Don't you just love when you are driving your car/truck down the road and a Police car pulls out behind you and your tension level goes up instantly. You know you aren't doing anything wrong but you still have the moment of being uncomfortable. Well, if you have ever driven a boat and a U.S. Coast Guard patrol has approached you, then you likely have had the same uncomfortable feeling...but WORSE! Why? Because unlike a car, which requires simply a driver's license, insurance card and vehicle registration when pulled over, a boat requires far more. Boat requirements are dependent on several factors: length, power or sail, commercial or recreational, etc. These requirements can be a little difficult to decipher and are sometimes down right confusing! I'm going to do my best to break it down into layman terms.
I also suggest contacting your local Coast Guard Auxiliary or USCG Marine Safety Office for a free, thorough Vessel Safety Check (VSC). The VSC is not a boarding or law enforcement inspection. No citations will be given as a result of this encounter. Upon completion the boater will be given a copy of the completed evaluation with suggestions for improvement. Vessels that pass will be able to display the distinctive VSC decal. The VSC does not exempt the boater from law enforcement boarding, but it could sway a boarding team to inspect another unchecked vessel.
The following list is the minimum safety gear for recreational boats. Just because something isn’t required does not mean it shouldn't be kept onboard... i.e. VHF radios, First Aid kits, EXTRA life jackets, anchor, etc., are never a bad idea. Should a USCG boarding party board an underway vessel and find you are missing 2 or more safety requirements, your day on the water could be spent back home at the mooring or dock. The CG Boarding Officer has the discretion to terminate the voyage of any vessel he deems unsafe for navigation. I strongly suggest being kind and courteous. Remember they are only there to benefit you and your passengers.
- Personal Flotation Devices (life jackets)
- Registration and numbering
- Navigation lights
- Fire extinguishers
- Distress signals (flares, horn, etc.)
- Discharge placards for boats 26’ or greater
Personal Flotation Devices (PFD)
All recreational boats must carry one wearable PFD (Type I, II, III or Type V PFD) for each person aboard
Any boat 16ft and longer (except canoes and kayaks) must also carry one throwable PFD (Type IV PFD).
PFD’s MUST be
- Coast Guard approved
- In good and serviceable condition
- The appropriate size for the intended user.
- Wearable PFDs must be readily accessible.
- They should not be stowed in plastic bags, in locked or closed compartments or have other gear stowed on top of them.
- Throwable devices must be immediately available for use.
- Inflatable PFDs must have a full cylinder and all status indicators on the inflator must be green, or the device is NOT serviceable, and does NOT satisfy the requirement to carry PFDs.
- Coast Guard Approved Inflatable PFD’s are authorized for use on recreational boats by person at least 16 years of age.
Child PFD Requirements
- All children under 13 years old are required to wear the appropriate size PFD while onboard any vessel.
When buying fire extinguishers always look for the part of the label that says “Marine Type USCG”
Fire Extinguishers are required on boats when any of the following conditions exist:
Vessel Length (without a fixed system)
- Inboard engines are installed.
- There are closed compartments and compartments under seats where portable fuel tanks may be stored
- There are double bottoms not sealed to the hull or which are not completely filled with flotation materials
- There are closed living spaces.
- There are closed stowage compartments in which combustible or flammable materials are stored.
- There are permanently installed fuel tanks. (Fuel tanks secured so they cannot be moved in case of fire or other emergency are considered permanently installed. There are no gallon capacity limits to determine if a fuel tank is portable. If the weight of a fuel tank is such that persons on board cannot move it, the Coast Guard considers it permanently installed.)
Less than 26’ 1 B-1 extinguisher
26’ to less than 40’- require 2 B-1 or 1 B-II extinguishers
40’ to 65’ - require 3 B-I or 1 B-II and 1 B-1 extinguishers
Vessel Length (with a fixed system)
Less than 26’- None
26’ to less than 40’- require 1 B-I extinguisher
40’ to 65’ - require 2 B-1 or 1 B-II extinguishers
Fixed systems note- The pressure gauge alone is not an accurate indicator that Halon extinguishers are full. The weight of the units should be checked regularly. It is recommended that portable extinguishers be mounted in a readily accessible position.
Sound Producing Devices
- Any vessel less than 39.4 feet/12 meters in length may carry a whistle or horn, or some other means to make an efficient sound signal to signal your intentions and to signal your position in periods of reduced visibility.
- Therefore, any vessel less than 39.4 feet/12 meters in length is required to make an efficient sound signal to signal your intentions and to signal your position in periods of reduced visibility
- When operating on Inland Waters of the United States, vessels 39.4 feet/12 meters or more in length are required to carry on board a whistle or horn, and a bell.
Visual Distress Signals
Vessels used on coastal waters, the Great Lakes, territorial seas, and those waters connected directly to them, up to a point where a body of water is less than two miles wide, must be equipped with U.S.C.G. Approved visual distress signals. Vessels owned in the United States operating on the high seas must be equipped with U.S.C.G. Approved visual distress signals.
These vessels are not required to carry day signals but must carry night signals when operating from sunset to sunrise :
Pistol launched and hand-held parachute flares and meteors have many characteristics of a firearm and must be handled with caution. In some states they are considered a firearm and prohibited from use.
- Recreational boats less than 16 feet in length
- Boats participating in organized events such as races, regattas, or marine parades.
- Open sailboats less than 26 feet in length not equipped with propulsion machinery.
- Manually propelled boats.
U.S.C.G. Approved Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals and associated devices include:
- Pyrotechnic red flares, hand-held or aerial.
- Pyrotechnic orange smoke, hand-held or floating.
- Launchers for aerial red meteors or parachute flares.
- Orange distress flag- Must be at least 3 x 3 feet with a black square and ball on an orange background. Day signal only
- Electric distress light- Accepted for night use only Automatically flashes the international SOS distress signal
Manufacturers of boats built after 1980 with remote starters are required to display a label which contains the following information:
Warning gasoline vapors can explode. Before starting engine, operate blower at least 4 minutes and check engine compartment bilge for gasoline vapors.
For boats built prior to 1980, there was no requirement for a powered ventilation system; however, some boats were equipped with a blower.
All boats which use gasoline for electrical generation, mechanical power or propulsion are required to be equipped with a ventilation system. A natural ventilation system is required for each compartment in a boat that:
- contains a permanently installed gasoline engine
- has openings between it and a compartment that requires ventilation
- contains a permanently installed fuel tank and an electrical component that is not ignition-protected
- contains a fuel tank that vents into that compartment (including a portable tank)
- contains a non-metallic fuel tank
A natural ventilation system consists of:
- A supply opening (duct/cowl) from the atmosphere (located on the exterior surface of the boat) or from a ventilated compartment or from a compartment that is open to the atmosphere
- And an exhaust opening into another ventilated compartment or an exhaust duct to the atmosphere.
Backfire Flame Arrestor (BFA)
Gasoline engines installed in a vessel after April 25, 1940, except outboard motors, must be equipped with an acceptable means of backfire flame control. The device must be suitably attached to the air intake with a flame tight connection and is required to be Coast Guard approved or comply with SAE J-1928 or UL 1111 standards and marked accordingly.