Welcome to the second installment. In the first installment, I was eager to get below decks and talk about what to look at in the bilge. A week of thinking about where to go next keeps up above decks for another several paragraphs.

By and large, boating is a very safe recreational activity. So much so, that complacency is very common. The problem is, when the occasional thing does go wrong, it goes really wrong and the options can be very limited to protect yourself and others. Not to understate a bad case scenario where a house starts on fire, but you generally have some escape. If you can get out of the house,  safety is a few dozen steps away. Getting off a boat in a fire is not necessarily any safer than being on it.


Prevention is the best remedy, but we’ll get to that. Let’s run through some safety equipment and what to look for:

Fire extinguishers

An article could be written on this subject alone. To keep it simple, get extinguishers with gauges and rated “ABC.” These ratings tell you what accelerants the chemical is effective in extinguishing. A  – solids (e.g. wood, paper, plastic, textiles), B – liquids (e.g.  gasoline, oil, kerosene, diesel fuel), and C – electrical. All things which can be cause, or accelerate a fire on a boat.

These are not buy and forget items. They need to be visible and readily available where they might most likely be needed. You might know you have one stashed under the life vests in a settee, but will your guests know? Are they close to the galley? One near the engine compartment or any access hatches? One between your sleeping quarters and the exit. It could be the difference in whether you escape a fire or are trapped by one.

They are a maintenance item. The USCG and the manufacturers advise annual inspection by a qualified inspector. Spend a little time online and you can effectively qualify yourself. Simple as they might seem, there are some points of failure to be aware of, not the least of which is the gauge. Gauges are not perfectly reliable indications of condition. They can freeze at “Full.” They have expiration dates and they should be heeded.

Shake them up. Yep, there are solids and they can settle and compact to make the extinguisher ineffective. A regular shake up, will extend their life and is likely to make them more effective.

Do you have the minimum number required by the USCG and your local authority? If you have exactly the minimum, OK but do you want the minimum to not get a ticket or the minimum to extinguish a fire or buy time to escape? Storage is at a premium on a boat, but use a little for some extra protection with extra, or larger fire extinguishers.

BoatUS has a good article for more detail:

Also look into the proper maintenance and care of your halon or engine room fixed firefighting equipment. It may prevent a fire from getting past the engine room. One which starts in the engine room and gets passed it, is not likely to be extinguished. If you’re lucky, the fuel tanks won’t explode before you can get off the boat. This fire has too much to of a head start to be extinguished with a handheld extinguisher. Get it early with a well maintained fixed system in your engine room.

Life Vests

Another lengthy topic, technically referred to as PFD’s (personal flotation devices). There are several types and you must have at least one for each passenger aboard. You should also have at least one Type IV throwable (not included in the count). Since most people don’t wear their life vests, you will want to have something that can be thrown to them. Have a tether available with at least 50′ of rope. It is much easier and safer to bring someone to the boat with a tethered float than to try to maneuver the boat, under power or sail, to their position in the water. Plus if you miss on the throw, you can bring it back and get a better throw, versus watching your type IV float away.

Keep in mind treading water and swimming in a pool in no comparison to swimming or treading water in waves as small at 2′, particularly in water below 60 degrees.

Condition is everything. inspect them for wear, saturation from sitting in bilge or accumulated water in storage compartments, functional fasteners, tears, etc. 

CO Detectors

The ABYC and NFPA advise CO detectors on all boats. The USCG does also and will likely soon require them. A most common objection I get to my note in a report is that their boat is diesel and does not need one. They are partly correct in that diesel combustion produces far less CO than gasoline,  but what about the boat next to them running there gasoline genset? Running their engine? Using a grill?

I find them disabled a lot. Why? They were going off and it was annoying. Why was it going off? Yes, too bad CO is not purple and smell like rotten eggs. The detector would never be disabled.

Another detailed topic well covered by the following USCG Safety Circular. I can’t say it any better.

Smoke detectors

Test and replace as needed. They are just as necessary in your boat as in your house. No.. MORE necessary than in your house.


The endangered species are unexpired flares on boat. Yes, keep expired flares as they are better than none if you run out trying to signal. But make sure you have unexpired flares and day signals for distress situations. 

Other safety equipment

Navigations lights, sound producing device (e.g. horn, whistle, bell), anchor and rode, working marine radio, GPS positioning, mapping, flashlight, first aid kit, emergency procedures, and of course, knowing your boat, are all aspects of safety to consider. Some are requirements of the USCG and local authority and some are requirements of good marine practice.

Take some time this off season to consider your safety equipment and emergency procedures now. Trying to review these along with all your commissioning duties in the spring can be overwhelming. The safety of you, your family, and your fellow boater can be the casualty. You may never need it. But if you do, it will be the difference between a dockside story and a boating tragedy.

Feel free to contact your local USCG or boating authority, or local SAMS / NAMS surveyor for advice or for a safety inspection.