U.S. Coast Guard, Boating Safety Division
The first launch of the year never seems to come soon enough, but if you plan ahead, you can be ready to launch as soon as the weather permits. Take time now to check the condition of your vessel and essential boating safety gear. Review federal, state and local requirements. Make sure all required equipment is in good working order, including navigation lights, bilge pumps and ventilation blowers. 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, view and download a copy online at uscgboating.org/regulations/federal_requirements_brochure.aspx. It’s a ready reference during your preseason inspection.
The list of items to look for and check should include all of the following.
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. There should be one U.S. Coast Guard–approved life jacket, of correct size and in good condition, for every person on board your vessel, so go over your equipment. Check life jackets for frayed spots, broken buckles or straps, mildew and rips to the fabric covering. Inspect the CO2 cylinders and auto-inflate systems on inflatable life jackets to be sure they are in good working order and have not been deployed or used. Inflatable jackets should also be orally inflated and checked to determine if there are any leaks in the air chambers; see the owner’s manual for how to do this properly. Check throwable Type IV ring or horseshoe buoys for wear and weathering from the sun.
If children will be on board when your boat is underway, make sure their life jackets are Coast Guard approved and provide a good, snug fit. Loose-fitting life jackets may not keep a child’s mouth and nose out of the water, or may come off completely in a sudden plunge.
Signals. Most boaters who operate in waters where visual distress signals are required depend on pyrotechnic devices (marine flares): meteor, parachute, handheld, and/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. Expired signals may be carried as backup but cannot be counted toward meeting the carriage requirement.
Navigation Rules also require sound signals when meeting, crossing or overtaking another vessel, or while at anchor or during periods of reduced visibility. A commonly used sound-signaling device is a handheld 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. Your VHF-FM marine radio is your lifeline for communicating with other boaters and rescue agencies, such as the Coast Guard. Many boaters pull their radios and other electronics out 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. Make sure the external antenna has not been damaged by storage covers or during transportation. Conduct a radio check with the marina or another boater to see if the radio is receiving and transmitting well.
If your vessel is equipped with a Digital Selective Calling (DSC) VHF-FM radio, you can make a test call to another DSC-equipped vessel. Before hitting the water is a good time to ensure your DSC radio is properly registered and your Maritime Mobile Service Identity information is up to date. If you have a global positioning system aboard, you can interface it to your DSC radio and transmit position information automatically in the event of an emergency.
If you also have an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) on board, check that it’s registered with NOAA, that the battery has not expired and that it has no damage. Some units use a hydrostatic release to ensure deployment, and these releases will display an expiration date. Many EPIRBs also have a convenient self-test switch; read the manufacturer’s instructions on how to test the unit.
Fire Extinguisher. Fire extinguishers must be Coast Guard approved and in good and serviceable condition. Inspect fire extinguisher gauges to make sure they are fully charged. Some extinguishers have “pop up” charge indicators. If you have an installed fire-extinguishing system that requires inspection, make sure the date on the tag is current.
Navigation Charts. Paper or electronic charts (preferably both) should be on board and updated to the most current editions. Check your GPS or chartplotter for proper operation.
First-Aid Kit. Check that the kit is fully stocked and make sure any medicines are well within their “use by” dates.
Ditch Bag. Consider preparing a “ditch bag” to store additional essential safety gear for immediate use during an emergency. The ditch bag should be a brightly colored, watertight bag or container (preferably floatable) and include such items as a knife, line, a first-aid kit, a survival kit, a personal locator beacon and a portable VHF-FM marine radio. The ditch bag needs to be readily accessible, customized for your boating area and small enough to pick up in a hurry.
Lanyard or Kill Switch. Just to be safe, check the operation of the engine’s “kill switch.” Run the motor and pull on the kill-switch cord to make sure the engine dies instantly.
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 any other small space.