If not for the courage of the fearless crew, the Minnow would be lost.
It’s just too bad the crew didn’t bring the three pieces of boat safety equipment or even an emergency boat kit along with them.
If they had, they wouldn’t have found themselves shipwrecked.
Or, in the worst case, they would’ve had the boat tools to repair the Minnow or get themselves rescued.
No coconut radios required.
Whether you plan to be on the water for a three-hour tour or out boat camping for several days, you need to plan for anything that could go wrong—with your boat or your passengers—and invest in a boat emergency kit.
Only second to this main priority, your boat needs the appropriate equipment to legally pass inspections both on a federal level and—if on the open seas—by the United States Coast Guard. While some items are required to obtain permits and lower insurance costs, other items are must-haves for every boater on board, including furry passengers.
For preventative measures, you should also know navigation basics, understand charts and follow the “rules of the road” on the waterways.
How to Create Your Boat Emergency Kit
Every boat starts with the same essential emergency kit.
Of course, you might need a slightly different kit with some additional items thrown in based on where you’re boating and what other outdoor activities you’ll be engaged in.
I’ll start you with the basics, then explain what’s required by law in most regions of the United States. Then, I’ll toss in some of those additional items you might find handy. By the end of this post, you’ll know exactly what you need in your boat’s emergency kit.
The Basic Emergency Kit for Boats
We’ve touched on safety equipment for pontoon boats, but pontoons don’t visit large bodies of waters too often. You need a more comprehensive list if you plan to visit high seas and open waters.
Emergency Kit List for Boating at Sea
- Distress flags — Every boater should have the universal S.O.S. flag.
- Reflective tape — Use 3M Coast Guard Flexible Prismatic Reflective Tape (USCGFP) to mark equipment you may need to make visible on board. Comes in several colors and widths.
- Buoys — Your basic buoy style will suffice as a water marker.
- Bailer kit — It’s important to have a boat bilge pump, or at the very least, a basic bailer kit with a few handy items included.
- Hull plugs — Purchase a universal, one-size-fits-all hull plug like this one.
- Desalinator — A saltwater desalinator will be necessary if you become stranded and need fresh water. If you’re not boating in salt water, then you can opt for a regular outdoor water filter.
Last but not least, you need a watertight, floating container to store the recommended items listed above. In fact, you may want to invest in an all-around boat damage control kit which contains multiple needed items, and then add whatever else you need from there.
While these items touch on first aid for your vessel, the following lists cover first aid for passengers.
The Passenger First Aid Kid
The band-aids and Neosporin of a basic First Aid kit are good to have on board, of course, but you’ll need more than that. On the water, especially larger ocean waters, there’s a whole new range of incidents and accidents that can occur.
Passenger First Aid Checklist
- Seasickness tablets — There are plenty of techniques for avoiding seasickness, but when eating ginger candies or staring at the horizon fails, you’ll want to have antiemetics like Bonine or Dramamine on hand. Check out this CruiseCritic article to determine which tablet is right for you.
- Jellyfish sting relief ointments — Don’t pee on jellyfish stings, please! Urinating on jellyfish stings is an old wives’ tale and can trigger a nematocyst’s barbs to release poison and accentuate the pain. True ointments range from straight vinegar to sting ointments like this one.
- Rehydration salts — The World Health Organization does give a suggestion for a homemade formula (½ tsp salt + 6 tsps sugar + 1 qt clean water), but for the sake of convenience, stock Pedialyte packets.
The US Coast Guard’s Required Boat Emergency Kit
If you take your vessel out in the deep blue, there are more pieces of safety equipment you need. (Especially if you come across rough seas or dangerous weather, which can become dangerous.)
This is the USCG’s list of required boating safety equipment, which also can vary depending on the size of boat. Always check your local state boating laws, as they may require additional items to meet additional laws.
The Minimum Guidelines Checklist
- Life jackets and PFDs — You’ll need one PFD jacket for every person on board, and can choose from Type I, Type II, Type III and Type V.
- Flotation device — The Type IV Ring for tossing is needed if boat is 16 foot or more.
- Fire extinguisher — There are different requirements for different sizes of boats, as you can see below. In all cases, I recommend purchasing the Kidde mariner brand of extinguisher.
- Boats 26 feet long or less: One B-1 Handheld Portable
- 26 to 40 feet long: Two B-1 or 1 B-2 Type extinguishers
- 40 – 65 feet long: Three B-1 extinguishers or combo of one B-1 + one B-2
- 65+ feet long: B-2 (amount depending on weight of vessel) + fixed system in machinery
- Sound devices — Boats under 40 foot should carry horns or whistles that can be heard from half a nautical mile away, while 40+ foot boats should have both horn and whistle.
- Visual distress signals — In larger bodies of waters where there are high seas (Great Lakes included) there are some rules to follow for visual signals. Based on the size of your boat, you’ll need either daytime signals or nighttime signals (or both).
Boats less than 16 feet must be carrying three approved night signals. Boats 16 foot or more must have three approved night signals and three day signals on board. For the daytime, you’re legally required to carry three hand-held flares, but be overly-cautious and carry more red aerial flares (seen at longer distances) or parachute flares (burn longer). The latter are standard and used both day and night, but consider this newer electronic device.
If you opt for flares, check the expiration dates before hitting the water.
- VHF radio — Get a mountable VHF radio.
- Extra fuel — Obviously, bring polyethylene diesel fuel container but keep in safe place on boat.
- Toolkit — This toolkit set should do the job, but only you know your boat best. You could make your own tool set and buy extra wrenches, props, spark plugs, pliers and screwdrivers individually.
- Sun protection — Obviously, be sure your sunscreen has high SPF 30+ for worst-case scenarios where you can’t get out of the sun. You can get pretty red while stranded and waiting for a tow.
- A bucket to use as a bailer — This collapsible bucket won’t take up space and you can buy several for more hands.
- Oars or paddles — You’ll see this more technically referred to as Secondary Propulsion, which simply means an extra oar or trolling motor.
- Boat hook — Something like telescoping hooks are great to grab something lost overboard.
- Anchor and chain — Choose the correct anchor for pontoons or boats. Then find the average water depth you’re boating in and multiply that five times to calculate how much chain you need.
- Float plans — Always file a float plan before heading out. And if you’re out on a local lake and not being monitored by USCG, then at the very least, tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to return! You can download a float plan template from the CG Auxiliary site.
The Vessel Safety Check Kit
Also known as a VSC, Vessel Safety Checks are voluntary and performed as a free public service by the U.S. Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary.
They’re done as a courtesy for all boaters, so I suggest you just have it done to make certain all safety equipment is there and in proper conditions. In addition, the volunteers will run through basic boating safety to refresh your memory.
Here’s each item—in addition to what’s required and already mentioned above—that examiners will be checking off:
- Navigation lights — Aside from basic navigation lights, learn how to properly use them to navigate at night.
- Fire extinguisher — Check expiration dates, pressure gauges, seals, tamper indicators, deterioration and clogged nozzles. Refer to Fire Extinguisher guidelines above for number and size requirements.
- Backfire flame control — More widely known as backfire flame arresters, these must be equipped on inboard gasoline engines, and secured to your carburetor air intake. The approval number must be visible. Check your engine manufacturer to specify type you need.
- Overall vessel condition — They will check electric/fuel systems, galley-heating systems, make sure your deck is free of debris, check for hazardous objects, and if you have a clean bilge.
- Ventilation — Was your boat built before 1980? If so, it must have two ventilation ducts capable of ventilating each compartment containing gasoline engines or tanks. The only exception is tanks which vent outside and also contain no unprotected electrical devices. After 1980, your boat must have two ventilation ducts and be fitted with cowl vents like this one.
- Properly displayed number identification and documentation — They want to verify your registration numbers and validation decals are correct. And that you have the correct documentation and registration to provide should you be stopped.
- Navigation rules book — I’m sure there are several available books on the subject, but for safe measure, stick with this one published by the Coast Guard. Absolutely required for boats over 40 foot!
- Pollution placards and MARPOL trash placards — Again, this is only required for boats out at seas to be approved by USCG. You can purchase the entire set here.
- Marine sanitation device — MSDs are only for permanently installed toilets and heads. It’s not required for portable toilets. Learn more about the EPA’s standards.
Vessels who pass the USCG requirements will obtain a VSC decal sticker. This does not, however, give you a free pass from being searched! Visit www.safetyseal.net for more information and to schedule a local VSC inspection.
Federal, State or Local Requirements
You should always check your local laws to double-check safety requirements, but regardless, here’s additional equipment they may strongly encourage and recommend, but not necessarily require:
- Extra anchor and line
- Boat capacity plates/decals
- Person-in-water kit, also known as a PIW kit
- Emergency drinking water — Aside from rehydration salts, you should have extra bottles of water on board too.
Most boating accidents and mishaps can be prevented.
Don’t run out of fuel because of a broken fuel gauge or failing to check before you head out. Don’t forget to check weather conditions before leaving the dock. And always have a tentative plan and know the waters of where you’re headed.
Prevention and attentiveness can save lives!
Brette DeVore is a freelance content writer, editor and marketer. A former interior designer with a love for travel and the outdoors, her specialties range from hospitality and lifestyle to tourism and recreation. Catch her camping beneath the stars, reading by the bonfire.