Prevent accidents, control damage, and preserve life at sea.

Check That Safety Gear!

United States Coast Guard Regulations (as well as common sense) dictate that we shall equip our boats with a variety of systems and devices to prevent accidents, control damage, and preserve life at sea. Requirements vary slightly according to a boat’s size and motive power, but the common principles apply to virtually all watercraft.

Required safety items should be quickly accessible, and some of them really need to be used proactively to be effective. The USCG required fire extinguisher won’t be nearly as effective if it has to be found and dragged out from behind the canned peas or fishing tackle before it can be deployed. USCG rescue personnel relate that many drownings occur when a single-handed fisherman falls out of a small boat. When the drifting boats are eventually recovered, the USCG required, but unworn PFD, is usually stowed under a thwart.

USCG Required Safety Equipment

Boats Under 16 ft
  • PFD One Type I, II, III or V for every person aboard
  • Fire Extinguishers, (vessels without fire suppression system) One Class B-1 extinguisher except outboards of open design
  • Whistle or Sound Signaling Device
  • Backfire Flame Preventer – Required for any gasoline powered boat, except outboards
  • Visual Distress Signals – Three night signals required between sunset and sunrise
  • Navigation Lights – Must comply with Inland or International Rules
  • Ventilation System – Must be in good operating condition and free of obstructions
Boats 16-26 ft – Same as above including:
  • PFD – 1 type IV
  • Visual Distress Signals – Three day signals and three night signals
Boats 26-40 ft – Same as above including:
  • Fire Extinguishers – Two B-1 or one B-II extinguisher
  • Vessels with fire suppression systems need one B-1 extinguisher
Boats 40-65 ft – Same as above including:
  • Fire Extinguisher – Boats without suppression system – Three B-1 extinguishers, or one B-1 and one B-II extinguisher
  • Fire Extinguisher – Boats with suppression system – Two B-1 extinguishers or one B-II extinguisher
  • Whistle or sound signaling device – Boats over 39.4 feet must carry a device audible for at least ½ mile
  • Bell – Boats over 39.4 feet must carry a bell with a mouth diameter of at least 7.9 inches

Personal Flotation Devices (PFD):

Federal regulations require that all boats shall have an approved PFD available for every passenger onboard. Some PFD’s that are actually less than optimal for certain conditions and situations can still be approved by the USCG. Boaters are well advised to gear up for the most severe situations likely to be encountered rather than interpret “USCG Approved” as an automatic endorsement.

Boats larger than 16 feet must also carry at least one “throwable device” classified as a Type IV PFD and described below.

Washington State Law requires children 12 years of age or younger to wear a life jacket at all times aboard any vessel 19 feet or smaller, unless in a fully enclosed cabin compartment. State law also requires water skiers or others being towed behind a boat to actually wear an approved PFD.

Fire Extinguishers:

United States Coast Guard Requirements call for at least one “Marine Type USCG Approved” fire extinguisher aboard most boats with mechanical propulsion. Exceptions are made for outboard powered boats less than 26-feet in length, provided there are no permanently installed fuel tanks, enclosed living spaces, or closed compartments in which combustible liquids could be stored.

Fire extinguishers are designated by the “class” of fire they are designed to extinguish. Class “A” fires are comprised of combustible solids, such as wood or plastic. Class “B” fires are fueled by flammable liquids, like solvents or gasoline. Class “C” fires involve wiring or electrical components.

Backflame Arrestor:

Any sail or powerboat propelled by a gasoline engine (except outboards) is required to have a backflame arrestor fitted to the engine. A gasoline engine backfiring into an enclosed space could become a source of ignition for any residual fuel vapors. Fuel injected gasoline engines will have a backflame arrestor mounted at the head of the air intake manifold. Carbureted gasoline engines will have a backflame arrestor installed between the air cleaner and the top of the carb.

Sound Signaling Devices:

Boats up to 39.4 feet in length must be equipped with a horn, whistle, or other device capable of generating an “efficient sound signal”. The electric horn on most powerboats would qualify under this standard, as would a horn powered by a can of compressed air.

Boats between 39.4 feet and 65.6 feet LOA are required to carry a horn or whistle clearly audible for one-half mile. The loudest electric horns and most permanently mounted compressed air systems will normally meet this requirement.

In addition to a sound signaling device capable of being heard for at least one-half mile, boats between 39.4 feet and 65.6 feet must carry a bell with a mouth diameter of 200mm (about 8-inches) or more. Vessels larger than 65.6 feet will need even larger bells.

Navigation Lights:

Pacific NW cruisers must comply with the International Rules regarding the display of lights and shapes. The following general guidelines apply to power and sailing vessels up to 20-meters (65.6 feet) in length.

Powerboats must display a white masthead light, a white stern light, and two sidelights when underway between sunrise and sunset.

Sailboats operating under mechanical power must display the same sidelights and stern lights as a power vessel, but not the white masthead light. A sailboat is considered a powerboat when the engine is turning the propeller, whether or not any sails are up at the time. When operating under sail alone, a sailboat may use a single, tri-colored light at the masthead (combining the white stern light with the red and green sidelights

Anchor Lights are not required for vessels under 65.6 feet in length when anchored in designated anchorage areas. Anchor lights may be used by any vessel at anchor, even if not required.


Adequate ventilation is desirable on any boat, but considered a USCG safety requirement for all gasoline-powered vessels (except an entirely open boat).

Virtually any gasoline-powered boat sold by a major manufacturer will have been designed with vents and ducts of adequate capacity and proportion to comply with USCG requirements. Beginning with boats built in 1980, all gasoline boats must have a functioning, mechanically driven blower system to ventilate the bilge, and it is illegal to operate such a vessel with the blower system malfunctioning or intentionally disabled.

Visual Distress Signals (VDS):

Most vessels operating on any body of water more than two miles wide are required to carry visual distress signals. Some vessels are legally exempt from carrying visual distress signals during daylight hours, and the list includes pleasure boats under 16-feet in length, any manually propelled vessel, open sailboats less than 26-feet in length that have no mechanical propulsion.

Pyrotechnic flares are the most commonly relied upon VDS devices. Recreational boaters are required to carry three visual distress signals, and these may be either aerial or handheld flares. Pyrotechnic flares will meet both the day and night requirement, so with three flares aboard a boater will always be considered compliant with the minimum regulations.

All flares are packaged with an expiration date, and will not be considered part of a vessel’s inventory of required VSD thereafter.