Being a United States Coast Guard Veteran and an avid Lake Michigan tournament fisherman and charter captain, safety is the number one goal on every trip. Anyone that has fished on the Great Lakes, especially Lake Superior or Michigan can tell you things can go wrong very quickly when mother nature decides to kick up large waves. In this article, I will be going over a few things that you as a boater should have on your boat if the situation ever arises that you become in danger. Each state has their own list of required safety items you need to have on your boat, if you are on a federal body of water, the Coast Guard has their own list of safety items that you need depending on the length of your boat. I would highly advise checking with your local DNR or Coast Guard station to find out what is required.
I have yet to see a state that does not require one life jacket per person on the boat. Make sure the life jackets you have on board are USCG approved and sized correctly for the individuals you have on your boat. If you have two adults over 90lbs, make sure you have two adult life jackets. Also make sure your life jackets do not have any rips, tears and all of the stitching is intact. While conducting boardings in the Coast Guard, this was the number one violation I saw. With the number of inflatable life jackets on the market, making sure the CO2 cartridge is full is very important and often overlooked. You can go by either the expiration date or some even have a pressure gauge/needle.
Sound signaling device
A lot of people consider the horn on their boat a sound signaling device, which it is and USCG approved, but if your boat gets swamped or sinks, it won’t do you any good. Carrying a small whistle, either tethered to your life jacket or in one of the pockets is a very good idea. This way if you were to find yourself in the water, you can attract attention from a long distance away. Another item that I carry in my boat is a small air horn. There have been times that I needed to use it to get the attention of larger pleasure boats that were headed right at me and not listening to their radio.
Visual distress signal
It is always a good idea to have a small mirror in your life jacket along with the whistle. Safety/distress mirrors can project light further than sound and can get the attention of another boat long distances away. Another visual distress signal that is required on the Great Lakes is flares. One thing with flares that not a lot of people know about is they do have an expiration date. If your flares are expired, make sure you buy new ones before you hit the water. I get asked quite a bit, “what do I do with my old flares?” Instead of throwing them out, get a few other boaters with expired flares, contact your local Coast Guard station and ask them if you can schedule a flare shoot. If you have never fired a flare, this is a great way to learn how they work and what it looks like when you do shoot one.
Unless you fish out of a kayak, canoe or rowboat, a fire extinguisher is a must. Even if you have a small 12-14’ boat with a small outboard and detachable gas tank, carrying a fire extinguisher is a good idea. A lot of people think if their portable gas tank starts on fire they can just throw it overboard. I don’t know about you, but unplugging and reaching for a flaming gas tank is the last thing I would ever want to do. In my mind, using a fire extinguisher would be a lot safer option. When it comes to fire extinguishers, make sure it is pressurized by looking at the needle gauge. If it doesn’t have a gauge, check the expiration date. Even though fire extinguishers have a couple year shelf life, it’s a good idea to check every spring while you’re prepping your boat to make sure it’s still good. Also, when you go to buy a fire extinguisher, pull it out of the box and check to make sure it is USCG approved and that it isn’t expired already.
If you fish on the Great Lakes or larger bodies of water, a marine radio is a must. Even though it may not be required in your state, it is a great item to get ahold of help and to communicate with other boats in high-traffic areas. A mounted marine radio is great for being able to broadcast and listen long distances, but I prefer a handheld marine radio just in case I end up in the water and need to call for help. Also, when the Coast Guard starts looking for you, they have instruments that can pick up your radio signal and narrow their search area resulting in a quicker response and rescue, and in cold water those few minutes saved could mean life or death.
One thing that is quite often overlooked or forgotten about is the bilge pump. It is a good thing to turn your bilge pump on while you are prepping your boat to make sure it runs. I would suggest at least once a month during the summer, take a look in your bilge and make sure there isn’t any debris blocking your pump. It doesn’t take much to clog a bilge pump, especially if you park your boat outside and leaves get in it. After you check your bilge visually, put your boat plug in and fill your boat with enough water to cover the pump and turn it on to make sure the pump is doing its job. It’s much better to find out your bilge pump doesn’t work on the trailer rather than in the water. I would also highly suggest carrying a portable handheld bilge pump just in case your pump malfunctions.
When it comes to boat safety gear, make sure everything you have is up to date and in working order before you hit the water.