Safe Boating Requirements & Tips

Prepare your hurricane-damaged vessel for safe boating

Getting a hurricane-damaged boat back into good condition takes commitment, effort and long hours of repair. After expensive replacements, the last thing any boat owner would want is to threaten the safety of the boat’s passengers or the boat itself. With these safety tips, you will better avoid collisions, know how to react in the case of an emergency and ensure every passenger is safe.

Registration and Documentation Numbers

Each boat must have a registration number permanently placed on each side of its forward half. The letters must appear plain, in a contrasting color, vertical and no less than 3 inches high. A space or hyphen should separate the letters from the numbers. Check your specific state’s policy about where to place a state tax sticker. Just like in a car, proper registration and documentation forms must be on board and available upon request. Documentation numbers are to be permanently marked on a visible part of the boat’s interior. To be documented, a boat must be 5 net tons or more.

Life Jackets

Not only can a life jacket keep you afloat, but it can help you survive in cold water and it encourages proper breathing. Personal flotation devices (PFDs) should be readily accessible to every person on the boat. Before boarding, each passenger should be fitted to ensure that the available life jackets can accommodate every person. They should fit tight, and not allow a person’s chin or ears to slip through.

Each state has different regulations that may require children to wear life jackets at all times. Check your specific state’s laws. Regardless, it’s always a good idea for children to keep life jackets on. In the result of a collision, passengers can be thrown into the water from the boat without notice. Life jackets can save lives, but only when they are worn.


Educate every passenger who boards your boat on basic boating safety. Each person should be aware of the areas in which carbon monoxide may accumulate and what the symptoms of poisoning are. Every passenger should know where to find a life jacket that properly fits and where other flotation devices are located.

Teach passengers how to react in the case of an emergency, such as a collision or drowning person. Keep a list of emergency-related phone numbers and radio contacts. If someone is drowning, never enter the water without a helper. If any passenger cannot swim, never allow him or her to enter the water, especially when someone else is in danger of drowning. Ask your passengers if they are certified in CPR. If an emergency arises, you will know who can best assist the victim before rescuers arrive.

If your passengers include children, always set a good example. Wear your own life jacket to convince children that it’s important. Teach them to stay away from the boat propeller, even when it’s at rest. Ask other adults and older children to help keep an eye on the young children, and encourage everyone to sit down while the boat is moving.

Distress Signals

On coastal waters or the Great Lakes, recreational boats longer than 16 ft. are required to carry distress signals. At a minimum, boats of this length must carry three-day and three-night pyrotechnic devices, or a one-day non-pyrotechnic device (typically a flag) and one-night non-pyrotechnic device (typically an auto SOS light).

Boats less than 16 ft. in length are required to bring night visual distress signals while operating from sunset to sunrise. Other boats that are operating on inland waters should have distress signals, although it is not required. As a precaution, invest in a strobe light, signal mirror, flash light, lantern and red flag. The best distress signals create light which notifies to others that help is needed.

Boats are also required to carry sound-producing distress signals in the form of a whistle, horn or siren. The signal must be audible for 4 seconds and reach a half mile away. Boats greater than 39.4 ft. are also required to carry a bell. Distress signals can be lifesaving if your boat’s radio fails or there is a lack of phone reception. Keep these items in a safe place that is readily available.

Preventing Fire

Almost every boat should have a fire extinguisher. All boats with at least one of the following characteristics require an extinguisher by law: in-board engines, closed compartments that store fuel tanks, closed living areas, double-bottom hulls not completely sealed or filled with flotation material and permanently installed fuel tanks. All extinguishers on board should be readily accessible and verified by a professional.

Boats built after August of 1978 must display a certificate of compliance, which shows the boat has adequate ventilation. Boats with gasoline-powered engines in closed compartments built after August of 1980 are required to have a powered ventilation system. Gasoline-powered boats built after April of 1940 are required to have an approved backfire flame control device. This ensures that engine backfire is put into the atmosphere, preventing a fire or an explosion. All system and fuel tanks should be secured away from flammable materials.

Electrical Systems

Your boat’s electrical system should be protected by fuses or a manual reset circuit breaker. Switches or fuses should remain safe from water. Wiring must be properly installed without exposed areas or deteriorated insulation. Wires in poor condition should be replaced. Personal boats require a working self-circling system or kill-switch mechanism.

Under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Coastguard Auxiliary and the U.S. Power Squadrons will provide a free “Vessel Safety Check” (VSC) by certified vessel examiners at your boat’s location. Examiners will meet at a time of mutual convenience and there is no consequences if your vessel does not pass inspection. Most importantly, never run hurricane-damaged boats unless proper repairs and professional inspections have been made.