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U.S. Coast Guard Safety Equipment
Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)
Visual Distress Signals
Fire Extinguishers
Backfire Flame Control
Sound Producing Devices
Navigation Lights

Courtesy Marine Examinations
U.S. Documentation
U.S. State Regulations & Registration
Canadian Vessel & Operator Licensing
Canadian Equipment Requirements
U.S. Coast Guard Boarding Policy
U.S. Law Enforcement

Boating Under the Influence (BUI)
Negligent Operation
Termination of Use
Reporting Accidents
Rendering Assistance

Operator Licenses
Customs Clearance
Pollution Regulations
Marine Sanitation Devices
Vessel Bridge-to-Bridge Radiotelephone Regulations
Vessel Traffic Services


Most vessels plying the coastal waters of North America are subject to international, federal, and state regulations. In this chapter we present some of the more important regulations for our readership. Most are laws of the United States, and you should consider them so unless otherwise noted. Some are referred to and elaborated upon in subsequent chapters; they are specifically noted.

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U.S. Coast Guard Safety Equipment

This section covers the minimum requirements needed to satisfy United States Coast Guard regulations. Many boaters, especially those venturing offshore, will want to carry additional items. At the very least, most boats should carry backup supplies of flares in case any of them must be used (or in case any fail to work properly).

To meet U.S. Coast Guard standards, all equipment must be Coast Guard approved; approved equipment will be labeled as such. There is no prohibition against carrying additional non-approved equipment.

In addition to the equipment listed below, all vessels must comply with the Navigation Rules regarding navigation lights and sound signals. Refer to Chapter 1, Navigation Rules, for this information.

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Personal Flotation Devices

PFDs must be Coast Guard approved and in "good and serviceable" condition. They should be the appropriate size for each person wearing them, must be readily accessible, and must be removed from any plastic or other wrapping. Obviously, they should not be stored in locked or remote lockers. Other gear should not be stored on top of PFDs. All throwable devices must be instantly available.

When applicable, it is important to buy PFDs that are specifically designed for small children. Most adult-sized flotation devices do not fit a smaller person properly and, in fact, may cause the person wearing one to float in a dangerous position. Some states require that PFDs be worn by children of specific ages under certain conditions. Check with your state boating safety officials.

Remember, PFDs will keep you from sinking, but not necessarily from drowning. Take the time to select a properly sized PFD to ensure a safe fit. Testing your PFD in shallow water or a guarded swimming pool is a good and reassuring practice.

Though not required by law, it is advisable to wear a PFD at all times when underway. A point often overlooked is the great danger present in using small dinghies away from the large boat. Small boats are inherently less stable and seaworthy than larger ones. PFDs are required on board all vessels large and small, except that there are some federal and state exemptions for racing kayaks, wind surfers, and the like.

Types Of PFDs
Type I PFDs are designed as offshore lifejackets. They provide more buoyancy than other types and are designed to turn an unconscious wearer in the water to a face-up position. Type I jackets come in sizes for adults and children. The smaller jackets provide a minimum of 11 pounds of buoyancy; the larger jackets provide at least 22 pounds of buoyancy.

Type II PFDs are designed as near-shore lifejackets and, although they will turn some unconscious wearers to a face-up position in the water, the turning action is not as pronounced as with Type I PFDs. Adult sizes provide at least 15.5 pounds of buoyancy; medium childrenÕs sizes provide about 11 pounds. Small childrenÕs sizes provide at least 7 pounds of buoyancy.

Type III PFDs are to be used in near-shore waters when there is a good chance of a quick rescue. Wearers will usually have to turn themselves face-up in the water and may have to lean back to avoid turning face-down. Type IIIs have the same minimum buoyancy as Type IIs and come in many types and styles. They are often designed with fashion in mind, as well as safety. Float coats and vest styles can often be worn to provide extra warmth in addition to safety.

Type IV PFDs are throwable devices intended for use in near-shore waters. They are not designed to be worn in the water. The most common type is the popular flotation cushion, which is often used in dinghies and small craft. Horseshoe buoys, another Type IV PFD, are often found on the stern pulpits of offshore boats. These devices often remain in the sun for long periods and should be inspected frequently for wear. Note that Type IV PFDs no longer fulfill the PFD requirement for small boats.

Type V PFDs are special-use devices designed for particular water activities. They may be carried instead of another PFD only if used according to the approval condition on that label. These devices include deck suits, work vests, board sailing vests, and hybrid pfds. A typical use is aboard offshore oil platforms where a normal PFD would be too bulky or too fragile.

HYBRID PFDs are the least bulky of all. They incorporate both inherent buoyancy and inflatable chambers to provide additional buoyancy. Their performance is equal to a Type I, II, or III PFD (as noted on the PFD label) when inflated. Hybrid PFDs must be worn when underway to be acceptable.

PFD Requirements

Boats less than 16 feet in length (including canoes and kayaks of any length) must carry at least one Type I, II, III, or V PFD for each person on board. Boats longer than 16 feet must carry at least one Type I, II, III, or V PFD for each person on board. In addition, at least one Type IV (throwable device) must be carried.

Note: If a Type V device is used to count toward requirements, it must be worn. Federal regulations require PFDs on canoes and kayaks of any size; they are not required on racing shells, rowing skulls, or racing kayaks. State laws may vary.

Water-skiers are considered to be aboard the vessel and PFDs are required for them. It is advisable for skiers to wear PFDs that are designed to withstand the potential impact of a fall at high speed.

State laws may differ and be more strict. Some states require skiers to wear a PFD; others may require all children under a specified age to wear a PFD.

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Visual Distress Signals

See Chapter 8, Safety, for more information on "Distress and Rescue." Coast Guard Requirements. All vessels used on coastal waters, the Great Lakes, territorial seas, and those waters connected directly to them, up to a point where a body of water is less than two miles wide, must be equipped with U.S.C.G. approved visual distress signals. Vessels owned in the United States operating on the high seas must be equipped with U.S.C.G. approved visual distress signals. The following vessels are not required to carry day signals, but must carry night signals when operating from sunset to sunrise:

(a) Recreational boats less than 16 feet in length;
(b) Boats participating in events such as races, regattas, or parades;
(c) Open sailboats, with no engines and under 26 feet long; and
(d) Manually propelled boats.

Non-pyrotechnic Devices

These include a three-foot square orange distress flag with a black square above a black ball (day use only), and an electric distress light that automatically flashes the international SOS signal (night use only). The international SOS signal is three short flashes, followed by three long flashes, followed by three more short flashes ( * * * - - - * * * ). When flashed four to six times a minutes, this is an unmistakable distress signal, well known to many boaters. These non-pyrotechnic devices must be Coast Guard approved.

Pyrotechnic Devices

Again, all of these devices must be Coast Guard approved and be within their marked service life. The four basic types of pyrotechnic devices are:

(a) Handheld red flares;
(b) Orange smoke, handheld or floating (day use only);
(c) Aerial red meteors, fired from a flare gun or a self-contained launcher; and
(d) Parachute flares, fired from a flare gun or a self-contained launcher.

Boats must carry a minimum of three day and night flares or their equivalents to meet requirements; for greater safety, carry a larger number.

Warning: Some states, and several countries, consider flare guns as firearms. Check with state authorities or customs officials before carrying these launchers.

Notes on flares:
Many types of flares meet the minimum requirements for distress signals, but recent tests indicate a great difference in performance among the various types. As with most things, the more you spend, the better the results. The common 12-gauge flare pistol will launch meteors up to about 250 feet. A 25mm gun can launch either meteors or parachute flares up to 375 feet. Several types of handheld parachute flare launchers can achieve altitudes near 1,000 feet. The higher the launch, the greater the range of visibility. Parachute flares may be visible for up to a minute after launch; meteors last only briefly. The farther from land you travel, the better your distress signals should be. Always carry more than the minimum required.

SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) approved flares meet stringent requirements and are preferred for offshore use. There are SOLAS approved devices on the market that may not carry Coast Guard approval. They cannot be used to meet the legal requirements, even though they are excellent distress signals.

Each type of distress signal may come in to play during a rescue. Meteors, or parachute flares, could be used to attract attention, either day or night. Do not waste your limited supply of flares; do not launch one unless you are sure that there is someone to see it - a vessel or low-flying aircraft. Handheld flares or orange smoke could be useful in directing rescue vessels to your location. Orange smoke is particularly useful in attracting aircraft during daylight hours.

Great care should always be taken with any pyrotechnic signal. These devices produce a very hot flame, and the ash and slag can cause injury or ignite flammable material. Handheld flares are particularly notorious for dropping red-hot slag. If possible, put on leather gloves before igniting handheld flares. Always point the devices away from the vessel and downwind. The Coast Guard recommends firing flares at an angle of about 60 degrees above the horizon in calm winds. As the wind increases you may fire the flare closer to the vertical. Never fire the device straight up - watch out for masts and rigging above your head! Look away from the device before firing.

When pyrotechnic devices reach their expiration date they may no longer be used to meet the Coast Guard requirements. Most boaters keep these expired devices as backups to their fresh supply. If expired flares are removed from the boat, make sure that they are disposed of properly. Turn them over to the fire department, police, boating officials, or the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Never "test" fire flares from a boat without the express permission of the Coast Guard; regulations expressly forbid the display of flares except when assistance is needed.

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Fire Extinguishers

Coast Guard approved fire extinguishers are required on boats where the following conditions exist:

(a) Inboard engines are used;
(b) Fuel is stored in closed compartments;
(c) Portable fuel tanks are stored in closed compartments;
(d) Boats with double bottoms not sealed or filled with flotation material;
(e) Closed living spaces;
(f) Flammable materials stowed in closed compartments;
(g) Permanent fuel tanks, or portable tanks that can't be lifted by those aboard.

In practice, most boats with any type of fuel aboard need to carry at least one fire extinguisher. Most boaters will want to carry several.

Extinguishers are classified by a letter and number symbol. The letter indicates the type of fire the unit is designed to extinguish. (Type B, for example, is designed to extinguish flammable liquids such as gasoline, oil, and grease.) The number indicates the relative size of the extinguisher (minimum extinguishing agent weight).

Coast Guard approved extinguishers are handportable, either B-I or B-II classification, and have a specific marine mounting bracket. It is recommended that the extinguishers be mounted in a readily accessible position.

Class Foam Dry CO2 Chemical Halon
gals lbs lbs lbs
B-I 1.25 4 2 2.5
B-II 2.5 15 10 10

All extinguishers must be periodically inspected to make sure they are fully charged and all seals are secure. Pressure gauges should be in the operable range. Weigh extinguishers annually to be sure that the minimum weight is as stated on the extinguisher label. Generally, any use of an extinguisher means it should be replaced or recharged. Halon units must be inspected and tagged frequently. Their pressure gauges are not accurate indicators of the state of charge.Boats less than 26 feet long must have one type of B-I extinguisher.

Boats 26 feet to less than 40 feet long must have at least two B-I extinguishers or one B-II. With an approved fixed system (nonportable, automatic extinguishers), only one additional B-I type need be carried. Boats 40 feet to 65 feet long must carry at least three B-I extinguishers or one B-II and one B-I. If an approved fixed system is installed, two B-I types, or one B-II, will meet the portable extinguisher requirement.

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All boats that use gasoline for electrical generation, mechanical power, or propulsion are required to be equipped with a ventilation system.

A natural ventilation system is required for each compartment in a boat that:

1. contains a permanently installed gasoline engine;
2. has openings between it and a compartment that requires ventilation;
3. contains a permanently installed fuel tank and an electrical component that is not ignition-protected;
4. contains a fuel tank that vents into that compartment (including a portable tank); and
5. contains a nonmetallic fuel tank.

A natural ventilation system consists of a supply opening or duct from the atmosphere (located on the exterior surface of the boat) or from a ventilated compartment or from a compartment that is open to the atmosphere, and an exhaust opening into another ventilated compartment or an exhaust duct to the atmosphere.

Each exhaust opening or exhaust duct must originate in the lower one-third of the compartment. Each supply opening or supply duct and each exhaust opening or duct in a compartment must be above the normal accumulation of bilge water. A powered ventilation system is required for each compartment in a boat that has a permanently installed gasoline engine with a cranking motor for remote starting.

A powered ventilation system consists of one or more exhaust blowers. Each intake duct for an exhaust blower must be in the lower one-third of the compartment and above the normal accumulation of bilge water.

For boats built prior to 1980, there was no requirement for a powered ventilation system; however, some boats were equipped with a blower.

The Coast Guard Ventilation Standard, a manufacturer requirement, applies to all boats built on or after August 1, 1980. Some builders began manufacturing boats in compliance with the Ventilation Standard as early as August 1978. If your boat was built on or after August 1, 1978, it might have been equipped with either (1) a natural ventilation system or, (2) both a natural ventilation system and a powered ventilation system. If your boat bears a label with the words "This boat complies with U.S. Coast Guard safety standards," etc., it is probable that the design of your boat's ventilation system meets applicable regulations. Manufacturers of boats built after 1980 with remote starters are required to display a label that contains the following information:

Gasoline vapors can explode. Before starting engine, operate blower at least 4 minutes and check engine compartment bilge for gasoline vapors. All owners of boats equipped with exhaust blowers are strongly encouraged to take the same precautions before starting a gasoline engine. All owners are responsible for keeping their boats' ventilation systems in operating condition. This means making sure that openings are free of obstructions, ducts are not blocked or torn, blowers operate properly, and worn components are replaced with equivalent marine type equipment.

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Backfire Flame Control

Gasoline engines installed in vessels after April 25, 1940, except outboard motors, must be equipped with an acceptable means of backfire flame control. The device must be suitably attached to the air intake with a flame-tight connection and is required to be Coast Guard approved or comply with SAE J-1928 or UL 1111 standards and marked accordingly.

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Sound Producing Devices

Regulations do not specifically require vessels less than 12 meters in length to carry a whistle, horn or bell; however, the Navigation Rules require sound signals to be produced under certain circumstances. Also, many boats will want to have a horn aboard for negotiating locks and opening bridges. When travelling in fog, proper signals must be used. Vessels 12 meters or more in length are required to carry on board a power whistle or power horn and a bell. For the Courtesy Marine Examination, the Auxiliary requires some type of horn or whistle capable of a four-second blast audible for a half-mile for all boats.

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Navigation Lights

Chapter 1, Navigation Rules, covers this subject in detail for all types and sizes of vessels. Here we present a short discussion specifically for sail and power boats less then 20 meters (65.6 feet).

Power-driven Vessels

Vessels of less than 20 meters in length should show red/green sidelights (or a combined bow light), a white sternlight, and a white masthead light located in the forward half of the craft. Vessels of less than 12 meters in length may show red and green sidelights (or a combined bow light) and an all-round white light in lieu of separate masthead and sternlights. Vessels of less than 7 meters with a top speed of less than 7 knots may, in lieu of normal running lights, show an all-round white light and, if practicable, red and green sidelights (International Rules only). There are distinguishing lights for towing vessels, fishing vessels, pilot boats, air-cushion vessels, and other special types of vessels and vessels in special situations. Be sure to check the Navigation Rules for proper light locations and ranges of visibility.

Sailing Vessels

Vessels under sail less than 20 meters in length have several options. They may show separate red and green sidelights with a white sternlight; the red and green lights may be combined in a single bow fixture. Another option is to show a masthead all-round red light above an all-round green light in addition to the normal sidelights and sternlight. The combined red-green-white masthead light is very popular - it has the advantage of consuming less power while being highly visible offshore. When this tri-color light is shown, normal sidelights and sternlight are not shown, nor are the red-over-green lights. Vessels less than 7 meters may, instead of running lights, carry a flashlight or lantern to be shown in time to prevent collision. Sailing vessels under power must show the same lights as a power vessel (the tri-color masthead light may not be used). Some state regulations require sidelights and sternlight on a sailboat of any size.

Anchor Lights

Vessels at anchor must show an anchor light unless located in a special anchorage area designated by the Secretary of Transportation. For vessels less than 50 meters in length, the light should be an all-round white light visible for two miles. It should be located where it may best be seen. Many sailboats have masthead anchor lights. It must be kept in mind that these are located well above the line of sight of many small coastal vessels likely to be encountered at night. A safer alternative is a light hung at the lowest height from which it can be seen in all directions. Vessels less than 7 meters in length are not required to display anchor lights when anchored in an area clear of vessel traffic.


Anchored boats should hang a black ball in the forward part of the vessel. Sailing vessels under power with sails hoisted must hang an inverted cone (point down) in the forward part of the vessel. (Inland Rules only exempt vessels under 12 meters in length.)

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