Small Boat Safety Gear

Posted on Saturday 30 April 2011

One of my friends is a die-hard Laser sailor.  Tillerman, recently asked on his blog, what safety gear he should be carrying on his Laser.  That prompted a response from me that was rather lengthy for a blog comment, and lead to me writing this post.

This list of safety gear applies to almost all boats, regardless of size and what waters they’re used on.  It is a fairly basic list, and might be overkill for small inland ponds and lakes, but should be appropriate for most boats and waters.

For shorter day trips, especially those on smaller bodies of water, a lot of this might not be necessary, but it should be a good basic starting list to work with.

Basic Assumptions:

This article assumes that the person is at least somewhat experienced with boats and that the boat is in basic good working order.  No frayed lines, no leaking through-hulls or rotten bulkheads, etc. This also assumes that you will be wearing or carrying proper foul weather gear.

Filing a Float Plan:

Before going off, filing a float plan with a relative or friend is a very good idea.  A good float plan will have a description of the boat and crew, a rough itinerary of where you’re planning on going and what route you might be taking, as well as when you expect to be back.

By filing one, someone will have some idea of where you went and when you were expected back, and can give that information to the authorities should you not return in a timely fashion.

Safety Gear:


A PFD is an essential piece of kit.  If you’re on a small sailing dinghy, canoe, kayak or open boat, a foam vest type PFD is probably a better choice than the inflatables that are preferred on larger boats.  While the inflatables are far less bulky and more comfortable to wear, especially in warmer weather, a foam-floatation PFD makes more sense on smaller watercraft, where the likelihood of getting very wet or submersed is much more likely.  While the hydrostatic inflatables overcome this to some degree, I still would recommend using a foam-filled PFD instead.

Your PFD should have retro-reflective tape on it as well as a strobe. This makes you a lot more visible in low-light conditions.

A signalling mirror, a long-duration glow stick or strobe/light, rigging knife, and whistle should also be attached to the PFD, so that you can signal help as necessary.

An Anchor:

The most basic piece of safety gear for any boat is an anchor.  The size and type of anchor and length of anchor rode will be determined by the type of craft and the waters in which the craft is used.  A small jonboat used on a farm pond will not require as much rode or as heavy an anchor as a 18′ LOA sea kayak being used in North Atlantic waters.

At a minimum, you’d probably want a 8-15 lb. anchor, preferably something that will set quickly and dig in well.  A small Manson Supreme or Rocna comes to mind. 10-20′ of 1/4″ chain and at least 100′ of 1/2″ nylon line as a rode would be a good match.

On bigger boats, like mine, using the anchor when you have a problem can give you the time to solve the problem without having to worry about the problems getting worse. I used my anchor in just such a situation a couple seasons ago when the engine died as we were approaching a bridge. We were able to get the engine up and running without worrying about drifting into the mooring field and docks that were downwind of us when the engine died.

If you lose the mast, tear the sails or the wind dies–deploying an anchor can prevent you from drifting out to sea or going aground in dangerous waters.  The same applies if the engine dies or you lose an oar/paddle.

A handheld VHF unit:

The small, submersible handheld VHF units available today are a godsend.  A VHF radio is preferably to a cell phone because it is a one-to-many broadcast system, rather than a point-to-point system like the cell phone.  It is also not reliant on being within range of the cellular towers, which can be far and few between along the coast.  A call for help on the VHF can be heard by any nearby boaters monitoring their VHF radios, and has a much better chance of a quick response than a cell phone distress call does.

Some even have GPS and DSC functionality built in, like the Standard Horizon HX850S. While DSC and GPS aren’t a necessity, they do make it far simpler for the USCG and other SAR personnel to get to you quickly. In the case of a medical emergency, this can make a big difference.

Basic Tools:

A rigging knife is a necessity for any sailor.  You never know when you’ll need to cut a line in an emergency.  Other basic tools, like pliers, a saw, screwdriver, and such are very useful, especially if you have to make emergency repairs.  I usually carry a Leatherman pocket tool and a rigging knife at a minimum.

A rigging knife, like a Boye’s Cobalt Carbide folder, and a multi-tool, like the Leatherman Surge, are both very useful. They both have blades that can be opened with a single hand.  The requirement that the knife be openable with a single-hand is a key one, since there may be situations where you can’t use two hands to open the knife.

A Flashlight:

A strong, waterproof/water-resistant flashlight is an excellent thing to have along.  I prefer LED-based flashlights with lithium “photo” AA batteries.  The “photo” lithium batteries have a much better shelf life and much longer run-time than their alkaline counterparts. A good LED flashlight shone on the sails can make a small sailboat very visible over a wide area.  It is also a good backup for navigation lights on a larger boat.  The better ones can be used for signalling as well.

For a general purpose light, I like the AA-powered Gerber Firecracker. It’s about $20 and with a single lithium photo AA, it runs for a long time. I carry one as my general utility light and replace the battery about once every year. It’s been through the washing machine several times and swimming, and still works quite nicely. I’d get a stronger light for emergencies though. An Inova Tactical T1 flashlight might be a good choice, but I’ve not used it personally.  I have used some of the Cree LED-based flashlights, and they’re quite bright, much more so than the Firecracker.

Don’t forget to pack a few spare batteries away, preferably the “photo lithium” kind due to their longer shelf life.  Vacuum-sealing the batteries into plastic will protect them from water and prevent them from shorting out.

Food and Water:

Every small craft should have at least some food and water aboard.  If you get caught out in bad weather, this can make the difference between being able to wait it out or not.  In New England waters, having some food aboard is key, especially in the early season, when the water temps are still quite low, since that makes being aboard a small craft quite chilly, even if you aren’t wet.  Keeping some PowerBars or similar long-keeping, high-calorie food aboard will help prevent you from becoming hypothermic or hypoglycemic.  Keeping some bottles of water aboard will prevent you from getting dehydrated.

Warm Clothes/Blanket:

Keeping a spare set of warm clothes aboard your boat is a good idea, if for no other reason than it gives you a dry set to change into if you fall overboard or get caught out by a sudden squall.  A fleece blanket is also a good thing to have aboard, especially if you end up having to hole up for a night due to bad weather. Good foul weather gear is a godsend when having to deal with bad weather, especially heavy rain and high winds, for extended periods of time.

First Aid Kit:

Having a basic first aid kit aboard is a good idea.  The contents of a good basic kit will include:

  • Bandages,
  • antiseptic wipes,
  • antibiotic ointment,
  • tweezers,
  • needle,
  • scissors,
  • adhesive tape,
  • gauze pads,
  • hydro-cortisone ointment,
  • calamine lotion,
  • hand-sanitizer,
  • duct tape,
  • antihistamines,
  • antacid tablets,
  • anti-diarrheal tablets,
  • aspirin and acetaminophen or ibuprofen,
  • spare prescription medications,
  • mylar rescue blanket,
  • elastic “ace” bandage

This can all be packed in a small waterproof box—like a lunch box, or large mouthed nalgene water bottle, and stowed until needed.  Don’t forget sunscreen and insect repellent.  While technically not first aid supplies, they can prevent the need for first aid in a lot of cases.

Emergency Signals:

Visual signals like flares, a signal mirror, and a flashlight are good choices for small craft. I prefer SOLAS grade flares over USCG rated ones, since the SOLAS grade flares are far more visible and safer to use.  USCG handheld flares can drop hot slag, where the SOLAS ones will not.

Audible signals, like a loud whistle or horn are also useful, especially if fog sets in.  The EcoHorn is one of my favorites, since it is environmentally friendly, using compressed air and refillable using a normal bicycle tire pump.  It is quite loud and works for quite a time after being charged.  For whistles, I like the Storm Whistle.  While it is a bit bulky, it is very loud.


Charts and a hand-bearing compass are the minimum you need to have aboard for navigation.  A nautical almanac with tide and currents, like Eldridge, is also a good idea.

If you’re on a small sailboat, a paddle or oar might be a good idea, to give you some form of propulsion should you lose the mast or damage the sails or be becalmed.

Having the contact/owner information posted or printed somewhere on the boat is a good idea.  This can come in handy if your boat breaks loose or goes adrift.  It can also be useful to authorities, since they can quickly and easily contact you and determine if a search or rescue is required or not.

Nice to have but not necessary:

A PLB is a pretty good idea.  The main difference between a PLB and an EPIRB is that the PLB is registered to a person, while the EPIRB is registered to a vessel.

A handheld GPS is always a nice addition to your kit, but really not a necessity.

A SPOT Messenger is also a good idea.  These small satellite beacons I’ve written about previously here.


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