Schedule a demo to enter to win free SeaKits Essentials


The Next Step After Shopping For Safety


The trip to the chandlery is just the beginning. Learning how to use your gear comes next.

When it comes to safety equipment, most boaters start out doing just the right thing: We purchase products with a reputation for saving lives. However, after taking this crucial first step, we often just hang the gear on the rail or pack it away in a locker, assuming that our job is done. But it isn’t. Buying proper safety gear simply initiates our comprehensive, planned, and practiced on-the-water safety regimens.

Next Step: Life Jackets

It’s one thing to buy a quality life jacket. It’s another to practice putting it on and taking it off, then trying to climb back into a boat with one on. If you’ve never pulled the cord on an inflatable, getting an idea of what it’s like to land in the water and have your comfortable inflatable life jacket burst into a couch cushion-sized flotation device can be an eye-opener. There are two ways to get this real-world experience: 1. Jump into the water and try your life jacket yourself, which will also give you an opportunity to learn how to replace your CO2 canister and bobbin. 2. Attend a hands-on boating-safety seminar or course near you (see sidebar). Most programs give you a chance to try out a variety of different life jacket types in a safe environment so you can build familiarity through practice.

Next Step: VHF Radios

If the time comes to call for help, your electronic communications equipment is your lifeline of last resort. And we’re not talking about your cell phone here. (See below “Reach For The Radio First”) VHF radios equipped with Digital Selective Calling (DSC) offer effective distress signaling and facilitate a prompt response that can add up to lives being saved. But the chief advantages of this system can’t work if you don’t take the time to register the radio with a Maritime Mobile Service Identity number (the number is available to Members for free from BoatUS) and hook it up to your GPS. Once programmed and installed properly, a DSC-equipped VHF, with the push of a button, will broadcast an automatic digital distress signal that encodes your boat’s name and position into the signal relayed both to the U.S. Coast Guard via a Rescue 21 tower and to other vessels within range.

Next Step: Crew-Overboard Gear

Specialized crew-recovery equipment, such as a throw rope or a Lifesling, requires not just practice but also a bit of planning that’s specific to your boat. Each boat and crew needs to have a well-conceived plan that everyone is ready to implement, and it’s important to play this plan out in advance when things are completely calm on board your boat. Your plan may be as simple as the skipper designating a spotter who points continuously toward the victim in the water while the crew tosses flotation to the victim, then returns on a reciprocal course, shuts off the engine, and makes contact with the victim using a throw rope or life ring. Boats with swim platforms have a built-in advantage, but you still have to know how to get your crewmember safely to the stern while avoiding the prop. Fortunately, this drill is easy to practice on the water by attending a hands-on-safety course or doing it on your own by using a seat cushion or life jacket as a stand-in for a person in the water.

Practicing with crew-overboard devices will make you more confident in a crisis.

The bottom line is that we can’t shop our way to on-the-water safety. We have to become really familiar with our gear, how it works, and how it feels to use it. That way, if we ever really need it, we’ll be able to react instantaneously and calmly at a time when every minute counts.

Put The Phone Down. Reach For The Radio First

If you ever got into a situation on your boat where you really needed help — if you struck a submerged log and were already ankle deep in water, for example, or if you thought you might be having a heart attack — and your cell phone was lying next to your VHF radio, which would you reach for first? If you thought, even for a moment, that you should grab the cell phone and dial 911 before using the VHF radio, think again.

Your radio links you not just to other boaters who might be close enough to come to your assistance but also to the network of towers that make up the Coast Guard’s Rescue 21 system. Conceived two decades ago and rolled out over the last 10 years, the Rescue 21 system was designed to extend VHF coverage to 20 miles offshore and to eliminate coastal coverage gaps in the old system. The interlocking coverage ranges of the Rescue 21 towers now blanket over 40,000 miles of coastline, including the entire Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts of the continental United States, as well as along the shores of the Great Lakes, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Each tower is equipped with direction-finding equipment that can provide a bearing to your location. If your VHF-radio call is received by multiple towers, those bearings can be used to triangulate your signal and find you, even if you don’t know your position. In most cases, Rescue 21 can pinpoint your location in minutes, all but eliminating search time so that help reaches you much faster.

But what if you are suffering from a heart attack and can’t make a VHF call? If your radio is equipped with Digital Selective Calling (DSC) and has been programmed with an MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity), all you need to do is press the distress button. The radio will transmit your 9-digit MMSI number and, if it has its own internal GPS or has been hooked up to the boat’s GPS, it will also transmit your location. DSC radios aboard other boats within VHF range will display this information, so that your emergency signal reaches nearby potential rescuers. Once your signal is picked up by Rescue 21 towers, Coast Guard watch standers can use your MMSI number to identify you, confirm the emergency, and get details of your boat that will be helpful in the search-and-rescue effort.

Given the DSC-equipped VHF radio’s technological advantage, plus a track record that includes more than 75,000 Rescue 21 missions, it surprises the U.S. Coast Guard that so many boaters will still dial 911 instead of using the VHF radio when things go wrong. Let’s be clear: Even assuming your signal and the call doesn’t get dropped midsentence, cell phone calls do not automatically reach U.S. Coast Guard rescue-operations centers, and they do not provide those centers with your current location. Rescue 21 towers can’t detect a cell phone signal, so they can’t triangulate on your location. When you call in your emergency using your cell phone, boats in your area won’t be alerted, and rescue-craft operators can’t directly communicate with you. If you’re having a medical emergency and can’t speak, there’s no button to push that will instantly signal your need for assistance.

So reach for the VHF. But before you do it in an emergency, get familiar with its capability. One way to do that is by making boat-to-boat DSC calls to your friends using their MMSIs and familiarizing yourself with radio talk versus cell phone chatter. If you don’t have a DSC-equipped VHF, consider upgrading. BoatUS members can get a free MMSI for use in U.S. waters.

Hands-On Safety Course

Safety-training seminars are useful for both powerboaters and sailors, and they build confidence with equipment by means of practice. One session may instruct boaters how to jump into a swimming pool while wearing different kinds of life jackets and flotation aids; another may lead them through a participatory mock crew-overboard recovery. Programs such as Safety At Sea, which originated at the U.S. Naval Academy, offer opportunities to try out a variety of life jackets and teach skills including learning to bleed off the air in your inflatable using the purge valve on the oral-inflation tube, then reflating the life jacket orally — a life-saving technique if you’re ever trapped under an overturned boat.

U.S. Powerboating

Courses offered: On-the-water boathandling and cruising.

U.S. Sailing

Courses offered: Safety-at-Sea seminars with basic, coastal, and offshore levels.

U.S. Power Squadrons

Courses offered: Classroom and on-the-water instruction, from boating basics through advanced piloting.

BoatUS Foundation

Courses offered: Multimedia-based online courses on basic boating safety, clean boating, weather, VHF, and much more.

Ralph Naranjo

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine