Boat Safety Guide – Boat Trader Blog

Whether you are heading out on an inland lake on a pontoon boat or pointing the bow of a express cruiser into the open ocean, every captain shares the same basic responsibility: to use good boating safety practices and 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. The critical components include:

sea ray boat running
Adhering to common boating safety protocol is the best way to ensure a fun day on the water. Picture via B & E Marine.

Boat Registration

Obtaining A Valid Vessel Certificate

Like a car, powered vessels have to be registered. This can be done via Coast Guard documentation in some cases, and/or with state registration in the state of the boat’s principal use. When registered with your state 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 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

Coast Guard federally documented boats don’t display a number on the exterior (though some states require registration and numbers even if the boat is federally documented), but they must have the boat name and hailing port displayed. You can get Coast Guard documented if the boat weighs five tons or more and the owner is a U.S. Citizen, but because of paperwork and possible delays, most people take the path of least resistance and get state documentation. You can see a full explanation of the Coast Guard federal requirements in their Guide to Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats.

Required Boating Safety Gear

boaters wearing life jackets
Life jackets, also called PFDs, are obviously a big part of boating safety and although you don’t always have to wear one in every situation, they are required safety gear aboard your boat. Photo by Lenny Rudow.

All boats must carry some basic safety equipment as set forth by the US Coast Guard. These vary by length and some states may have additional requirements, but most boaters will have to carry the gear necessary for vessels under 12 meters (39’4″) at all times (larger vessels have additional requirements). This includes:

  • USCG Approved Life Jackets– One Type I, II, III, or V PFD (personal floatation device, commonly referred to as life jackets), per person, plus one Type IV throwable device. PFD’s 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 “electronic flare” (a USCG-approved emergency beacon light) for night-use.
  • Fire ExtinguisherYou used to need to carry BI/BII fire extinguishers, but USCG requirements changed in April of 2022; fire extinguishers no longer carry the BI/BII labeling and 5-B, 10-B (etc.) extinguishers are now required on boats built after 2018. Boats of 26′ or less need to have at least one, and boats 26′ to 40′ need to carry at least two.
  • Sound Producing Device – A horn or a whistle (yelling doesn’t count).
  • Marine Sanitation Device– Vessels with a head must have an operable USCG-Certified Type I, II, or III Marine Sanitation Device (MSD).
  • Pollution Regulation PlacardsOil discharge and MARPOL Trash placards must be mounted in highly visible locations.
  • VentilationRequired on gasoline-powered vessels with enclosed engine spaces built after 1 August 1980, boats must have a natural ventilation system and, in enclosed compartments with a permanently installed gasoline engine and starter, must also have a mechanical ventilation system (commonly called the “blower”).
A manual inflatable lifejacket. Photo courtesy of SOSPENDERS.
A manual inflatable lifejacket. Photo courtesy of SOSPENDERS.

Additional Boating Safety Gear

The Coast Guard says that the basic requirements are basics, only, and do not guarantee the safety of your vessel or its passengers. Some additional equipment that is not considered compulsory but is smart to carry includes:

  • Bailer – Either a manual bucket or pump.
  • A 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. If you’re unsure about how to use an anchor and rode, see How to Anchor a Boat Properly.
  • 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 First Aid 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 like 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 and is the most reliable form of ship-to-shore communication. Not to mention the Coast Guard, and most other boaters, keep a 24-hour monitor on Channel 16, which means help is only a radio call away. On top of all that, modern VHFs have Digital Selective Calling (DSC) abilities. That means that if they’re properly registered they can automatically transmit critical data like your GPS location and details about your boat, when you make an emergency call. See Man Overboard Electronics: DSC Radios, to learn more about this critical functionality.
  • Food & Water – Adding some non-perishable food like cereal bars and a few extra bottles of water onboard means you always have something on hand in case of emergency.
  • EPIRB – An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, or EPIRB, 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. Note that some of the newer satellite messengers can serve the same function, though they don’t necessarily contact the Coast Guard directly and may depend on an emergency call center to relay your SOS.
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.

boats in a crowded marina
Knowing your boat’s LOA, beam, and draft – and what those terms mean – can be critical for tasks like finding a slip. Photo by Lenny Rudow.

Or perhaps you find yourself playing chicken with a large ship that is entering the harbor that you are exiting. You reach the ship’s 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 (port) sides facing like cars on a highway. Knowing the proper terminology will not only make you sound like a pro it will help 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 (though in many waterways, additional local rules may also apply).

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. Note than in many states, taking a basic boating safety course prior to operating a boat is required by law.

Planning the Trip and Creating A Float Plan

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

Google Earth lets you plan a simple route in nautical miles.
Google Earth lets you plan a simple route in nautical miles.
  • 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 – By getting an up-to-date forecast before you depart you can avoid being caught out in dangerous conditions. Many areas broadcast marine weather forecasts on specific VHF radio channels throughout the day.
  • Top Off 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.
  • File a Float Plan – A float plan is simply a synopsis of where you plan to travel and how long you plan to stay out, which you’ve shared with a reliable friend or relative. That way, if you’re overdue someone on shore knows to call for help.

Safe Boating Practices Underway

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’s 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.

boat passing a marker
The little green marker this boat is passing may be small, but it’s important – if these boaters tried to go past on the wrong side they’d run aground in no time. Photo by Lenny Rudow.

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 downstream) the red markers should be on the left (port) side of the vessel.

Outboard Engine Kill Switch (ECOS)

All outboard engines producing over 115 pounds of thrust (slightly less than three horsepower) are required to be fitted with a kill switch. The kill switch, also known as the ECOS for “engine cut off switch,” is typically attached to a bright red lanyard designed to pull the switch 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, and anyone in the water from getting hurt by a spinning propeller.

kill switch on a boat
The blue arrow points to the kill switch and lanyard. Photo by Lenny Rudow.

Some newer boats do not have a kill switch worn on a lanyard, but instead may be fitted with an electronic proximity kill switch. Rather than wearing a restrictive lanyard the driver places an electronic fob in a pocket or clips it to a piece of clothing. The electronic kill switch is programmed so that if the fob is separated by a set distance from the base (mounted at the helm) the engines automatically turn off.

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. Along with no wake zones some areas have posted speed limits.

Navigation Light Requirements

Boats are required to display navigation lights when running between sunset and sunrise, and also during times of restricted visibility such as heavy rain or fog. Minimum requirements for vessels under 12 meters are:

  • Allround White Light This provides visibility from all angles and is also used as an anchor light when the accompanying side lights are not illuminated.
  • 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.
boating in the fog
Navigational lights are for use in restricted visibility as well as at night. In the fog, this captain did the right thing by turning his running lights on. Photo by Lenny Rudow.

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.  Boaters who are found to be intoxicated by the Coast Guard may also be charged by other state or local law enforcement officials

Better Boating Safety Equals Better Boating

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 every day out on the water is a great day.