Boat Safety 101: Key Items to Have When on the Water

A boat safety kit is a must-have on any vessel. Be prepared for inspection by packing these equipment essentials for every water adventure.

November 05, 2018

Whether fishing, water skiing or simply getting out for a float, boating can be an enjoyable time spent outdoors. A perfect sidekick to any maritime moment is a solid safety protocol. Having the right boat safety equipment is essential to making the most of your time spent on the water. Be sure that these must-have boat accessories are ready to go before you ship off from shore.


There are two basic groups that your boat safety gear can fall into: required and recommended. Required equipment is needed to meet the standards set by state and federal authorities on minimum boat safety. Additionally, required gear may need to be presented to game wardens while on the water. These requirements can differ by length of boat, so make sure you understand how long your vessel is before stocking up. The general scale for boat classifications is as follows:


  • Vessels less than 16 feet
  • Vessels 16 – 26 feet
  • Vessels 26 – 40 feet
  • Vessels 40 – 65 feet

Recommended gear, while not mandatory, is still highly encouraged to ensure maximum safety for all boaters.




While all boat safety equipment is essential, items that fall under required safety equipment are an absolute must. To meet state and federal regulations and pass any warden inspections, all boats must carry these safety apparatuses. That means no matter if your boat is man- or engine-powered



A natural inclusion to any boat safety kit, federal law states that each vessel, regardless of length, must have one life vest (or Personal Flotation Device) for each patron on board. In addition, boats 16 feet or longer must always carry one throwable flotation device.


There are different types of PFDs, labeled Type I through Type V. All are permissible under federal law, with Type IV flotation devices as the sole throwable flotation devices. For more information on each type of PFD, be sure to follow these Pro Tips on How to Buy the Right Life Vest.





If your boat is powered by a motor, then it's always smart to have a fire extinguisher on board in case of emergency. Fire extinguishers are classified by letters to indicate the type of fire they’re designed to extinguish:


A for combustible solids, wood, paper, cloth, etc.


B for flammable liquids and gases


C for energized electrical equipment


D for combustible metals


Fire extinguishers also carry a number classification that indicates the amount of extinguishing agent in the canister. To meet standards, you’ll need an approved, marine-type, hand-portable extinguisher, either a B-I (Type B, Size I) or B-II (Type B, Size II).


Your boat’s length will determine how many fire extinguishers you will need to carry on board. Motorboats 26 feet or shorter must carry one B-I fire extinguisher. Motorboats 26 to 40 feet must carry one B-II or two B-I extinguishers. Lastly, motorboats 40 to 65 feet must carry one B-II and one B-I, or three B-I fire extinguishers. It's also recommended that these items are stored in a readily available location for easy access.


PRO TIP: Some motorboats feature a fixed fire extinguishing system in their design. If your boat is equipped with this feature, federal law classifies a fixed system as the equivalent of one B-I fire extinguisher.


When out on the water, you should always have a means of signaling nearby patrons to indicate instances of meeting, crossing, overtaking and, especially, in case of an emergency. According to federal regulations, any boat 40 feet or shorter should carry some means of creating a sound signal that is audible for one-half of a mile. An athletic whistle or handheld horn is an acceptable sound-producing device for these vessels. The human voice is not, however.


For boats longer than 40 feet, it is mandatory that you carry a sound-producing device capable of making an efficient signal that is audible for half of a mile or longer for a duration of four to six seconds.


In addition to sound, visual distress signals are also a necessity for any marine enthusiasts. There are a few different styles of these signals, including red meteor, parachute or handheld boat flares, orange handheld or floating smoke signals, orange distress flags and electric distress lights.


According to law, vessels of any length must carry a combination of three daytime VDSs and three nighttime VDSs. Some boat flares can be used for both circumstances.


Vessels 16 feet or shorter are not required to carry visual distress signals at all times, but must carry them when on the water from sunset to sunrise. The same sunset-to-sunrise requirements apply to sailboats 26 feet and shorter, along with manually propelled boats.


Ensure that all VDSs carry the appropriate federal approval and that they are in good working condition prior to setting sail. Some pyrotechnic boat flares can expire, so make sure to check these dates as well.


Federal and state laws have additional boat safety requirements for other vessel components. Such examples include proper ventilation for fuel and electrical systems, muffling devices and backfire flame control mechanisms for carburetors. Be sure that your vessel meets these extra requirements by researching all federal and state boating regulations prior to launch.




Although the required boat safety equipment listed above can get you to a legal level of security, a boat safety kit made up of just these few items can potentially leave you upstream without a paddle (both figuratively and literally). Therefore, there are a few extra items you should consider packing on your boat for your next adventure.


The first recommended boat safety item is actually something you want to leave behind. Prior to shipping off, it is recommended that you leave a detailed float plan with a responsible friend or family member. This document will outline basic vessel identification marks, a list of patrons on your boat, where you intend to go, how long you intend to be out and other information that can prove helpful in emergency situations. Be sure to leave this information with a trustworthy person with instructions on what to do if you do not check in or return.


While your cellphone can be a great tool for communication and navigation, service might become spotty on the water. To remain in contact with shore and surrounding boaters, consider equipping your vessel with a VHF Marine Radio. A GPS unit, flashlight and Personal Locator Beacon are also good electronic accessories to pack for increased boat safety.


You should also prepare for potential engine or vessel complications when constructing your boat safety kit. A tool kit with extra spark plugs, fuses, bulbs and other small engine components can help you get out of quick mechanical problems on the water.


Additional recommended items to pack for increased safety include an anchor, extra gas can, additional lines for towing, docking, etc., a bailing mechanism or bilge pump to remove water and paddles or oars in case of power failure.


Lastly, it is always smart to keep a first-aid kit, along with a compass, extra clothes and emergency food and water on the boat with you. Having these items can help solve a number of maritime misfortunes.


Before you set sail for newfound adventures, be sure that your boat safety equipment is nothing short of ship shape. Use these Pro Tips to pack your vessel with the right gear to pass inspections and experience a secure and enjoyable outing offshore.