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US Coast Guard Requirements

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US Coast Guard Requirements: Boat Safety Equipment

All vessels, regardless of length, are required to comply with federal and state laws regarding boating safety equipment. The specific equipment needed varies depending on the length of the boat. However, this article focuses on providing the minimum federal boat safety equipment requirements as directed and enforced by the US Coast Guard for vessels under 40 feet in length. Some states and localities have additional boat safety requirements, so always stay abreast of any mandates specific to your area.

When accidents happen while boating, it can take longer for help to arrive, the only things you have to stay safe are the items you carry within your boat until it does.

Why Should Boaters Follow These Boat Safety Regulations?

Boating on various waterways is similar to automobiles out on the roads and highways—safety devices are designed to keep people safe. Thousands of accidents occur, many of which have a high probability of injury and a substantial number of cases resulting in death.

Specifically, in 2020 the Coast Guard counted 5,265 recreational boating accidents resulting in 767 deaths, 3,191 injuries, and approximately $62.5 million of property damage. Where the cause of death was known, 75% of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims with reported life jacket usage, 86% were not wearing a life jacket.

Since most accidents occur unexpectedly, there may not be sufficient time to put on a life jacket, especially when stowed away in a locker. In cases where a person is thrown overboard, it is harder than you think to get them back on board, which can be assisted with proper equipment. Always be sure personal floatation devices (PFDs) are in good and serviceable condition. For extra protection, equip your PFDs with a whistle and emergency light.

How About a More Detailed Look at Boat Safety Equipment?

Life jackets and Personal Floatation Devices

The best life jacket is the one you will wear, but adults are not required to wear their life jackets at all times. This said, \a US Coast Guard-approved life jacket is required on board for each person. Lifejacket regulations for children may vary by state; however, in states with no children’s life jacket law, a US Coast Guard interim rule requires children under 13 on moving boats to wear a well-fitting US Coast Guard-approved life jacket.

Lifejackets must be:

  • The appropriate size for the intended user,
  • Suitable for the intended activity,
  • In good and serviceable condition, and
  • US Coast Guard approved to meet carriage requirements.


Additionally, you must have a throwable (a square cushion, also called a Type 4 PFD) onboard if the boat is over 16 feet. A PFD like a ring buoy also meets this requirement.

Fire Extinguishers

Fire extinguisher requirements will depend on the age of the vessel, its size, and whether or not a fire extinguishing system is in place.

Visual Distress Signals

Visual distress signals are designed to assure that boaters have a way of attracting attention, securing assistance, and finding a boat in need of help more quickly.  

Electric or Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signaling Devices

Must be Coast Guard approved, in serviceable condition, and stowed to be readily accessible. If they are marked with a date showing the serviceable life, this date must not have passed. Launchers produced before Jan. 1, 1981, intended for use with approved signals are not required to be Coast Guard Approved.

USCG Approved Pyrotechnic and Electric Visual Distress Signals and Associated Devices include:

  • Pyrotechnic red flares, handheld or aerial
  • Pyrotechnic orange smoke, handheld or floating
  • Launchers for aerial red meteors or parachute flares
  • Electric distress light (night use only)

SOS Electric Distress Light

An SOS electric distress light is an LED visual distress signal device that meets US Coast Guard requirements and completely replaces traditional pyrotechnic flares. Electronic flares never expire (pyrotechnic flares must be less than 42 months old) and also solve flare disposal problems. Also, an LED electric distress light flashes for up to 60 hours, whereas traditional flares last minutes or less. These lights flash only the SOS sequence, per USCG requirements, and are visible up to 10 nautical miles.

Visual Distress Signaling Flags

Visual distress signaling flags must carry the manufacturer’s certification that they meet Coast Guard requirements. They must be in serviceable condition and stowed to be readily accessible.

Sound Producing Devices

A horn or whistle is recommended for vessels 26′ or less to signal intentions or signal position. However, for boats 26′ – 40′, a horn or whistle is required to sign intentions or signal position.

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