Make Ready for Spring Launch

Joseph Carro, U.S. Coast Guard, Boating Safety Division

Are you sitting through a frigid winter? Getting antsy for a warm, sunny day on the water? If so, take advantage of the downtime to review federal, state and local requirements for your vessel. Make sure that all required equipment is in good working order — including navigation lights, bilge pumps and ventilation blowers — before the first launch of spring. Be especially mindful to check items with expiration dates, batteries or other servicing requirements.

Consider getting a copy of  “A Boat­er’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats & Safety Tips” from the U.S. Coast Guard, Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons or your local marine retailer. Or download a copy online at It’s a handy reference during your preseason inspection.

Here are some of the items to check.
Life Jackets and Type IV Throwables. Be sure they’re in good, serviceable condition and properly stowed for easy access in the event of an emergency. Check onboard life jackets for frayed spots, broken buckles or straps, mildew and rips in the fabric covering. Inspect inflatable life jackets’ CO2 cylinders, and auto-inflate systems to be sure they are in working order and have not been deployed or used. Check throwable Type IV ring or horseshoe buoys for wear and weathering from the sun. Ring buoys are often damaged by wildlife and the elements over the winter.

Signals. Most boaters who operate in waters where visual distress signals (VDS) are required depend on pyrotechnic devices (marine flares) — either meteor, parachute, hand-held or smoke flares. Pyrotechnics need to be stored in a dry location on board. In the spring, look for any inadvertent water damage and check the expiration date. A commonly used sound-signaling device is a hand-held air horn that uses a small canister of compressed gas to operate. Check to see that the cylinder is full, and consider carrying a spare. If your vessel is equipped with an electric horn, make sure it works.

Communications Equipment. Many boaters pull out their VHF-FM radios and other electronics for the winter and store them at home. If yours spent the winter in storage with your boat, check the radio’s antenna, microphone and power connections for corrosion. And regardless of where the radio has been stored, conduct a radio check with the marina or another boater to see if the radio is receiving and transmitting well.

If you also have an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) on board, check that it’s currently registered with NOAA, that the battery has not expired and that it has no signs of physical damage. Check the date on the hydrostatic release, if it has one. Many EPIRBs also have a convenient self-test switch.

Fire Extinguisher. Fire extinguishers must be Coast Guard approved and in good, serviceable condition. Inspect fire-extinguisher gauges to make sure they are fully charged. Some extinguishers have “pop-up” charge indicators.

First-Aid Kit. Whether you have a commercially prepared first-aid kit aboard or you’ve packaged your own, be sure you have it fully stocked. Check to make sure any medicines are well within their “use by” dates. Also consider preparing a “ditch bag” to store additional essential safety gear for immediate use during an emergency.

One final note:
If your boat has been stored for the winter, check for “uninvited guests.” You may find that small animals, birds and insects have taken up residence in your boat’s ventilation system, fire-extinguisher nozzles, outboard motor discharge or just about any other small space.


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