What Safety Equipment is Required?

June 23rd, 2009

by Captain Alan Stopko

Federal and State laws denote the required safety equipment for all types of boats such as power, sail, canoe, kayak, Jet Ski, or dinghy. On North Carolina’s coast, federal Laws take precedent while on its rivers and lakes state laws apply unless the lake is bounded by two states such as Lake Wylie near Charlotte. Copies of federal and/or state regulations are available from you local Power Squadron or US Coast Guard Auxiliary.

Fines for not having the required safety equipment on board can range from $125 or more to termination of use of your vessel. An example of this is a vessel without the required number of life jackets. A Coast Guard or wildlife officer can levy a fine of not more than $1,000 or imprison not more than one year or both.

Personal Flotation Devices (PFD’s)

All recreational boats must carry one wearable PFD for each person on board. They must be Coast Guard approved, in good serviceable condition, the appropriate size for the intended user, and readily accessible. They should not be stowed in plastic bags, in locked or closed compartments or have other gear stowed on top of them.

Any boat 16 ft or longer (except canoes and kayaks) must also carry one throwable (Type lV PFD) that is immediately available. Children under 13 years old must wear a PFD when the boat is underway which means not anchored or tied to a dock or when not in a cabin.

Visual Distress Signals

Vessels used on the Coast or Lakes under Coast Guard jurisdiction must be equipped with USCG approved and current Visual Distress Signals for day and night use. Most common are three hand held or aerial red flares.

My personal experience is when you need them you never have enough. I carry a combination of pistol launched aerial flares to attract attention from a distance and hand held flares to pinpoint my specific boat. Check for the expiration date, which is clearly printed, on each flare.

Fire Extinguishers

Coast Guard approved fire extinguishers are required on boats where a fire hazard could be expected from motors, fuel system, closed compartments or living spaces. The number and size of extinguisher s depends on your size vessel and whether your vessel has an approved Fixed System. Again like flares, you never have enough extinguishers when you need them.

For vessels less than 65 feet and not having a Fixed System 3 B-1’s or 1 B-11 and 1 B-1 will suffice. They should be located where people sleep, you have a stove or grill, and by the helm.


Gas powered boats built after 1980 or boats using gasoline electric generators are required to be equipped with a powered ventilation system or a blower in working condition. A quick way to check your blower is 3-4 times per year turn it on and with your hand feel for an air discharge on your exhaust ducts.

Sound Producing Device

Vessels are required to make sound signals to indicate your intentions in meeting, crossing or overtaking situations as well as position during reduced visibility. Sound producing devices include horns or whistles and a bell for vessels 39.4 ft or more.

Most powerboats have built in horns, which can corrode over time or not work because of loss of electricity. It is a good idea to have a spare hand held air horn as a back up or use on sailboats.

Backfire Flame Arrestor (BFA)

Gasoline powered engines installed in vessels after April 25, 1940, except outboard motors, must be equipped with a Coast Guard approved backfire flame arrestor. The devise must be suitably attached to the air intake with a flame tight connection.

Navigation Lights

Recreational vessels are required to display navigation lights between sunset and sunrise and other periods of reduced visibility – like fog, rain, haze or snow.

US Coast Guard navigation international and inland rules specify lighting requirements for every description of watercraft. They must be working when you are out at night. You should check them before any trip where you MAY be out after sunset. Also carry spare bulbs and fuses as well as tools to change them.

Pollution Placards

Vessels 26 ft and over are required to carry on board a “Discharge of Oil Prohibited” and a “Discharge of Garbage Prohibited” placards. The oil placard is normally found in the engine compartment and the trash placard in the trashcan area. Both placards are available for free from the Power Squadron or US Coast Guard Auxiliary.

Marine Sanitation Devices

All recreation vessels with installed toilet facilities must have an operable marine sanitation device (MSD) which must be Coast Guard approved. Boating on our lakes and coastal areas are none discharge areas. The operator must secure the device to prevent accidental discharge.

The best way to ensure you are in compliance for required state and federal safety equipment is to have a FREE Vessel Safety Check performed by the Power Squadron or US Coast Guard Auxiliary. To locate the closest examiner go to http://www.usps.org/national/vsc/. In the left margin click on “I want a VSC” then enter your zip code.

Captain Alan Stopko is a US Coast Guard Master with 100 Ton Rating. His experience includes near coastal, Great Lakes, Chesapeake & Delaware Bays, the Inter-Coastal Waterway and inland lakes and rivers. He is also a US Power Squadron Vessel Safety Examiner and conducts local boating safety and on water training classes. You can reach Captain Stopko at alan@pilotmedia.us, ASTOP@aol.com or by calling 704 895-6993.