Safe boating “gotta-have’s”


Capt. Cefus McRae

Hopefully everyone understands and adheres to the USCG requirements for safety gear you ‘Must-Have’ on a boat.  Personal Flotation Devices (lifejackets), a Throwable (throwing cushion), Fire Extinguisher, Daytime/Nightime distress signals (flares), and some smaller boats might also require a paddle on board.   Regarding PFD’s… there must be a lifejacket for every person on board, AND…it must fit them.   So if you have kids on board, you must have child-sized PFD’s for each of them.  PFD’s must be in a serviceable condition, that is, they can’t be moldy, torn or in poor condition.   And both your PFD’s and Throwable must be ‘readily accessible’…they can’t be hidden under waterski’s or stowed in a compartment beneath all your fishing rods.   When you need a lifejacket…you need a lifejacket.   They need to be easy to access.

A couple other things to keep in mind regarding safety gear.   Check your fire extinguisher regularly to insure it is compliant, and fully charged.   Most have either a gauge or an indicator to let you know they’re good to go.  Another thing that’s easy to overlook…check your flares for their serviceable/expiration date.   Each one has a expire date printed on it.   Replace them well in advance of their expire date.   A violation of any of the above will get you a high-priced ticket from the Coast Guard or DNR.   More importantly, these are items that you will definitely need if you ever run into problems on the water, and they could save your life.

OK…let’s talk about a couple things that aren’t actually ‘required’ gear on a boat, but I think they should be.   And I’d suggest you give serious thought to incorporating them on your boat, whether it’s a fishing boat, a ski boat, or a pontoon boat.

ICOM M605 VHF Marine Radio

#1. A functional marine band VHF radio with a high quality VHF antenna.  The first response from most folks is… “I’ve got a cell phone, why do I need to add a VHF radio?”   Here’s why.   A lot of the areas where we go boating/fishing can have spotty cell service.   Cell companies don’t spend a lot of money directing their cell tower coverage beyond the shoreline.   So it’s entirely possible you could have limited, or no, service even on some of our inland lakes and coastal areas.   Offshore, you’ll notice your cell service cuts out just a few miles beyond the beach.   Also, when you make a call on a cell phone, the only person you contact is the person on the other end of the phone.   If you call 911, you’ll most likely be connected to the land-based EMS or police dept.   You’re on the water!   They have to go through a lot of gyrations to get you in touch with the Coast Guard or Marine Patrol.   And in an emergency, seconds or minutes can make the difference between a quick response and an uncontrolled dangerous situation.   With a marine VHF, when you send out a distress call, everyone with a VHF radio (within range) hears your call for help, including the Coast Guard, Marine Patrol, local marinas, and boaters who might be closer and able to lend assistance.  The net-net is usually a quicker response.   A good quality VHF radio costs around $100 and a good quality VHF antenna costs about the same.  So for just a couple hundred bucks, you have some added peace of mind, and the ability to call for help… and lend assistance to someone who might need it as well.

#2.  A chartplotter/sonar that is equipped with digital cartography.   Many anglers depend on chartplotters and their sonar units to help them find fish.   And most of today’s fishfinders are actually combo units with both charting and sonar available on the same unit.  For recreational boaters, a chartplotter can be a valuable asset for navigating unfamiliar waters, keeping you away from dangerous shoals, rocks, submerged obstacles, and simply staying in the main channel.  They also have points of interest like marinas that offer fuel and slip space, boat ramps, and of course all the aids to navigation (channel markers).   Beyond being an excellent fish-finding tool, they let you plot a course to your next destination, create waypoints and they are especially helpful when navigating at night and in nasty weather.


SiriusXM Marine Weather on Simrad Chartplotter screen

#3. SiriusXM Marine Weather is another “Gotta Have”.  Everyone who spends time on the water will eventually be subject to inclement weather.   Whether it’s a spring rain shower, a windy day that chops up the water, or a summer squall with torrential rain, lightning and high winds.   And sometimes these potentially dangerous weather systems can sneak up on us, catching us off-guard, and a long way from safe harbor.  Cell phone weather apps are a good tool to get forecasts and watch approaching weather systems.  But once you lose cell service, you’re at the mercy of your own senses…looking at the sky, and feeling the temperature and wind change of a weather front on the way.  Usually, by the time you realize this, it’s too late to make a run for the barn.   You can wind up in a precarious situation that creates a lot of undue stress and danger to you and your passengers.   The SiriusXM Marine Weather service gives you contemporaneous weather information, displayed right on your chartplotter screen.  It shows a variety of weather-related information including storm fronts and their speed/direction, wind speed and direction, wave height, precipitation, and lightning.  All of this information helps the skipper make prudent decisions on avoiding dangerous weather conditions, or the ability to potentially navigate around the worst of the storm.  When the waves are breaking over the bow, and the rain is coming down in sheets, having a tool that doesn’t rely on cell service and is displayed on your charting screen is extremely valuable.   It has been for me.  SiriusXM Marine Weather is a subscription service, and it’s quite reasonably priced.  You can suspend the service during the winter months and then re-start it when you put you boat back in the water when spring arrives.  And, you get all the SiriusXM music, news and entertainment you’ve grown to love in your car and at home.

#4. Take a Boater Safety Course.   When you think about it, operating a recreational boat doesn’t require any kind of competence certification.   The money you pay for your registration is really just a tax.  Having a registration number on the side of a boat doesn’t mean the person at the helm is truly capable of running the boat, or has any knowledge of the Rules of the Road for safe navigation.  Take the time to attend a safe boating course offered by the US Power Squadron or your local Coast Guard Auxiliary.   You’ll get a good foundation of the basics of operating a boat safely, understand all the safety gear you must have, and even get basic first aid instruction.   Personally, I think every boat owner should be required to take one of these courses.

We have several DVD’s to help you become a better, safer boater.   Check out the titles at 

Stay safe on the water and catch ‘em up.

Capt. Cefus McRae and Buck The Wonder Dog.

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