Boating Safety Equipment

Required By Tom: Minimum Required Boating Safety Equipment

The boating gear that could save your life


Sunscreen, a VHF radio, a paddle and an anchor, along with a small emergency toolkit/first aid kit, can make a world of difference when you run into problems out on the water in a small boat. Sunscreen, a VHF radio, a paddle and an anchor, along with a small emergency toolkit/first aid kit, can make a world of difference when you run into problems out on the water in a small boat.

The laws require certain equipment to be carried aboard boats, depending on the size and intended use of the vessel. These minimum boating requirements can be found in many places, including at BoatSafe.

That list is only the beginning of my list of required equipment aboard small power and sail boats. I have learned over the years that things don't always go well on the water, but some simple items can really make your day — or save your life.

These are the 5 categories of safety equipment that every boat should always have on board, above and beyond what the Coast Guard requires. No matter how small your boat, you should give consideration to carrying these supplies with you whenever you go out in your boat:

  1. Protection From the Elements
  2. A Way to Move the Boat
  3. A Way to Stop the Boat
  4. A Way to Call for Help
  5. Supplies & Equipment to Fix the Boat and the People

Protection Against the Elements

When people get stuck out on boats for a while and then get rescued, they are almost always said to be suffering from dehydration and exposure, whether to cold weather or to sun and heat. Be prepared to get stuck out there in the likely weather conditions. In our part of the world, a nice day can quickly become a cold night. You may not plan on being out at night, but it can happen. Carry warm clothes, foul-weather gear to protect yourself from rain or spray, clothing and sunscreens to protect yourself from the sun. I keep a sealed gallon water jug on all my small boats, replacing it annually, and carry an extra bottle or two on kayak expeditions.

A Way to Move the Boat

On any boat small enough to paddle in calm water (up to about 20' in general) I like to carry a paddle. I paddled my 18' Hydra Sports once, and it wasn't much fun, but I did make progress. A trolling motor is another good backup, as is an auxiliary engine. Whatever the method, I want to have some alternative way to move the boat, should the primary means fail. Sails count, so I'm happy on a sailboat with an outboard, but on the small ones, I like to carry a paddle anyway. On kayaks, I keep my paddle leashed to the boat. I have a home-made paddle leash, but commercially made ones are available. I once dropped my paddle while in a strong wind and current in a remote part of Bimini harbor. I was barely able to retrieve it, and had I not grabbed it, I stood a really good chance of drifting for quite a long time out on the Bahama Bank, paddling only with my hands. Backup paddles would not be a bad idea, but I'm OK with just a leash.

A Way to Stop the Boat

Don't leave the dock without an adequate anchor and enough anchor chain and rode to stop your boat in strong wind and chop. The best size and type of anchor will depend on many factors, but my rule of thumb is one pound of anchor and one foot of chain per foot of boat length. Total anchor scope should be 7 feet per foot of depth, but Bruce anchors work well with less scope.

I have been in situations with inadequate bottom tackle, and been without an anchor when I needed one. There's no feeling quite like really, really wanting to stop a boat, and having no way to do it. There's also no reason for it, and you don't want to experience it. Carry the anchor, even for a short little trip around from a boat ramp to a nearby dock.

A Way to Call for Help

Carry at least one communication device, whether that is a cell phone or a VHF radio. I like the handheld submersible VHF radios for small boats, because they're rugged and waterproof. If I carry a phone, I carry a waterproof container that will float with the phone inside. Keep in mind that cell coverage can be spotty or non-existent out on the water, and be aware of whether you get cell coverage in the area you're boating in. Obviously, cell phones are only useful if you have cell coverage.

Boats don't always remain right side up, and stuff does not always remain in the boat even if it does not capsize. When I nearly drifted out of Bimini harbor onto the Bahama bank in my kayak, my handheld VHF was safely back aboard the big boat. Don't leave it behind. Things can go horribly wrong if you can't call for help, and modern tools to call for help are cheap and easy to carry along.

Equipment and Tools to Fix the Boat and the People

Carry a tool kit and some basic first aid supplies. See the linked articles for a fuller discussion of what your boating tool kit and your boating first aid kit should contain. My tiny tool kit for my small boats contains both a small selection of tools and my first aid supplies, but on a bigger boat, of course, you'll want a large, well-equipped tool kit and a well-stocked first aid kit.


Other items I carry are mission-specific, but all of these minimum requirements come into play every time I go out on a powerboat, a sailboat, a jetski, or a kayak. I want to be able to call for help, I want to be protected from the elements while I await rescue, I want to have a backup plan for moving the boat, and at least one plan for stopping the boat, and I want to have at least some capability to repair the boat and treat the people should that become necessary.

The items required by law are not a minimum equipment list for small boats for me, they are the beginning of one. I actually had a life jacket along that day in Bimini harbor, for all the good it would have done me. The life jacket couldn't retrieve my paddle, move my boat, stop my boat, call for help, protect me from the sun or the cold, or allow me to fix my boat if it broke. If I had observed even a few of my own rules that day, I would not have come so close to being swept out onto the open waters of the Bahama Bank. That incident, and several others, could easily have ended in disaster, and that is why I have developed my own set of minimum equipment requirements for small boats.

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