Boat Safety Guide

Owning a boat is a lot like owning a car – everyone has their own preferences when it comes to style, color and size. However, whether you are heading out on an inland lake or pointing the bow out into the open ocean, every captain shares the same basic responsibility: to ensure the safety of their vessel and their crew.

At first glance the list of safety requirements and recommended skills needed to own and operate a boat can seem daunting, but don’t let first impressions discourage you. Once you get the formalities out of the way you’ll be enjoying all the freedom that life out on the water has to offer.

Safe boating takes planning and preparation
Safe boating takes planning and preparation

Boat Registration

Obtaining A Valid Vessel Certificate

Like a car, the United States Coast Guard requires all small power vessels to be registered in the state of their principal use. When registered the vessel will be issued a state registration number. This number must be displayed on the hull of the vessel and the owner/operator of a vessel must also carry the valid Certificate of Number whenever the vessel is in use. The USCG states that:

  • The numbers must be read from left to right
  • The numbers must be in a color that is contrasting with the background color; for example, black numbers on a white hull
  • The validation sticker(s) must be within six inches of the registration number
  • No other letters or numbers may be displayed nearby

Boat Safety Requirements

Basic Checklist For Safe Boating

Like any motorized vehicle a boat must carry some basic safety equipment as set forth by the US Coast Guard. The USCG requires vessels under 39.4’, or 12M, to carry the following basic safety equipment at all times:

  • USCG Approved Life Jackets– One Type I, II, III, or V per person, plus one Type IV throwable device. PFD’s (personal floatation devices) must be readily accessible and properly fit the user; children must be fit with child rated life jackets. The Type IV throwable device must be easily reachable in case of emergency.
  • Visual Distress Devices for Day and Night – Minimum of three day-use and three night-use or three day/night combination flares. You can opt for non-pyrotechnic devices such as an orange distress flag for day-use and an electric light or flash light, for night-use.
  • Fire ExtinguisherOne B-II or Two B-I extinguishers
  • Sound Producing Device – A horn or a whistle
  • Marine Sanitation Device– Vessels with a toilet must have an operable CG-Certified Type I, II, or III Marine Sanitation Device (MSD).
  • Pollution Regulation PlacardsOil discharge and MARPOL Trash placards mounted in highly visible locations.
  • VentilationRequired on gasoline-powered vessels with enclosed engine spaces built after 1 August 1980.
A manual inflatable lifejacket. Photo courtesy of SOSPENDERS.
A manual inflatable lifejacket. Photo courtesy of SOSPENDERS.

The Coast Guard admits that these are only minimum requirements and do not guarantee the safety of your vessel or its passengers.” Some basic equipment that is not considered compulsory but is smart to carry are:

  • Bailer- Either a manual bucket or pump, or install an electric bilge pump
  • Pair of Oars – On a small vessel these can be used to maneuver in case of engine failure or when in shallow water. On a larger vessel an oar can be used to reach out to a person who is in the water.
  • Anchor & Rode – The anchor should be the correct size and weight for the vessel and the rode either rope, chain or a combination of the two, depending on what type of bottom you are anchoring in.
  • A Handheld GPS –In case of primary equipment failure a separate, waterproof GPS will allow you to continue to navigate safely and to relay critical position information during an emergency.
  • A Medical Kit- Unexpected injuries such as a fish hook in the hand or a coral scrape on a foot can quickly cut your fun day short if you cannot help the victim. Carry a basic medical kit for day-trips and a more extensive kit if you are planning any extended or offshore expeditions.
  • Tool kit -This should include any specialty tools for your brand of engine, as well as some basic spares; sparkplug, oil and fuel filters. Keeping a paper copy of your engine manual makes sure your electronic device will stay free of greasy fingerprints.
  • A VHF Radio- Although cellphone reception can often be found a few miles offshore a VHF is designed to work for greater distances out on the water. Not to mention the Coast Guard, and most other boaters, keep a 24hr monitor on Channel 16, which means help is only a radio call away.
  • Food & Water – Adding some non-perishable food like cereal bars and a few extra bottles of water to your onboard medical kit means you always have something on hand in case of emergency.
  • EPRIB – An Electronic Position Radio Indicating Beacon, or EPRIB, is the most reliable way to contact authorities in case of an emergency. These small beacons are designed to be activated as a last resort, repeatedly sending out a message containing the vessels name, physical description, registration details and GPS location on 406mhz, an internationally recognized distress frequency, for up to 48 hours.
This illustration shows what happens when an EPIRB signal is set off in an emergency. Image courtesy of NOAA
This illustration shows what happens when an EPIRB signal is set off in an emergency. Image courtesy of NOAA.

Basic Boating Terms

Finding Your Sea Legs

Like any sport or leisure activity, boating has a lexicon of specific words and phrases. At first these unfamiliar words may seem like jargon, used to create an elite, exclusionary world, but that is hardly the case. Developed over many centuries these traditional terms are a key part of clear communication in the boating world. For example: You call a marina to inquire about a berth for the night and the Dockmaster asks for your LOA, beam and draft. Sounds complicated, right?


All they want to know is the total length of the vessel (LOA, length over all), the maximum width of the vessel (beam) and what is the minimum depth of water that the boat requires (draft) so they can assign a place on the dock where the vessel will fit safely.

Or perhaps you find yourself playing chicken with a large ship that is entering the harbor that you are exiting. You reach the ships Captain via radio and he advises that you should alter course to starboard, allowing the vessels to safely pass port to port.


The Captain is simply giving instructions to avoid collision. He will continue on his course and you should turn to the right (starboard) to avoid him. The boats will then pass each other, left sides facing (port to port) like cars on a highway. Knowing the proper terminology will not only make you sound like a pro it will keep you out of danger.

Like having to understand the rules of the road to be a safe and competent car driver there are also a set of rules and regulations that boaters must follow.  These rules are not regional but internationally agreed upon and recognized.

The International Regulations for Prevention of Collision at Sea, or COLREGS for short, are a set of rules that will tell you everything from who has a right of way when passing, to what certain flags or lights are indicating, to what those red and green floating markers mean. Taking a Coast Guard approved ‘Introduction to Boating’ course is the best way to learn about the nautical rules of the road, as well as familiarize yourself with the language of boating. And keep up-to-date with this USCG Safety App.

Google Earth lets you plan a simple route in nautical miles.
Google Earth lets you plan a simple route in nautical miles.

Creating A Float Plan

Proper Planning and Preparedness

Before you shove off the dock there are just a few more things that you need to do to ensure a trouble-free trip.

  • Plan a Route– Check your charts and plan your route for the day. Look for any underwater hazards such as shoals and wrecks that should be avoided. If you are going out overnight check for potential safe anchorages and fuel stops.
  • Check the Weather – Modern weather forecasting is extremely accurate. By getting an up-to-date forecast before you depart you can avoid being caught out in dangerous conditions. As well many areas broadcast marine weather forecasts on specific VHF radio channels throughout the day.
  • Top Up the Fuel Tank – Making sure you have full fuel tanks will not only allow you to travel further it means you shouldn’t find yourself dead in the water because you ran out of fuel.
  • Tell Someone on Shore – Leave your “Float Plan”- the details of your route, anchorages and expected time of return – with a reliable person on shore. In case of emergency this information can give your rescuers a huge advantage.

Safe Boating Practices Underway

Obeying The “Rules of The Road”

Now that you have registered your boat and have all the required, and extra, safety equipment onboard, speak the lingo, know the rules of the road and have everything checked off your pre-departure checklist, it is time to talk about safe boating practices while underway.

Knowing and understanding the U.S. Coast Guard’s USCG Aids to Navigation System is a key aspect of boating safety. It is important to study the USCG booklet and learn all the different markers, so you can stay safe on the water. This system is designed to keep boats from colliding with each other and with other objects such as rocks, sandbars, and other unforeseen man-made or natural hazards below the surface.

A common expression among boaters is “red, right, returning” which means when a boat is returning from the open ocean (or proceeding upstream) the captain must keep the red marker aids on the right (starboard) side of the vessel. When heading out to sea (or upstream) the red markers should be on the left (port) side of the vessel.

Outboard Engine Kill Switch

All outboard engines over 2hp are required to be fitted with a kill switch. The kill switch, also known as the key for the outboard, is perhaps the most important piece of safety equipment in small boats. Unfortunately, it is also the most overlooked.

Every outboard motor manufacturer varies the size and shape of their kill switch but they all perform the same task. Typically attached to a bright red lanyard, the kill switch is designed to easily pull free from the outboard when the driver moves further away from the motor than the lanyard allows, i.e. If they fall overboard. When the kill switch is removed it immediately stops the engine, preventing both the boat from motoring away at top speed, and anyone in the water from getting hurt by the still spinning propeller.

Larger boats with more powerful engines and key ignition often do not have a kill switch worn on a lanyard. Instead they may be fitted with an electronic proximity kill switch called an auto tether. Rather than wearing a restrictive lanyard that could get tangled in the steering wheel the driver places an electronic fob near the helm and another on his person, in a pocket for instance.

The auto tether is programmed so that if the two fobs are separated by a set distance the engines automatically turn off. Some auto tethers are like the remote start on a car, allowing the user to start the engine when in proximity to the vessel rather than onboard and manually turning a key.

The US Coast Guard reported that in 2017 there were 172 accidents where at least one person was struck by a propeller. As a result of those accidents 31 people died. Wearing the kill switch every time you are at the helm, regardless of how far the vessel is going, could save a life.

A hazard such as a wreck can have multiple symbols to indicate the type of hazard
A hazard such as a wreck can have multiple symbols to indicate the type of hazard

Obeying “No Wake” Zones

Another basic safe boating protocol is to respect “NO WAKE” zones. Wake refers to the wave that is created behind your boat when traveling at speed. A “No Wake Zone” is an area where boats are required to reduce their speed so that no large waves are created as they move through the water.

Posted no wake zones are often found around marinas, narrow channels and residential areas. Other areas where it is polite to slow to a no wake speed are when near an anchorage, arriving and departing a docking area, whenever there are people swimming nearby and near environmentally sensitive areas. Failure to follow the posted speed limit can result in a fine.

Outside no wake zones, boats that can travel at speeds of 7kts or more are required by the US Coast Guard to display navigation lights when running between sunset and sunrise and during times of restricted visibility such as heavy rain or fog. Minimum requirements for vessels under 39.4”, or 12M are:

  • Allround White LightTo indicate that the vessel is moving under power. This can also be used as an anchor light.
  • Red (port) and Green (starboard) Side LightsThese lights are forward facing and are only visible in a 121.5° arc, allowing approaching vessels to determine which direction you are travelling.

Alcohol and Boating

Boating Under The Influence Is Dangerous

Any boat with an engine is considered a motorized vehicle, and the owner/operator is responsible for that vehicle. There are no lines to stay between out on the ocean, but that doesn’t mean there are no laws to follow when it comes to drinking and driving.

In the United States allowable blood alcohol limits that apply to drivers on land also apply to boaters. BUI, or Boating Under the Influence, is a Federal Offence in the USA and carries the same penalties as Driving Under the Influence.  As well, boaters who are found to be intoxicated by the Coast Guard may also be charged by other state or local law enforcement officials

Calm seas, endless horizons and the wind in your hair – nothing beats a day on the boat. Investing some time in preparing your vessel, and familiarizing yourself with safe boating practices, will ensure that everyday out on the water is a great day.



BIO: Heather Francis is from Nova Scotia, Canada and has worked and lived on boats throughout the world since 2002. In 2008 she and her Aussie partner, Steve, bought Kate, their Newport 41, in California and have been sailing her fulltime since. They are currently in the Philippines looking for wind and you can follow their adventures at

Written by: Heather Francis

Heather Francis is from Nova Scotia, Canada. She has worked and lived on boats throughout the world since 2002. In 2008 she and her Aussie partner, Steve, bought Kate, their Newport 41, in California and have been sailing her fulltime since. They are currently in the Philippines looking for wind and you can follow their adventures at


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