Do-it-Yourself: Safety Equipment

By Tom Burden, Last updated 2/13/2018

Most new boats arrive from the factory with the equipment to meet the minimum Coast Guard safety requirements, and not much more. Of course, there may be a suite of electronics with all the latest WiFi, Bluetooth and "smartboat" tech, a telescoping boarding ladder, comfortable cockpit cushions, color-coordinated fenders, and everything else needed to dazzle the customer at the boat show, but there is a lot of safety gear that is not included. What else should you purchase?

Coast Guard Required Equipment

USCoast Guard/Transport Canada Minimum Equipment Requirements for Recreational Vessels
Boat Length
in Feet
Less than 16'
canoes, kayaks
16' to 26'
26' to 40'
40' to 65'
65' to 165'
Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) One Type I, II, III or V per person. PFDs must be CG approved, wearable by the intended user and readily accessible. One Type I, II, III or V per person plus one Type IV throwable. PFDs must be Coast Guard approved, wearable by the intended user and readily accessible.
One B-I, any type. Fire extinguishers required on boats with enclosed engine compartments (not outboards), enclosed living spaces or permanent fuel tanks. One B-II or two B-I One B-II and one B-I, or three B-I Up to 50 gross tons:
one B-II 50 to 100 gross tons:
two B-II
With Fixed System No Portables Required One B-I Two B-I or one Class B-II
Visual Distress Signals Night signals required when operating at night; date of manufacture must be within 42 months of the current date. Pyrotechnic Signals: Minimum of three-day use and three-night use or three day/night combination pyrotechnic devices. Non-pyrotechnic substitutes: one orange distress flag (day-use) and one electric SOS signal light (night-use). Pyrotechnic signals must be have a manufacture date within 42 months of the current date.
Sound Producing Devices Horn or whistle recommended to signal intentions or signal position. One bell and one whistle or horn required to signal intentions or position.
Navigation Lights
Under Power Sidelights, Stern Light and Masthead. Sailboats operating under engine power are considered power driven and must follow the "Under Power" rules. During the day, motorsailing vessels are required to fly a motoring cone. Boats under 20m can substitute a single bi-color light for sidelights. Boats under 12m may combine the masthead and stern light into a single "all-round" light.
Under Sail Sidelights and Stern Light. Sailboats operating under engine power are considered power driven and must follow the "Under Power" rules. During the day, motorsailing vessels are required to fly a motoring cone. Sailboats under sail and rowboats under 7m and under 7 knots can substitute a white lantern or torch in place of the required lights. Boats under sail under 20m can substitute a tri-color light for separate sidelights and stern light.
Rowing Same as "Under Sail"
At Anchor All-round light, 2nm (at night) or black anchoring ball (during the day) when outside a designated anchorage.
Visibility Range 1nm Sidelights, 2nm all others 3nm Masthead, 2nm all others 5nm Masthead, 2nm others
Backfire Flame Arrestor One Coast Guard-approved device on each carburetor of all gasoline-powered engines built after August 1980, except outboard motors.
Ventilation Coast Guard-standard system required on gasoline-powered vessels with enclosed engine compartments built after August 1980.
Marine Sanitation Devices Vessels with installed toilet facilities must have an operable, Coast Guard-certified Type I, II or III Marine Sanitation Device (MSD). Subject to local laws! Type II or III MSD only
Pollution Regulation "Honor system" (no plaques required) 5" x 8" Oil Discharge placard and 4" x 9" Waste Discharge placard. 5" x 8" Oil Discharge placard and 4" x 9" Waste Discharge placard. Vessels 40' and longer with a galley must have a Waste Management Plan.
Navigation Rules Familiarity with rules recommended A copy of The Inland Navigation Rules ("Rules of the Road") must be kept on board.
Additions to these requirements are prescribed by some individual state laws. Check your state's Boating Safety Handbook for a complete list.

The Rest of the Gear We Recommend

As representatives of West Marine, we're tempted to present an extensive list of "must have" equipment. As boaters ourselves, who have experienced the "sticker shock" of purchasing a new vessel, we know how the extras can add up to a lot of cash. We'll therefore try to take a moderate approach, and suggest some key safety products you will want. Helping you equip your new boat with what you really need is good customer service, good for our bottom line, and good for promoting safety on the waterways.

Numbers tell the story

In 2016, the Coast Guard counted 4,463 accidents that involved 701 deaths, 2,678 injuries and approximately $49 million dollars of damage to property as a result of recreational boating accidents. Most boating fatalities—over half of all cases—happen because a vessel capsizes or somebody falls overboard. Of those who drowned last year, 84 percent were not wearing a life jacket. In most states children are required to wear a Personal Flotation Device, but adults can use their discretion, and many boaters choose to leave the PFD sitting in a locker. When an emergency happens, the PFD in the lazarette is useless.

The solution? Invest in a comfortable PFD appropriate for your type of boating and wear it every day. We see an extensive selection of unobtrusive PFDs are on the market, and we especially like inflatable life jackets. Lower priced models like the West Marine Inshore PFDs are available with 25.5lb. of buoyancy, instead of the 35lb. coastal or offshore versions. These streamlined, lightweight vests are perfect for inshore boating on lakes and rivers, don't inhibit your movement, and are available in automatic, manual and manual beltpack activation.

Safety Equipment

Lifesling2 is the most widely-accepted method to get an overboard crew member back aboard your boat.

The Lifesling product range

If boaters go overboard with or without a lifejacket, getting hoisted back aboard is the most daunting challenge. Extensive testing of Crew Overboard Recovery gear in San Francisco Bay produced a clear consensus that one product, the Lifesling, is a great device for getting a person back to the boat and aboard safely. The Lifesling2 includes a flotation collar (a hybrid of a traditional horseshoe buoy and a helicopter rescue sling) with 125' of floating retrieving line. It can be towed to the victim so they do not need to swim after it, and then used as a lifting sling (using a separate hoisting tackle). The Lifesling Inflatable combines these capabilities with the compactness and throwability of a rescue throw rope bag, inflating instantly on hitting the water.

Coast Guard safety inspection results

Communication, or the inability to contact rescuers to get assistance, is also a problem. When the Coast Guard Auxiliary performs free boating safety equipment checks, they have found VHF radios to be the most common missing piece of recommended safety gear (missing from 33 percent of the inspected boats). A VHF is one of the key safety items onboard, and especially now with Digital Selective Calling. DSC is like 911 for your boat—better in fact, because rescuers have the technology to determine exactly who and where you are, and sometimes the exact nature of your emergency. But to make DSC work, boaters need three things: a DSC-equipped VHF, a connection to a GPS receiver (to pinpoint your position so rescuers can find you), and to register for a free MMSI Number (so they know who you are). Push one red button on your radio, and it automatically sends a distress message to everyone within radio range.

Safety checks also reveal that many boats are equipped with bilge pumps that are not sufficient to handle a real emergency. The common fallacy is that small boats require small pumps and big boats need big pumps, and the facts support the reverse conclusion. A small runabout, with a very limited volume of interior hull space, can afford to ship only a limited quantity of water (like one decent sized wave) before engines or batteries are submerged and a real emergency occurs. Since a typical outboard or I/O with engine failure naturally turns broadside or stern-to the waves, a disabled vessel presents its most vulnerable face at the worst time. That's why we advise our customers, when replacing a pump, to buy the biggest model that fits the hoses in their boat. Centrifugal pumps are cheap, and upgrading from 360 to 800 gallons per hour (with the same 3/4" ports) is almost a no-brainer.

A lack of adequate ground tackle, either no anchor at all or a system without the scope or weight for the local conditions, has caused many boats to end up on the rocks. For smaller boats with less rigorous anchoring requirements, anchor and rode packages are economical. We test anchors frequently, and completed a series of tests in 2007 with representatives from SAIL, Yachting Monthly, and Power & Motoryacht magazines. After dozens of anchor tests in the past, this was by far our best-documented and instrumented test. We used a 10,000lb. load cell, which read in 2lb. increments, linked to a computer running Excel. We had cameras, GPS receivers, lots of observers, and a powerful boat with a very capable captain. The Fortress aluminum anchor once again achieved spectacular numbers. We were also very impressed by the “roll bar” anchors, including the Manson Supreme.

Many boats that venture offshore carry an EPIRB, a satellite beacon to summon rescue during a life- or vessel-threatening emergency. Less expensive and pocket-sized versions, called Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs), are available and can mobilize Search and Rescue assistance anywhere on land or water. PLBs can go along in a dinghy, and on backpacking, cross-country skiing or river rafting trips. While an EPIRB protects the boat, a PLB ensures the boater's personal safety. 

Equip for the conditions

In conclusion, these are the conditions where we encourage you to upgrade to higher performance safety products:

Cold water: few environments in the world are as dangerous to humans as cold water. If you operate your boat in the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes or in other cold-water regions, offer gear that protects them from hypothermia.

Poor visibility: things get challenging in a hurry in foggy areas, rainsqualls or at night, with a far greater need for radar reflectors, radar, quality navigation lights and sound signals.

Distance from help: if your cruising route includes the coast of Mexico, Bermuda or a trip to Hawaii, you'll be far from the convenience of your local boating supply store and far from the security of the US Coast Guard. The need to be self-sufficient is greatly increased away from inland and coastal US waters.

Rapidly changing weather conditions: many boating areas are subject to squalls or other fast moving weather systems that can stir up trouble in a hurry. Boats operating in these areas should have gear aboard which can be used defensively, like larger anchors, lightning detectors and grounds, mainsail reefing equipment, drogues and sea anchors.

Rough seas: many areas, like San Francisco Bay in the summer, have consistently strong winds and heavy chop. That makes for great sailing, but also raises equipment requirements for sailboats and powerboats alike.

For more info:

Equipment: Sail/Power Inland Coastal Offshore
Lifesling Both Outboard boats over 24' Absolutely Absolutely
Life Jackets Both Yes, depends on activity Type I or inflatable Type I or inflatable
Heaving line Both Yes, 50-70' Yes, 50-70' Yes, 50-70'
Life raft Both No Coastal Life raft Offshore/SOLAS raft
Safety harnesses Sail Possibly One per crew One per crew
Safety harnesses Power No No One for use on weather decks
Bilge pumps Sail ISAF requirments ISAF requirements + Electric Add electric bilge pumps
Bilge pumps Power 1 manual/1 electric 1 manual/2 electric Add engine-driven
Flares Both 3 handheld/3 meteor 3 handheld/3 SOLAS parachute 6 handheld/6 SOLAS parachute
Emergency communications Both CB, cell phone, VHF VHF, PLB, inReach or SPOT G3 406 MHz EPIRB, Iridium or Iridium GO
Communications Both CB, cell phone, VHF VHF, backup antenna SSB or Satphone, VHF, handheld DSC VHF
Medical kit Both First aid kit Trauma kit Trauma kit w/drugs
Drag device Both No Possibly Strongly recommended
Storm sails Sail No Double reef, storm jib Trysail, storm jib
Radar reflector Both If ship traffic present Yes, temporary Yes, permanent and large
Fire extinguishers Both UCSG minimums UCSG minimums + 1 per cabin UCSG minimums + 1 per cabin
Emergency water Both Gallon water jugs Gallon water jugs Manual watermaker
Reliable fuel supply Both Second tank Second tank, good filters Two + Tanks, excellent filters
Navigation Both Compass, depth Compass, radar, depth, GPS Compass, depth, GPS, radar
Ground tackle Both 1 working anchor 1 storm/1 working anchor 2 storm anchors, 1 working anchor
Weather information Both Weather radio VHF radio High Seas, SailMail via SSB or Iridium satphone
Alarms Power Fume, depth Fume, fire, depth, carbon monoxide Fume, fire, depth, carbon monoxide