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New Year's Safety Resolutions For Boaters

Try these 5 commonsense boating commitments that are easy to keep.

Spiral-bound notebook lies open with pen, eye glasses, greenery and pine cones on a wooden table

Photo: Getty Images/CN0RA

There's a perfectly good reason so many New Year's resolutions never live to see January 2. Most of us simply don't like to exercise more or give up ice cream! To help guarantee at least some success with your 2023 commitments, here are five New Year's resolutions that are not only easy to keep, but will keep you and your crew safer throughout the year.

1. Install an automatic fire extinguishing system.

When it comes to engine compartment fires, the most natural reaction is also the worst — lifting up the hatch to see what's going on! While it certainly will quickly answer the question of what indeed is going on, opening the engine compartment is also the worst choice, as doing so provides a rush of oxygen that could easily turn a smoldering fire into an abandon ship type conflagration. The safest way to avoid this is by installing an automatic fixed extinguishing system.

The American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) recommends installation of a suitable clean agent fire suppression system on all inboard and sterndrive vessels. Dry chemical powder is effective, but the residue is difficult to remove and highly corrosive — in some cases it can actually cause more damage to the engine than the fire itself. A dry chemical unit also has to be aimed at the base of the fire, something often impossible to do without opening the hatch or when using a fireport. A clean agent system, by contrast, floods the engine compartment. It not only kills the fire without damaging the engine and components, but in many cases, the engine can be restarted (after correcting the initial cause of the fire) allowing a vessel to return to port under its own power.

Fixed fire suppression systems can be customized for your particular vessel, but pre-engineered, off-the-shelf systems are cheaper and easier to install. Halon was the clean agent of choice in the past, however it's also an ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbon and its production has been banned since the mid-'90s. Today's systems use "greener" alternatives such as FM-200, FE-241, or Sea-Fire Marine's new 3M Novec 1230 Fire Protection Fluid.

If you already have one ... Have the system inspected and tagged annually by an authorized service facility. Existing Halon systems can remain in use but will have to be replaced with newer options if discharged or found to be defective.

Red fire suppression system, photo left, hand holding a yellow Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, photo right

Hand holding carbon monoxide alarm with yellow warning sticker on it

Orange life raft package on blue background

What does a fixed fire extinguisher, EPIRB, CO detector, and life raft have in common? They all have service or expiration dates that you should check annually! (Photos: Frank Lanier)

2. Buy an EPIRB or PLB.

An EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) or PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) is probably the single most important piece of gear you can have when the proverbial feces hits the rotary oscillator. With units available for less than $200, even the most tight-fisted boater can afford to add a PLB to their arsenal of onboard safety equipment.

When activated, emergency beacons transmit a coded message on the 406 MHz distress frequency, which is then relayed via the Cospas-Sarsat global satellite system and earth stations to the nearest Rescue Coordination Center. Units featuring built-in GPS can provide a location accuracy of 150 feet or less. EPIRBs additionally transmit a continuous signal on 121.5MHz, allowing search and rescue units to home in on its location using radio direction finders once in the vicinity. Although PLBs and EPIRBs work in exactly the same manner, there are a number of differences between them beyond size. While PLBs transmit a distress signal for a minimum of 24 hours, transmit time for an EPIRB is double that (a minimum of 48 hours).

Unlike a PLB, EPIRBs can also be configured to automatically deploy and activate in the event of an emergency. Category I EPIRBs are designed to float free from a sinking vessel and turn on automatically when they come into contact with water. A Category II rating denotes EPIRBs that are manually activated and deployed.

Tip

Not ready to purchase? You can rent an EPIRB or PLB from the BoatUS Foundation. Visit BoatUS.org/EPIRB to find out more.

Another difference is that an EPIRB is registered to a vessel, while a PLB is registered to an individual. This means that the PLB can "follow" its owner wherever they go, a plus for those who often find themselves on different boats. As they are legal for use on both land and sea, you can take them on any adventure, from exploring the Amazon to hiking that remote mountain pass.

If you already have one ... As required by law, always register your PLB or EPIRB unit with NOAA. This tells search-and-rescue organizations who they're looking for (if your unit is activated) and who to call to confirm that it's not a false alarm. Verify your information annually, and don't forget to update any changes (e.g., contact phone numbers, sold units). For extended cruises, use the "Additional Data Field" to provide information like number of passengers or special considerations (such as medical issues).

Other excellent ideas include conducting a self test of the unit on a regularly scheduled basis (such as quarterly and prior to a longer cruise), as well as checking the expiration dates for batteries and hydrostatic release units at least annually.

3. Purchase a life raft.

Like grizzly bear pepper spray and supplies for the zombie apocalypse (it's not a matter of if, but when!) life rafts are another item we purchased in hopes they'll never be needed. Designed to keep crew forced to abandon ship alive until rescued, they provide both protection from the elements and create a larger, more visible target for rescue personnel. While abandoning ship into a life raft should always be a last resort, knowing you have a life raft at the ready can provide peace of mind to all onboard.

If you already have one ... Ensure the raft inspection sticker is current and that the hydrostatic release mechanism isn't expired. In addition to attending the testing and repacking of your life raft whenever possible (to familiarize yourself with its operation), another good idea is customizing its contents. Additional water, a waterproof handheld VHF, prescription meds, or extra rations are just a few examples of good-to-have items in an emergency.

4. Install CO and smoke detectors.

Marine grade smoke and carbon monoxide (CO) detectors are recommended on all boats over 26 feet in length that have a galley and enclosed sleeping quarters. CO is an odorless, colorless gas that can kill in minutes. It is produced when burning any carbon-based fuel (gasoline, diesel, propane, or wood). While the most common source of CO is exhaust from gasoline or diesel engines, it can be produced by any open flame device, such as a stove, heater, or grill.

CO and smoke detectors should be installed to monitor the atmosphere in the main cabin, engine room, and each sleeping area. Smoke detectors are also recommended for engine compartments on smaller boats, as is the use of wireless detectors in which all units sound an alarm if one detects anything. Another great option for boats that utilize generators to power air conditioners would be a CO alarm system designed to automatically shut off the generator if CO is detected.

If you already have one ... Change the batteries once a year. Smoke and CO detectors also have a limited lifespan, so check each unit's expiration date and replace if expired. Detectors or sensors (if part of a system) will typically need to be replaced every five years, however this varies between units and can be as soon as one year from date of purchase. If you don't see a "replace by" date on the unit, check with the manufacturer.

5. Practice dockside and underway safety drills.

Boating safety doesn't always have to cost money, and nothing can better prepare you and your crew for an emergency than regular safety drills. Draft up basic instructions for events such as fire, man overboard (MOB), or sinking, and discuss safety equipment locations and procedures with everyone onboard.

Assign roles and responsibilities to crew members where appropriate, and make sure everyone knows what's expected of them in an emergency. Mix it up a bit to make drills more interesting and to better prepare for those "out-of-the-box" situations (the captain as the MOB for example). Don't forget to include younger crew members as well: Teaching your 10-year-old how to make a distress call instills confidence and just may save your life!

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Author

Frank Lanier

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

Capt. Frank Lanier is a SAMS® Accredited Marine Surveyor with more than 40 years of experience in the marine and diving industry. He’s also an author, public speaker, and multiple award winning journalist whose articles on seamanship, marine electronics, vessel maintenance, and consumer reports appear regularly in numerous marine publications worldwide. He can be reached via his website at captfklanier.com.