After 20 years of service in the United States Coast Guard, I’ve had the unfortunate duty of cleaning up after unfortunate accidents on the water more times than I care to think about. The USCG and the Coast Guard Auxiliary have tons of resources to provide boaters with all the info they need to make their vessels as safe as possible, however, it will take some effort on the boater’s part to ensure their required, or otherwise, safety gear is onboard and maintained.
Everyone knows about the federally required safety gear such as PFDs, sound signaling device (whistle), fire extinguishers, visual distress signals (flares) and much more, dependent on your type and size of vessel. Even though you can look up your required safety gear online, or in a simple pamphlet (provided by the USCG) found in most marinas or tackle shops, it’s a much better option to contact your local USCG Auxiliary Flotilla. The CG Auxiliary closest to you can be located at cgaux.org/vsc. These folks will provide you with a free safety inspection of your vessel, complete with documentation of the inspection.
The CG Aux inspectors will go into a lot more detail than an actual on the water coast guard and/or state law enforcement safety inspection of your vessel. The Auxiliary boarding will go into detail on items that are federally required, as well as items that aren’t, but make a lot of sense to keep you from needing said lifesaving equipment. One example that’s simple, but most folks don’t know is, if you are inspected on the water in the daytime, the CG officers will not check your navigation lights, but the CG Aux will check them for operation and visibility requirements. The Auxiliary will also check your anchor, which is not required, but highly recommend. I’ve been involved in multiple SAR cases with people in the water due to the fact that they anchored their vessel by the stern. A few larger than normal waves come over the stern, a little current catches above the stern, and viola--the boat is swamped with water and everyone is washed out before any call for assistance can be made. With nothing to keep you afloat, as well as possible friends and family in the water, you can see how quickly a simple mistake turns life threatening.
The next important items often overlooked are operational bilge pumps, as well as operational float switches. Some boaters are almost cavalier about it, but I literally check mine every time the boat moves. I have a pair of 2000 gph pumps in the stern and another midship. I also keep a 2000 gph pump with gator clamps onboard for emergencies. It seems like overkill and isn’t cheap. Speaking of not cheap, is an EPIRB--now that is an expensive investment for something you more than likely will never use. It’s not even required for most recreational vessels, but just like the redundant bilge pumps, what would you pay for one if you found yourself needing one at night offshore?
Getting away from the expensive items, to a little thing that could make a big difference in your day, is having filed a float, or flight plan, with a couple of trusted friends or family members. If I plan on being out of cell phone range, I do this every time. It’s simple insurance; someone knows where you’re going and when you will be back. Things to pass on to them are simple enough--how many people will be onboard, details about your vessel (ie., registration numbers, size, color, and horsepower). The more details the better. If you don’t show up or contact them by the scheduled time, and they contact the Coast Guard regarding you being overdue, the Coasties will need it.
In closing, I wrote this article not because of my past livelihood (well maybe a little bit), but because I just looked through my gear and found I had a few items that needed to be replaced. No one plans on going out for a day on the water and needing a lifejacket, but you don’t put on your seat belt in the car with the intent of getting in a wreck either.
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