All boats are required to carry a minimum amount of safety equipment on board. Most items must be U.S. Coast Guard-approved, in good condition and must only be used for their designated purpose. The amount and type of required safety equipment is determined by the length and classification of the vessel. As requirements vary from state to state, always investigate the requirements in your area before heading out onto the water.
The first piece of mandatory equipment that every boat must carry is a personal flotation device (PFD) for every person on the boat or being towed by the boat. People being towed would include skiers, water tube riders, paragliders and parasailers. PFDs are more commonly known as life jackets or life vests, which fit their form and function well. In the event of any kind of marine incident, a PFD can literally mean the difference between life and death. Requirements state that boats fewer than 16 feet in length must have one Type 1, 2, 3 or 5 device for every person on board. Vessels in excess of 16 feet are also required to have a throwable Type 4 device, such as a life ring, boat cushion or buoy cushion. If a Type 5 hybrid PFD is used, it must be worn to meet the legal requirements.
A bell or whistle on every vessel (regardless of length) is also a Coast Guard requirement. Boats 16 feet and less can meet the requirement with a whistle (the louder, the better). Boats longer than 65.6 feet are required to carry both a whistle and a bell, which have to be audible over a distance of one nautical mile.
Visual distress signaling devices are only covered in Coast Guard regulations for vessels on coastal waters, the Great Lakes and for United States vessels on the open seas. For boats 16 feet or shorter, they are only required for nighttime use. Vessels longer than 16 feet are required to carry visual distress signaling devices for both daytime and nighttime use. These devices include items like marine flares, strobe lights and signaling mirrors. While visual distress signaling devices may not be mandatory for other bodies of water, it is considered reckless to venture out without one.
On board safety
Fire extinguishers are also required on a boat. The size of the boat will dictate the type and number of extinguishers. Boats of 26 feet or less are required to have at least one Type B-1 portable extinguisher; boats between 26 and 40 feet are required to have at least two Type B-1 portable extinguishers or one Type B-1 and one Type B-2. Boats between 40 and 65 feet are required to have three Type B-1 portable extinguishers or one Type B-1 and one Type B-2. Again, these are minimum requirements; it's often prudent to exceed those minimum capacities.
Ventilation requirements vary depending upon when the boat was built. These apply to vessels with enclosed engine compartments, cabins and permanently mounted fuel tanks. Check Coast Guard and state regulations to ensure that you are code-compliant.
All marine engines have been required to have a Coast Guard-approved back flame arrestor on their carburetor since 1940. Removal of the arrestor to use starting fluid or to pour fuel directly into the carburetor is both illegal and potentially very dangerous.