3 Indispensable Boat Safety Equipment Items to Save Lives

3 Indispensable Boat Safety Equipment Items to Save Lives

Music videos make the nautical lifestyle seem so glamorous. Like all you need for a good time are your swimming trunks and flippy floppies. 

But while spending a day or more out on the water can be wonderful, it's not without its hazards. In 2016, over 700 people in the United States perished from boating accidents. Of this number, 80% were caused by drowning.

The majority were boaters who were not wearing life jackets or PFDs (Personal Flotation Devices), which are a crucial part of boating safety.

So, before you start choosing what shades to wear, it's important to make sure your boat is equipped with the proper equipment.

Basic Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats

These USCG's federal requirements are only a starting base for boat safety equipment. There are many more items you can add to your boat, or bring along with you, to ensure you and your family are as safe as possible and prepared for any situation. These are the basics:
  • State Registration
  • State Numbering
  • Certificate of Documentation
  • Visual Distress Signals
  • Fire Extinguishers
  • Ventilation
  • Throwable Type IV Device
  • Backfire Flame Arrestor
  • Navigational Lights
  • Oil Pollution Placard
  • Garbage Placard
  • Marine Sanitation Devices
  • Navigation Rules

For information on these and more key items, see our comprehensive boat emergency kit. Please note that not all of these requirements apply to boats under 16 feet in length (the oil pollution placard and marine sanitation devices, for example).

 Check with the USCG's website for details on federal requirements based on your vessel size.

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The 3 Life Saving Boat Safety Equipment Items

In my experience, in addition to the boat safety equipment required, there are three other crucial items that should find their way aboard your vessel: A carbon monoxide detector, a VHF radio and an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacon).

Why do I think this equipment should be added to your packing list this boating season? Read on to find out.

1. Carbon Monoxide Detector

Carbon Monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas. When inhaled, it can be fatal within minutes. The source of carbon monoxide on boats is often from engines, but it can also be from generators.

I clearly remember the day my younger two-year-old brother was poisoned by carbon monoxide from a problem with our family boat's generator. My family and I were traveling on our boat for the weekend, along with family and friends on their own boat.

My father was up on the bridge driving while my mother, brother and I were napping in the cabin after being lulled to sleep by the smooth ride. An hour into the trip, my father put the boat on autopilot and came downstairs in the cabin to grab a drink.

When he entered, he saw his sleeping family, but the peaceful scene soon turned to chaos when he realized his son wasn't breathing. My father quickly shook my mother awake, picked up his VHF radio and made a call to the Coast Guard.

Our friends heard his distress call. One of them, a doctor, immediately cut his engines, dove into the water and swam to our boat to begin artificial respiration. The Coast Guard arrived within 10 minutes and swept my mother and brother away to the nearest hospital.

Though my parents suspected CO was the reason for my brother's lack of breathing, they didn't know for sure until it was confirmed at the hospital.

Thankfully, this story has a happy ending, which is why all boat cabins should have a marine-grade carbon monoxide detector.

Best Marine Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Now a mother of a two-year-old, I wouldn't travel on a boat without knowing it had a carbon monoxide detector installed. I highly recommend the MTI Industry Safe-T-Alert series.

MTI Industries offers carbon monoxide detectors in both a flush mount and a surface mount setting. Here are a few variations:

2. Marine VHF Radio

We live in a world of constant communication. From our smartphones, we can connect with someone in seconds by calling, video chatting, tweeting or poking them on Facebook.

When you're out on the water, though, it's smart to carry a Marine VHF radio in addition to your cell phone.

VHF radios are used to communicate with other boats on the water as well as with land-based harbors and marinas. Most importantly, they communicate with the Coast Guard and surrounding vessels in times of distress.

VHF radio Channel 16 is dedicated as the distress channel, and there are three major distress calls you'll hear:

  • May Day: You've likely heard the phrase May Day on TV shows or in movies. In reality, it's not something to say lightly. May Day calls are the most urgent and mean a person or vessel is in immediate life-threatening danger.
  • Pan Pan: This call means a vessel or a passenger needs help, but they're not in any imminent danger. Pan Pan situations can lead to May Day situations depending on the circumstances and how quickly help arrives.
  • Security: This call is like a heads-up and is the least serious of the three distress calls. Security calls warn boaters of inclement weather or navigational hazards.

VHF radios can either be installed on a boat as a fixed mount or as handheld devices. Fixed mounts work over longer distances but require a power source. Handhelds are portable but can't reach as far.

Both options have their pros and cons, so it's up to you to decide which one works best for your boat and boating style. Here are a few excellent options to suit a variety of needs: 

Fixed Mount VHF Radios

Best Handheld VHF Radios

I personally recommend having more than one VHF radio onboard in case of malfunction, or if your group splits up. But remember: When you have a VHF radio on your boat, you need to follow certain rules and regulations set by the United States Coast Guard, the International Maritime Organization, Federal Communications Commission, and National Telecommunications and Information Administration.


It's scary to think, but some boating accidents make it impossible to use a VHF radio to issue a distress call (even if you have one on board). This is why the last piece of boat safety equipment I recommend is an EPIRB or Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacon

As the name suggests, an EPIRB sends out a signal to search and rescue teams, notifying them of your location in the event of an emergency. EPIRBs can either activate automatically when submerged to a certain depth, or manually, depending on whether the EPIRB is a Category I or II. 

Best Category I EPIRBs (Automatic Release)

Best Category II EPIRBs (Manual Release)

Boating is a fantastic way to have fun with friends and family, cool off on hot summer days and see some of nature's beauty from the deck of a boat. This doesn't mean we should forget being out on the water can still be hazardous. 

It's important to take boating safety seriously. Snacks, drinks and games are important for a day out on the water, but not as important as boat safety equipment and gear such as anchor kits, buoysdock lines and fenders.

Make sure you have the essentials packed first, and then grab those flippy floppies and can holders and get on deck.