Boating Safety Essentials

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The number of lives lost through boating accidents is small in relation to the road carnage, but there’s a significant distinction to be made in comparing water to road safety. Almost every New Zealander has to drive or travel daily in some form of road transport in order to earn a living and survive in society. However, boating involves only two in five of the population and is mainly a recreational activity and as such should be fun. 81 people died of drowning in New Zealand in 2013, of which 45 were classed as recreational and just eight involved in power boating. Deaths from powered boats decreased 56% on the 2012 total and was also down on the five-year average by 27%. So maybe we are starting to get the message!

Safety Essentials For Your Boat

Have you got these onboard your boat? You should have.

Posted by Boatmags on Sunday, January 15, 2017


Unlike driving, there should never be a need for it to be tiring, tedious, uncomfortable or a necessary evil. And it most certainly should never be dangerous. Now consider that if your car breaks down or the house catches fire there’s a 90% chance you can walk or run to safety. The only record we have of anyone walking on water was 2000 years ago. You can’t just call the AA or Fire Brigade and avoid involvement in an incident on the water. You can call the Coast Guard, but time may be against you, as you may need immediate help.

As we said at the outset, boating for most of us is supposed to be fun, a relaxing and enjoyable experience, so in considering what can be done to increase the safety of that experience, we should look not just at those mercifully few dramas in which lives are at risk, but also at the unrecorded thousands of non-fatal accidents that happen every year and which might be avoided.

Every boating season, Auckland Coast Guard answer hundreds of calls for assistance, all of which relate in one way or another to matters of safety. A little care and attention would have made the majority of those calls unnecessary. Less dramatically, I doubt that anyone reading this has not suffered at least one painful accident in or around a boat. It might have been nothing more than a finger torn by a frayed strand of wire rope or a toe stubbed against a bollard. Minor perhaps, but painful when they happen – and there’s no fun in boating when it hurts.

Are You Safe?

So we suggest a pause here while you ask yourself whether you, your family and your boat are as safe as possible, not just from all those minor and unexpected happenings that spoil the fun of boating.

It is the skipper’s responsibility to ensure that those aboard the boat are safe and the equipment is up to the standard required. Whether it’s just checking on the weather forecast for the day, or making sure there are enough life jackets for all those aboard the boat, in law it all falls back on the skipper if something goes wrong.


Let’s consider that you already have lifejackets for everyone aboard the boat, flares, a bilge pump, fire extinguisher, a VHF radio/cellphone and charts or a GPS plotter with charts that relate to the area you are boating. These are obvious aspects of safety, but it’s surprising how many people do (or neglect to do) things on a boat that seem innocent enough, but which carry unnecessary risks of unpleasant injuries.

Bow riding is one. During over 30 years writing about boats, I have known at least two cases of people falling off the bow of a powerboat – with ghastly and fatal results. I’ve seen many bruised and broken limbs that were hanging over a gunwale when a passing wake slammed the boat against a wharf or another craft. Did you know that it is in fact illegal to bow ride and if caught carries a fine of up to $10,000 and a year in jail if it is deemed to endanger life and is therefore a criminal offence?

Exposure to fire and immersion in water are just as life-threatening. If you find yourself in the water for an extended period, you quickly appreciate that if nature had intended the human body to float it would have fitted it with oily feathers and webbed feet.


Navigation lights is another area that you should consider as they are often overlooked. Often the afternoon on the water is going so well boaties stay out past dusk and need lighting to safely get home. Make sure your not caught out in the dark and causing a threat to yourself and passengers onboard – through other vessels navigating that might not see you.

Another good thing to consider is a large cockpit flood light, that makes a big difference to seeing where things are and what is happening in the dark. You should also consider keeping a spot light for signalling and helping guide you at night, especially when close to shore or moored boats. Companies such as Hella make a great range of spots and flood lights.

Lifejacket Priority

Of all the safety gear, a lifejacket heads the priority list. Following Auckland’s lead, a new national maritime rule came into force way back in 2001, that makes it mandatory to carry one life jacket for every person aboard the boat and to wear them in “adverse sea conditions”.

Whilst we don’t plan to go into the myriad of styles and options offered by today’s lifejacket and buoyancy aid manufacturers, suffice to say it is important that whatever brand or model you choose, it fits snugly. Ill-fitting lifejackets, especially ones that are too big, can be dangerous items of clothing that can cost you or your family their lives. This is especially so with small children who should NEVER wear adult jackets that they can easily fall out of.

If the boat sinks from under you, the quickest way for the body to become exhausted is by moving around in the water. Any device that allows you to remain afloat without expending energy is the first line of defence against hypothermia: the second is any garment that increases body/head protection, remembering that the head is the main source of heat loss. A wetsuit and hood is a great way of keeping the body temperature up and is now classified as a PFD.

Hypothermia Risk

It’s worth noting here that even in summer the water temperature around New Zealand’s coastline ranges from 14ºC to 18ºC and the human body functions normally at 37ºC. If the body temperature changes 4ºC either way, problems begin, and even in a water temperature of 20ºC, survival time for a swimmer is likely to be less than three hours. At 10ºC paralysis sets in within 15 minutes and death follows when the body temperature drops to 29ºC. Generally speaking, a fit average adult in the water between 15ºC and 20ºC and whose swimming ability is reasonable would be advised to swim for it. In all other cases, a buoyancy aid offers the only real chance of survival.

It’s a good idea, too, to carry a few other nonpersonal flotation devices, e.g. closed cell foam seat squabs and cushions, polyethylene foam fenders. Lives have been saved with the victim swimming to shore or found clinging to an empty fuel tote tank.

Flares, a Must Have


Flares of course are another must-have item aboard any trailer boat and can be bought singly or in handy waterproof packs. If you are going to stow them away somewhere, make certain everyone aboard knows where they are and that they are readily accessible. Even if the boat is upside down you should have a good chance of retrieving the flares if you know where to find them. A tip is to attach the waterproof container to a long lanyard, so if it floats away from the boat then you don’t have to swim after it, a move that may in itself prove fatal. It’s also a good idea to read the instructions when you get them and regularly check the expiry date and condition. Old flares that don’t work are no good to anyone!

EPIRB & Communications

safety2The EPIRB is often an item sadly neglected by trailer boat owners, but this should not be. Today an effective EPIRB can cost as little as $270. EPIRB signals can be picked up by passing aircraft and will help to pinpoint your position for would-be rescuers.


The VHF radio is another must-have item, be it a handheld or fixed unit and this can be complemented by a mobile phone, which today provides reasonable coverage in most major boating areas. As the saltwater and mobile phones don’t mix, keep your phone in a plastic bag, or better still a specially designed waterproof cover.

There are plenty of brands to pick from and they vary in price from less than $400 depending on features and benefits. Also remember if you have an electrical fire then your fixed mounted VHF will probably no longer work, so no mayday call can be sent. After this it’s the EPIRB, a cellphone or a VHF handheld.

One piece of equipment that should be on the safety list for situations such as these, is a good pair of binoculars. Chances are you’ll see your rescuers before they see you, and you can then make sure they know where you are by repeating your signal, firing another flare, etc.

Flashing strobe lights are great signalling devices both during the day and at night and even something
shiny that catches the reflection of the sun that can attract the attention of a passing vessel is a good safety item. All you need is one thing that can attract attention to your predicament and there’s little likelihood of your life being in danger.

Fire Prevention

safety4Fire is probably the worst that can happen at sea because so much used in the construction and equipping of the boat is flammable. It also happens suddenly and so it is essential that action is taken immediately and that it is the right action. A fine spray of water can be effective against an electrical fire, but don’t throw water on a petrol or galley fire.
Keep a foam, dry powder or CO2 fire extinguisher in the cockpit and not in the cabin where it may not be easily reached. Wormald and Chubb both produce a nice compact unit for around $50. Ideally it should have a minimum capacity of 1kg and come with a plastic mounting bracket.

Remember that petrol can flash at any temperature, diesel at 66ºC and most oils at 232ºC. The only real answer to a fire at sea is to prevent it happening. That means regular inspection, maintenance and cleaning of the electrical and fuel systems. Most of today’s high-tech outboards and stern drives don’t have carburettors anymore so the risk of a flashback fire is exceedingly low. Also, the wiring looms are such that electrical fires in new trailer boats are also very rare. However, they do happen and it pays to be ready just in case, especially if you have an older boat, with wiring that may be a little suspect.

Bucket or Bilge Pump

The old saying is that there is no better answer to water coming aboard in sufficient quantity to threaten the boat, than a frightened man with a bucket. However, wielding a bucket or even a manual bilge pump is physically exhausting and won’t shift the 10000 litres an hour likely to be needed to keep a whole boat of average size afloat. Bilge pumps are the answer and while they are standard in all CPC classified trailer boats they are surprisingly still an option in many. A 1000 – 1250 gph (4540 – 5675 litres/hour) bilge pump for example can be purchased for around $100.

If you are going boating then take the time out to check you are carrying the safety essentials. In the long run, it may be your life that you save!


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