Making Sure Your Boat Safety Kit is Updated

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Brother & Sister enjoy riding on boat together

Anyone can buy a premade boat safety kit to toss aboard. But it takes more than a kit to make a  safe boat. Don’t stop with a safety kit’s watertight flashlight and buoyant heaving line.

To put together a safety kit that’s truly trustworthy, a premade kit can be a good start—but you should also stock your craft with other safety gear, including dependable life jackets, a reliable fire extinguisher, visual distress signals, and a loud airhorn. You should also have a backup distress signal system in case your original system fails.

Life Jackets

There are different kinds of life jackets, ranging from standard foam to cutting-edge self-inflating models. The Coast Guard requires boats to have a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each person onboard. Boats over 16 feet long must also have a throwable life preserver, as well. There are five types of PFDs (personal flotation devices):

  • Type I: An offshore life jacket is the bulkiest model, but it also provides the best flotation. It’s best used for open, rough, or remote waters.
  • Type II: A near-shore buoyant vest is more comfortable than a Type I model and is most appropriate for calm, inland waters.
  • Type III: A floatation aid is good for calm, inland waters and is often used with water sports.
  • Type IV: A throwable device, such as a floatable cushion or a ring buoy.
  • Type V: A special use device is designed for a specific activity, such as kayaking or whitewater rafting. This model often incorporates a foam, flotational element with an inflatable chamber.

Outfit your boat with the appropriate model, and make sure you have enough personal flotation devices for everyone onboard.

Fire Extinguisher

If your boat has fuel on board or is fuel-powered, the Coast Guard requires that your boat carry at least one fire extinguisher. Some experts say larger boats should have more than one extinguisher on board. There are different types of extinguishers, and some experts recommend a tri-class extinguisher since they’re effective on fires fueled by wood, paper, canvas, and fiberglass, as well as electrical and liquid fires.

Whatever you choose, remember that portable fire extinguishers require maintenance. Requirements differ, but you’ll want to:

  • Inspect the unit monthly, even more often if it’s exposed to weather.
  • Weigh the extinguisher annually to make sure it’s fully charged.
  • Twice a year, turn the unit upside-down to shake up any chemicals that may have settled at the bottom.
  • Recharge or replace a unit after any use.
  • Check the manual or manufacturer’s website for any special instructions.

Flares

The Coast Guard has requirements about which types of visual distress signals should be carried by different sizes of boats. A good safety kit will have several different signals, including handheld orange smoke, flags, sea marker dye, and flares. The Coast Guard cautions that pyrotechnic flares can cause burns or fires, so you should take safety precautions. Some types of flares, such as the pistol-launched variety, must be handled very carefully and may be considered firearms in some states and Canada, so the Coast Guard suggests that you check with your state boating agency.

Flares can be highly effective distress signals, but they also require care. Flares are stamped with a manufacture date, and the Coast Guard says a flare’s shelf life is three years from the date of manufacture.

When it’s time to retire your flares, contact your local fire department, sanitation department, or Environmental Protection Agency office to learn the local hazardous waste disposal rules. Or, you could contact your local Coast Guard Auxiliary to see if it would like to use the flares for training purposes.

A few other notes about flares:

  • Don’t launch a flare unless you’re sure someone will see it.
  • Fire the flare at a 60-degree angle away from the vessel, and downwind. And never shoot straight up, since the flare could set your sail or mast on fire, if you’re in a sailboat.
  • Handheld flares produce dangerous ash and slag, so handle them carefully using leather gloves.

Make Sure You’re Heard

The Coast Guard requires boats under 65.6 feet (20 meters) to carry a sound-producing device, while boats longer than 65.6 feet must carry both a whistle and a bell that are audible for one nautical mile. But there’s no harm in being cautious, so you might want to make sure to add an airhorn that’s especially loud to ensure your calls are heard.

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Brendan

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