It’s a foolish sailor who heads out to sea with no safety gear on board. It’s also illegal to not have many basic safety items on hand as well. Save yourself the frustration and potential danger by making sure you have everything you need ahead of time. A lot of safety equipment required on a boat is obvious. Some is not. And some we recommended even if it is not legally required.

Boat Safety Equipment You Need on Board

Boat safety is extremely important. Far too many casual boaters don’t take it seriously enough and the results are tragic. Every year there are hundreds of boating deaths and thousands of injuries. Many of these could have been prevented with the responsible use of safety equipment. Let’s take a look at what you want to have on board.

How Many Life Jackets Do I Need?

This should be your first concern when it comes to safety gear. You are required to have one personal floatation device on board for every single passenger on the vessel. These personal flotation devices must be approved by the United States Coast Guard. Any Coast Guard approved device will make it clear that it is approved. Approved types include type I, II or III PFDs. The life jackets need to be in good condition. Everyone should know how to put it on and it should fit properly.

If your boat exceeds 16 feet in length, you also need a throwable flotation device. All crew and passengers should know where it is. This can be used in a man overboard situation.

Are Fire Extinguishers Required?

A fire extinguisher should be on board your boat. However, if you do not have a motor you do not require a fire extinguisher legally. Likewise, if you have an outboard motor on a boat under 26 feet with no permanent fuel tanks you do not need an extinguisher.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard it needs to have either B-I or B-II classification. In order to meet specs an extinguisher has to offer the following:

  • Minimums of a 5 B:C U/L rating
  • 2lbs. of dry chemical
  • 2. lbs. of Halon
  • or 5 lbs. of CO2

There are also rules for the number of extinguishers.

  • A powerboat less than 26 feet must have one B I extinguisher on board. This doesn’t include outboards, as we said.
  • Boats 26 feet to 40 feet must have two B I extinguishers or one B II.
  • 40 feet to less than 65 feet must have 3 B I, or one B I and one B II

We recommend keeping a fire extinguisher even on small craft like personal watercraft. They run on fuel and contain engines. There have been many cases in the past when a PWC overheated and caught fire. It’s definitely something you want to have on hand, just in case.

What Signals are Required?

Boats are required to have visual signals as well as sound signaling devices. Approved visual distress signals include day shapes and flags. Navigation lights on a boat are also a part of the required safety equipment. These must always be kept in good working order. In addition, tools like

If you are in a boat under 16 feet in length you do not need day shapes. Likewise, signals are not needed on manually propelled boats. This only applies if they are being used during the day, however. Any boat at night needs some kind of signals.

Visual signals are required on any boat at night. Vessels over 16 feet need them if they operate in coastal waters or the Great Lakes. The Coast Guard requires that recreational vessels carry three day and three night visual distress signals.

Signals include the following:

  • Hand-held flares
  • Floating orange smoke
  • Flare guns
  • Orange flag
  • Electric distress light
  • Dye markers
  • Code flags
  • Square flag and ball
  • Day shapes

Even the waving of arms can be considered a distress signal. Remember, three signals are required, not one of each. Pyrotechnic devices like flares have expiration dates so be aware of those.

What is an Efficient Sound Producing Device?

If your boat is less than 39.4 it needs to have an airhorn or whistle on board. Something that can make a sound other boaters will hear. If your boat is over that size it needs the airhorn plus a bell or a whistle.

Radio and Other Signal and Tracking Tools

You’re going to want to make sure you have a functional VHF radio on your boat. You are not legally required to have a VHF radio on your vessel. That said, you really should have one. Do you need one on a little fishing boat on the lake? No. But if you’re in coastal waters, it would be foolish not to have one. Likewise, in the Great Lakes it could save your life. In an emergency, communication is key. VHF radios are often more reliable than cell phones. They also have dedicated channels to help you communicate.

Channel 9 is for non-commercial vessels. This is for communication between recreational boaters. If someone has an issue they may bring it up here. It’s a good channel to monitor for non-emergency communications.

Channel 16 is the key channel for safety. This is the international hailing and distress frequency. A mayday call can be put out over channel 16. The Coast Guard can be contacted on channel 16. Remember, it’s specifically for emergency use.

You should have a chart on board that explains all the frequencies and their purpose. In an emergency however, remember channel 16.

Make sure you understand the difference between an emergency and nin-emergency distress situation.

Distress is defined as a situation where you or your boat are threatened by grave danger with loss of life or the vessel being imminent.

That means you never want to place an emergency distress call if your batteries died or you ran out of fuel. While those are kinds of emergencies, they are not distress emergencies

If your situation is not a distress, you can call the Coast Guard without using a mayday. Channel 16 VHF/FM and 2182khz HF/SSB are dedicated distress and calling frequencies and are monitored at all times by the USCG.

The Coast Guard may be able to assist in finding you help for your situation even if it is not an imminent emergency. That means perhaps they can help coordinate another vessel coming to bring you fuel or charge batteries. They will likely monitor the situation until it is resolved as well.

Never make a mayday call unless you are in a serious emergency. A false mayday call is against the law and can result in fines.

There is a proper procedure for making a mayday call. Make sure you know what to say and how in an emergency. The more accurate a call you can make the easier it will be for the Coast Guard to help you out.


This is another vital tool to have on your boat. EPIRB stands for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. In the event you need to abandon ship or other serious emergencies, this could save your life. It sends a signal that allows rescuers to pinpoint your location. Again, this is not legally required to be on board. However, we strongly recommend everyone invest in one if they boat on large bodies of water.

Checklist of Safety Equipment

  • Lifejackets for every passenger. Inspect them thoroughly to ensure they are secure and fit properly.
  • Fire extinguishers. Check to see how many and of what kind based on the size of your boat.
  • VHF radio. Always test the radio before heading out to ensure it works.
  • GPS
  • EPIRB. This is not legally required but very highly recommended.
  • Day/night signals. Check to see how many you require based on the size of your boat.
  • Sound signal device. Check the requirements for how many and what kind based on the size of your boat.
  • Two anchors. One should be secured to the rode and safely stored.
  • First aid kit. Make sure it is a good quality kit with a everything you could need. A checklist can be found here.
  • Charged batteries. A good multimeter can help you check the charge. Having a charger on board is also a good idea as well.
  • Tools and spare parts.
  • Extra fuel. It needs to be secured and safely stored.
  • Flashlight. Make sure the batteries are working.
  • Charts and a compass. Electronic charts are the standard these days, but it’s always good to have paper ones in case of an emergency.
  • Fenders
  • Lines. You’ll want to have at least 3 spare dock lines
  • Boat hook.
  • Bailer. In case of flooding.
  • Cell phone. For emergency use in case the radio fails for some reason.

A Note on Phones

We recommend having a cellphone on board. This should never be a substitute for a VHF radio, however. Consider a cell phone more of a backup in case of emergencies. If a VHF radio fails, a cell phone may be a good tool to use.

Other Safety Items

There are things on your boat that help improve safety as well. These aren’t pieces of gear you’ll bring on board each time, however. For instance, proper ventilation. This is something you need to inspect. If your boat was built after 1980 then you need at least two ventilation ducts. These must be capable of efficiently ventilating every closed compartment that contains a gasoline engine and/or tank. The exception is those with permanently installed tanks which vent outside of the boat. That’s so long as they contain no unprotected electrical devices. Engine compartments containing a gasoline engine with a cranking motor are required to contain power operated exhaust blowers which can be controlled from the instrument panel.

If a boat was built prior to 1980 it needs ducts with cowls or the equivalent. These are for ventilating the bilges of every closed engine and fuel tank compartment. Anything where explosive or flammable gases are used.

A backfire flame arrestor is also needed on each carburetor of all gasoline engines except outboard motors.

Pre-Launch Safety Check

In addition to having the right gear, you need to ensure your vessel is in safe working condition. After checking that you have the right items on board, check these items to make sure they are in good condition.

  • Engine and fuel systems. Check coolant and oil. Look for any leaks, breaks, etc. Make sure the blower switch is working.
  • Electronics. Double check battery levels. Make sure radio, GPS and other electronics are in working order. Ensure all lights and other electronics are able to turn on and off before departure.
  • Bilge. Make sure vents are working and bilge pump is functioning.
  • Ground tackle. Check your anchor, anchor rode, winch, etc.
  • Through hulls. Make sure Strainers, intakes and exhaust or discharge fittings are all clear. Check all valves and hoses.
  • Lifelines and rails
  • Make sure the deck isn’t slippery and the non-skid surfaces aren’t dirty
  • Forecast. This can’t be overlooked. If you’re heading out for a day, check the weather report. You can prepare for bad weather much more easily if you know it’s coming.
  • Documentation. Make sure you have your licenses, permits, registration and a float plan on board. Leave a copy of your float plan on shore with a friend or family member. In case of an emergency, this may help the Coast Guard track your vessel.

The Bottom Line

There are many pieces of boating safety equipment designed to keep you and your passengers safe at sea. We’ve listed everything we think is a must have for any boater. Not everything we listed is legally required to be on a boat. But when it comes to safety, we never recommend cutting corners. It’s better to be over prepared than under. With so many potential ways for something to go wrong, you want to make sure you’re doing everything you can. Remember, it’s not just your safety. There are passengers and other boaters who may be in peril as well.

Keep your safety gear up to date and in good order. As always, stay safe and have fun.