The most important safety equipment and emergency procedures are often a topic of debate, but one thing’s for sure, you can always be safer. While boat safety procedures must be customized to accommodate the size and type of vessel, you’ll still want to understand the basics. In this yacht safety guide, we’ll focus on what areas to inspect prior to departure, what equipment to have aboard, how to file a float plan, which emergency procedures to practice, and which key supplementary items to include to enhance your boating experience.
The best prevention is preparation. Keeping your boat’s equipment in good working order may stave off catastrophe as well as discomfort. Annual or pre-departure inspections of certain areas and systems will save money and headaches.
Spend some time on the bow and inspect what could be your cheapest insurance – your ground tackle and windlass. Look at the top and bottom of your bow roller(s). Do they turn? Are there any cracks in the surrounding structure? Check the anchor shackle to see if it’s still wired shut and inspect the swivel to make sure it turns freely. Test the windlass: take off the cover, check the pawls, lubricate necessary points, and lay eyes on the wire connections. Inspect the chain and its connection to the boat. If the end of the chain that’s exposed on deck looks sketchy, consider cutting off a few feet. If you carry a stern anchor, dig it out of the lazarette and check it as well.
There aren’t many easy fixes for a steering failure so prevention is key. Inspect the condition of steering cables and their connections. Top up steering/hydraulic fluids. Take a look at the rudder(s) and their post(s) if hauled out. If you have pod drives, get a professional review before a long trip. Sailboats have manual emergency tillers that can be used in case of cable failure but few mechanical jury rigs can handle the torque on large powerboats. The autopilot may be the only way to steer in case of cable failure so be sure to test it as well.
A boat is built of pumps: freshwater, saltwater, engine, A/C, etc. — but none are more critical than bilge pumps. Check to make sure your bilge pumps are clean, operating well, and have working alarm circuits. Trace the wiring, test the float switches and carry a couple of spare pumps and switches. European boats are spec’d with manual bilge pumps but that’s a rarity on powerboats built elsewhere so carry a portable manual pump or have plenty of buckets.
The engine room will take the longest to inspect because there are so many systems to review. Start with hoses, which should be double-clamped. Wipe them and smell the rag to check for leaks (good fire prevention). Test the tension on the belts, the condition of the diesel fuel (add fuel conditioner to the tank if necessary) and look for loose or corroded wire connections. Test alarm and shut down systems on the genset and the engines. Check the condition of the raw water strainer, baskets, and gaskets. Make a list of all the fluids you need including steering, transmission, stabilizer, engine oil, coolant, and refrigerant. Flush the cooling system and inspect or preventively replace all impellers.
Inspect batteries and switches and clean terminals and posts if there’s sign of corrosion. Make sure the batteries are secured and can’t move. Top up with distilled water if they are wet cells. Check the shore power cord and inlet and all wiring for chafe. Make sure you have a supply of spare fuses.
Fire Suppression Equipment
In reviewing your fire plan, learn how many and what kind of fire extinguishers are required by the Coast Guard for your class of vessel, and then double their number. Check the extinguisher expiry dates and pressures annually. Instruct all crew in their use – pull the pin and aim at the base of the flames. Keep automatic engine room suppression systems in good working order. A fire blanket near the galley may help as will baking soda for small fires. Put fresh batteries in smoke detectors.
Finally, you already have large holes in the boat that need inspecting – they’re called thru-hulls. Failed thru-hull fittings can spell disaster so checking and/or replacing them on your next haulout is good preventive maintenance. Check for cracks, leaks, and corrosion. Work the handles on the valves to make sure they don’t stick. Keep an appropriately sized wooden plug tethered to each handle and a mallet nearby to drive the plug into the hole in case a seacock fails. Forespar sells small foam cones that may be used instead of wood and can plug an irregularly shaped hole. Make a drawing or list of where all the thru hulls are located including ones used for the engines, heads, refrigeration, and A/C units.
Another thing to do prior to setting sail is to file a float plan. Much like an aviation flight plan, boaters can file a float plan, which is an overview of a boat excursion that gives authorities a head start in looking for a boater if he or she fails to reach his or her destination.
File a float plan with a friend, relative, marina dock master, an on-water assistance service like Tow Boat US, or anyone you trust to contact the Coast Guard in case of an emergency. Don’t file a float plan directly with the US Coast Guard. Include name and type of vessel, point of departure and destination, time of departure and of expected arrival, number of people aboard and their names and ages.
A float plan comes with responsibilities. You must update your contact person with key info like when you depart/arrive or if plans change and you don’t leave at all. Close out a float plan when you’re done with your voyage by notifying your contact that your outing is complete and that you’re safe. Never leave a float plan open.
You can download a float plan form and also get an 86-page Federal Requirements Brochure, an accident reporting form and general survival tips from the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Boat Safety Equipment
A pre-voyage packing list can get long but a comprehensive inventory of onboard safety items is key. Most critical items will be dictated by Coast Guard rules, but besides the mandatory fire extinguishers, life jackets, flares and VHF radio, here’s the safety equipment you’ll want aboard.
Inflatable PFDs And Harnesses
The Coast Guard specs the minimum number of lifejackets or personal floatation devices (PFDs) for your vessel. However, the standard versions are often bulky and uncomfortable. Inflatable PFDs can be worn for longer periods and with less hassle because they stay compact until they deploy. Check the expiry date on the CO2 cylinder that inflates the vest and have a re-arming kit handy. Consider adding a whistle, light or strobe, highly reflective SOLAS tape, a tether and a registered PLB to each PFD.
Every vessel needs comprehensive and easy-to-use medical supplies that come with a well-organized manual for step-by-step directions and there are numerous off-the-shelf kits available. Sizing and pricing are by the number of crew rather than the level of care so read the contents list of the pack before springing for a larger, more expensive kit. For longer voyages, your doctor may put together a customized kit including your personal meds that should be packed with their original prescriptions, especially if you’re crossing borders. If you or one of the crew has a tricky ticker, consider adding an automated external defibrillator (AED). Most models now are under $1,000 and require little training to use.
Handheld VHF and GPS units
In case of onboard electrical failure or if you have to abandon ship, handheld communication and navigation equipment will be needed. Portable VHF radios and GPS units are affordable and are easily stowed so have at least a couple of each as backups. Some units are waterproof and float. Also, have a variety of batteries of various sizes for these items (VHFs may have proprietary types).
EPIRBs and PLBs
Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) and Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) help locate a vessel or crewmember in distress. These devices interface with the worldwide service of COSPASS-SARSAT, the international satellite system for search and rescue (SAR). Registration is free and there is no subscription or annual fee for either. EPIRBs operate on 406 MHz, are waterproof, float and some have a built-in GPS, making them GEPIRBs. They’re registered to the vessel. PLBs on the other hand, are registered to a person. They function much like EPIRBs but are about the size of a smartphone and are usually attached to lifejackets for when people fall overboard or need to abandon ship.
The Coast Guard has guidelines about the kinds and number of pyrotechnics or flares a vessel of a certain type must carry so these are a given, but you can also supplement your light signaling equipment. Add a metal signaling “mirror” and a gun to shoot aerial flares. Add a strobe light, foghorn and a powerful laser pointer. Lasers can be better directed than flares at ships at night, and they have a longer range. They cost around $100.
Life Raft And Dinghy
For offshore or long coastal voyages, carry a life raft. Many brands are available but be sure to spec the size (depending on the number of crew – bigger is not always better) and the type (offshore or coastal – they’re different in design and construction). You can choose an automatically deployed system mounted on deck in a hard case and cradle, or a portable version in a soft-sided valise. Although it’s an item you pay for dearly but hope to never use, don’t skimp. A dinghy is not a substitute for a life raft but it’s a way to stay dry and floating if the ship goes down and there is no life raft. Make sure your tender is inflated and has the plug in before each departure because you may need it in a hurry.
In the event of a true emergency, calmer heads will prevail and following a practiced course of action will make all the difference. Have a plan for various scenarios prior to departure and discuss it with all aboard. Once you’ve practiced, it will be easier to take the right steps in an emergency.
Getting help is a matter of communicating. Train everyone aboard in the use of the vessel’s communications equipment including VHF and SSB radios and possibly a satellite phone.
If a problem develops in near coastal waters, call on VHF channel 16. Speak slowly and clearly. Remember the 4 Ps of information to convey: Problem (the nature of the distress), Position (GPS coordinates or location description), People (number, ages, health issues), PFDs (put them on).
If panic sets in, people can forget to provide a good location or misread their GPS position so teach everyone which are the key numbers to repeat. If the situation is dire, call May Day three times, wait 10 seconds and repeat. Have written instructions near the radio on how to call for help in case the one calling is not trained. A common mistake is waiting too long before contacting the Coast Guard, so if in doubt, make the call.
A Digital Selective Calling or DSC-enabled VHF radio is important to have. If you can’t make a call, push the DSC button on the VHF to start a relay from vessel to vessel to land unit until it reaches the Coast Guard. Get a nine-digit Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number used to identify ships. This will tell the USCG which boat is broadcasting and whom to reach.
Crew Overboard Drills
Crew or man overboard (MOB) is a frequently discussed emergency procedure and the key is to make sure everyone aboard knows the steps to recover the crew because it may be the captain who falls off.
First, shout “man overboard” to alert all crew. Stop the boat to prevent getting any further from the victim and toss a life buoy or PFDs in their direction. Press the MOB button on the GPS or VHF radio to mark the position and designate someone to point at the person and count, never taking their eyes off the victim. The counting helps you keep track of roughly how much time has elapsed since the event and how far away you may have gotten from the victim. If this happens at night or you lose sight of the person, send a DSC distress alert and a May Day. Use the track on your GPS to double back or learn the Williamson turn if the track is not available.
Recovery procedures depend on whether the victim is conscious and moving or is somehow incapacitated. Attitudes differ on whether you should approach the person in the water from windward or leeward: From windward, you can drift down on them and block the effect of wind and waves with the boat, making a calmer environment. However, the boat could roll down onto the person so the approach may be better from leeward. The procedure will be dictated by the conditions and the crew that is available to assist. Form a plan to hoist the victim onto the swim platform or deck in case they can’t use the ladder.
Fire Suppression Tactics
Fire aboard can spread quickly and become devastating within minutes. Roughly 40% of fires are related to AC and DC electrical systems, 12% to engine and fuel systems, and 20% are in the “other” category, which includes galley fires.
Starve the fire of fuel or oxygen: Know where the engine fuel shut-off and propane tanks are. Close access doors and hatches to cut off the air. Turn off batteries, unplug from shore power and turn off the main AC and DC panels. Throw burning cushions overboard before the fire spreads and watch for re-flash even after the fire seems to be managed.
Advanced Training and Procedures
If you’re going the extra mile (both in distance traveled and effort expended) consider these five actions to enhance your safety and give you greater peace of mind.
Basic Medical Training
All crew should have basic medical training. You can opt for one-day classes in CPR and First Aid from the American Red Cross or the America Heart Association as well as from a slew of independent providers. However, be mindful of the fact that these classes are geared toward urban environments where emergency medical services (EMS) are expected to arrive within 10 minutes, which is not the case on a vessel at sea.
Basic Survival Training
For long-distance voyages, all crew (usually both parties of a couple) should consider taking a wilderness survival course. This training is significantly more expensive and may require a week of time. Ask about classes that focus specifically on survival at sea because you may need to be your own paramedic out there.
Advanced Tracking And Communications Equipment
GPS-enabled tracking devices like SPOT or Garmin’s inReach are affordable position locating and basic communication devices for casual check-ins or SOS messaging. You can send canned messages on SPOT and two-way texts on inReach but monthly charges apply for both. These devices are more affordable than satellite phones and EPIRBs, but they’re not a substitute for either.
Pack A Comprehensive Abandon Ship Bag
You can Google abandon ship bag contents to get started. However, restraint is key when packing a ditch bag because you must consider where will you store it aboard, the room it will take up in a life raft, and its weight and your crew’s ability to get it on deck. For short coastal voyages, if it’s time to abandon, plan to grab at least the VHF and cellphone in a dry bag, PFDs, flares, a waterproof flashlight, and your personal and ship’s documents.
Speaking of documents, having your paperwork in order and easily accessible is key to a quick or unplanned departure or for being boarded by authorities. Keep the following at hand in one dry bag: vessel documentation/registration, insurance, cruising and fishing permits, and any necessary entry documents for foreign countries. In another dry bag, keep passports, credit cards, and crew information including medical needs.
A vessel at sea is a self-contained city. It must carry all the food, fuel, water, safety and medical equipment, and expertise that it takes to keep the crew safe. Consider the tips above as a starting point and expand from there.
MMSI numbers/DSC registration, list navigation rules, Rule 37 USCG COLREGS 72 -16 basic distress signals.
Download a float plan form, Federal Requirements Brochure, accident reporting form, and general survival tips.
Register your EPIRBs and PLBs.
*Editors note: This article was originally published in 2020 and republished in July 2022.