have to head home without watching because the float plan insisted that you call the rescue team one minute after you were due back. Instead, give yourself a grace period of half a day or more for a shorter trip, and one to three days on a longer trip, and call in if you can to let your float plan keepers know you are still safe but returning later than expected.
10 Boating Safety Essentials
Personal Floatation Devices
- This is one of the most essential items on any watercraft trip. There are a few rules regarding PFDs that are important to remember to ensure that they are correct for your water type. First, does the class of life jacket fit the size, type, and temperature of the water body where you are traveling? Though traveling through the open ocean in Florida may just require a life vest, you are in much better shape with a survival suit if you are traveling the same distance from land in Alaska due to the extreme water temperatures. Second, if you are offshore in a smaller boat like a kayak or outrigger canoe, does the life jacket allow you the movement you need to perform physical tasks you need? Third, do you have the correct PFD size for the size and weight of all of your passengers? One size does not fit all. Finally, do all of your passengers know when they must wear their PFD, which one belongs to them (if sizes differ), where to find them stowed, and how to properly put them on? If not, a pre-departure safety drill may be in order.
- The ability to hail ships and to be hailed is very important when boating anywhere with multiple vehicles. If you find yourself in trouble, you can often call for help long before serious rescue is needed and ensure the safety of yourself and all of your passengers. If possible, it is a good idea to have two VHF radios, and to have one that is battery powered in case your boat’s electrical system goes bad. They should be tuned to 9 and 16, emergency stations, and left on in these places at all times. This also allows other boats who find you in their way to discuss the way you plan to pass one another, and for you to hear other boats who may not have been as safety conscious calling for help. If they are close enough for a rescue, it gives you a chance to help. A cell phone is not a replacement for a radio, and will not have signal in the open ocean. A satellite phone and GPS are much more useful tools than a cell when you are away from land. Rescue is easiest if you can pinpoint your location with a GPS, and you can also use it to instantly mark a man overboard so you can turn around and retrieve someone if needed. If you are bringing them with you overboard, remember to keep these items as waterproofed as you can.
- Electronic equipment for navigation is a good idea, but it is never a bad plan to keep a paper backup of your route if you need to evacuate. This allows you to calculate a course for swimming or lifecraft paddle that is the quickest distance to land, or perhaps the quickest distance to inhabited land if this is an issue. A portable compass and a waterproof chart can do wonders in helping you to plan the quickest trip to safety.
Smoke/CO Detectors and Fire Extinguishers
- Fire is one of the most deadly things that can happen on a boat. Smoke detectors help things from getting far enough that the structure of your vessel is compromised and you cannot get safely to shore. Have your alarm batteries checked regularly, whether once a month like you do with your home or every time you leave on a trip if you boat less frequently. Have your smoke alarms serviced annually to ensure that they are in working order when you need them. If you bought the discount disposable pack from your local big box store, note the expiration date and be sure to replace them.
Ziploc and Dry Bags
- Though this seems like an odd item to keep on this list, many essentials like cell phones and towels are not waterproof. Having a way to bring everything you need without worrying about water damage is important. If you must swim or use your dinghy or life raft to return to shore, it is a good safety precaution to have everything that is not waterproof secured in a waterproof bag.
Signal Tools — Whistle, Air Horn, and Flares
- Depending on the size of your boat, these items are required by coast guard law to have on your vessel at all times. Every boat must have a way to signal other boats with sound. This can be a bell, whistle, or air horn, but there must be a way to announce your presence in poor visibility. If you are at a dead stop in a shipping lane, this is especially crucial. These items can be brought onto a life raft or with you swimming to help rescuers get a better idea of your location. If you are traveling far into the open ocean, lights attached to your life jacket for night, and dye packs for daytime are also available to help a rescue vehicle see you more clearly. Many of these items expire, so be certain to keep notes of when to replace them so they are working for you when you need them. Flares are a good way to signal a rescue vessel from a dead boat or life raft, particularly when you have no other lights. They should be used when the other boat is close enough to see you and keep sight of you, especially if it is your last. Another good way to signal a rescue is with an EPIRB, or Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon. These are standard on most commercial vessels, and usually are attached to a boat in a way that they automatically go off if they are released from their cradle. They are designed to go off if the boat goes under. Usually the EPIRB is grabbed by someone if abandoning ship, and brought aboard a life raft to help find survivors. However, it is possible to add a personal locator beacon to each life jacket as well, to be extra safe. The EPIRB has a dead spot directly at the top of the antenna, so if help is coming, never point the antenna directly at the rescue vessel, or you will disappear.
- It is always a good idea to have more than one way to move a boat, or at least the people inside of it. Sail plus motor. Motor plus oars. Large boat plus liferaft (or, in worst case scenario, dinghy). Be certain the items needed for all propulsion methods are complete and functioning before you travel. The further you are offshore, the more a liferaft becomes necessary for safety. It should be equipped with emergency rations, a positioning beacon and light if possible, should be able to handle the kind of weather and ocean conditions you plan on traveling in, and fit everyone on board. There are automatic deployment methods that can be used to open an inflatable liferaft if it goes below one fathom, but it is important to hook them correctly so that the liferaft not only inflates, it also cuts itself away from the boat if it goes under. Mistaken hookup of these systems is a common mistake that coast guard inspectors find on commercial vessels, and if the worst happens, it can be very dangerous. It is important to note that if your boat is safely floating but dead in the water, it is more dangerous to move to a liferaft. Instead, make yourself comfortable, radio or signal for help, and stay on board unless the buoyancy or safety of the larger vessel becomes compromised.
Source of Warmth
- If you do have a problem that requires abandoning ship, spending long periods of time in the water can make you hypothermic, which is as dangerous as drowning for a person. Have a source of warmth ready in your ditch bag. This can be as simple as matches and firestarter, or a beach towel or two in a waterproof bag. If in cold water, a survival suit can work as a warmth source as well.
First Aid Kit
- Keep it up to date and stocked with all the items needed for everyone’s safety. By keeping the necessary meds in one location for all passengers, it allows for a quick and safe departure if something happens. In addition to the items they regularly come stocked with, a good first aid kit also contains a pair of scissors for cutting additional fabrics into bandages, and a tube of unexpired sunscreen.
- Have a couple gallon jugs for safety on board at all times. They can be used in a million ways to keep you safe. The water can prevent dehydration when a trip goes too long and the other beverage stores have run out. It can clean a dirty wound before treatment. It can provide a coolant source to help an overheating engine limp to shore (distilled is best for this as it prevents mineral deposits in its engine). The tops of the jugs can be cut off to just above the handles to create bailers if you are taking on water. Replace these jugs once a year as they begin to take on a plastic taste, and there is always a chance you will need to drink them.
Though nothing can prevent an emergency, having a lot of forethought when it comes to safety can go a long way in keeping you prepared when something does go wrong. Many things, like fires, may be a nuisance on land but are much more dangerous on board a boat. By having everything you need to deal with prevention, correction, and evacuation, you will ensure the safety of yourself and your passengers in many situations.