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37 Top Safety Findings

By Chris Edmonston

For more than two decades, the BoatUS Foundation has conducted real-world tests on products and techniques. Here are 37 "findings" from those tests, all aiming to keep you safer on the water.

We began our "Foundation Findings" tests in 1988 as a way for BoatUS members to learn more about boating products and subjects. While many of our tests were conducted using state-of-the-art test labs, most were conducted in field tests by our staff of knowledgeable boaters, reflecting how you'd likely use the products. In addition to writing about our conclusions in BoatUS Magazine: October, we also create videos showing the products or procedures being tested. There have been consistent conclusions over the years. In particular, our testers have seen time and again that whatever piece of gear or method they're testing, it's how much they practiced using it that made the difference between success and complete failure. So, practice, practice, practice. Here are some of our most useful findings.


Fire Extinguishers – If a boat fire burns unchecked more than a few minutes, our testers had a slim chance of controlling it. We found most people don't know how to use a fire extinguisher properly, and waste those first precious seconds fumbling with it. Our testers also consistently overestimated the time they had to use an extinguisher, and consistently underestimated how rapidly the fire they were fighting could get out of hand. Bottom line? Only fight a fire if it's small and confined to the immediate area where it started; you have a way out and can fight the fire with your back to the exit; your extinguisher is rated for the class of fire at hand; and you know how to operate your extinguisher.


Bilge Pumps – We found that they won't pump nearly as many gallons as their labels say because real-life conditions vary widely from test conditions. Also, type and length of hose, power supply, and other factors diminished output, so buy the highest-capacity pump that can fit in your space. Better yet, install more than one.


Life-Jacket Approvals – USCG approval only means the jacket meets a minimum performance standard in calm water, not that it's guaranteed to save your life in all conditions. We found that, because jackets say that they're "approved for use on all recreational boats," most people buy Type II jackets to meet the legal requirement, and never wear them.


Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals – Distress signals are used to signal you're in trouble, and to help direct rescuers to your location — two purposes that can potentially require two different devices. For daytime, we found smoke flares work best. At night, aerial flares are great at getting attention. Handheld flares are better suited for guiding rescuers directly to you. SOLAS-approved flares are more expensive than USCG-approved models, but if you're offshore or in a remote location, it's money well spent.


Anchors – Coastal cruising boats should carry at least two anchors, with one able to hold your boat in winds over 30 knots. In storm conditions, we've found that more anchors are lost to rode or deck-hardware failure than to anchor failure.


Children's Life Jackets – Each child must have a properly sized and fitted life jacket; it's the law. In our tests, children were more apt to wear a life jacket if it fit properly, if they helped pick it out in the store, and if the adult set the example and wore one also.


Operating At Night – Coast Guard stats show that a disproportionate number of collisions with other boats, or other objects, take place at night. In our tests, we found that our eyes really played tricks at night, especially when we tried to translate the direction and proximity of running lights in the distance, or an unfamiliar harbor entrance. So slow down, double check every decision and sighting, and use a high-intensity spotlight as needed.


Mooring Docking Lines – We found that when you put a rope to use, or even change the direction the line travels (i.e., wrapping it around a piling) you reduce its strength. Knotting or cleating a line reduced its breaking strength by half. Manufacturers recommend a working load of 10-20 percent of rated strength for rope in good condition in non-critical applications, where no dynamic loading is present. But virtually all loads on a boat are dynamic, so buy the longest, strongest lines you can.


Binoculars – In our tests, price made a difference. Higher quality glasses tended to perform better, especially in low light. We found that the human hand just couldn't hold binoculars steady enough for most maritime applications because of swell, engine vibration, and speed. Image-stabilized binoculars, even the low-end versions, provided a huge improvement over traditional binoculars.


Boarding Ladders – People die frequently in boating accidents because it can be extremely difficult to get someone back aboard without a ladder, as we determined firsthand in our tests. So try yours, adjust it for your boat, and learn how it works before an emergency occurs.


Mooring Anchors – After large storms, such as a hurricane, BoatUS Insurance regularly identifies traditional moorings with inadequate scope as a major cause of boat damage. Paying for a top-of-the-line anchor won't help if other parts of the system – anchor, chains, shackles, deck hardware, line – are sub-par.


Line-Launching Devices – When a person or boat is in peril, quickly getting a line from A to B was critical in our tests. All boaters need to carry a rescue line that is weighted at the end with whatever device seems most suitable, then practice using it.


Fire-Extinguisher Life – We tested older fire extinguishers that were still in serviceable condition (average age nearly 10 years old) to see how they performed against brand-new units. Newer units performed only slightly better than their aged brethren. To keep your fire extinguisher in top condition, turn it over and shake it periodically to help prevent the dry chemicals from caking up on the bottom.


Inflatable Life Jackets – Properly adjusted and fully inflated, an inflatable life jacket was tough to beat when it came to keeping our testers afloat. The added buoyancy inflatables have over foam jackets, coupled with the "wearability" factor, make inflatables an attractive safety option. However, they were harder to put on once our testers jumped in the water. They need periodic maintenance, and you need to be familiar with how they work to use them properly.


Alcohol And Boating – As little as four hours' exposure to sun, wind, glare, vibration, and motion on the water produces "boater's hypnosis," fatigue that slows reaction time almost as much as if a person were drunk. Add an alcoholic drink, and you're at heightened risk of falling on board or overboard, or misstepping when boarding the boat or the dock.


Belt-Pack Inflatable Life Jackets – Filling an important niche, belt packs offer a less-expensive inflatable and a less-bulky option for specific types of boating where you wouldn't expect huge seas, and where help would likely arrive quickly. We like them! As handy as they are, though, we found belt packs are a little more complicated to use than other life jackets, so practice with yours before heading out on the water.


Testing GPS-Enabled EPIRBs – We wanted to see if GPIRBs actually sent a GPS signal to the receiving satellites. We found that in certain situations signals were not being sent because of interference, such as from rain, or even the canopy of our test life raft. This test, and others like it, led to a redesign of, and updates to, the software and firmware of GPIRBs.


Avoiding Fuel Spills – When your inboard tanks are filled too quickly, or are overfilled, your air vent burps polluting fuel into the water. Modifying your behavior at the pump is the best thing you can do to keep fuel out of the water. Know how much fuel you need when you go to fill your tanks. We recommend filling to 90-percent capacity, pumping slowly, watching, listening.


On-Board Communications – While you're not required to carry a VHF radio, you need one. We found that cellphones don't cut it for all boating situations. In most emergencies, a VHF may be your only hope for help because Coast Guard, marine police, and BoatUS Towing Services all monitor distress frequencies. This is a worthwhile purchase, even for low-end units.


Navigation lights – In our tests, Light Emitting Diode (LED) lights performed better, and were visible at a greater distance, than traditional incandescent lights.


Engine Cut-Off Switches – Employing an engine cut-off switch may be one of the simplest things you can do to protect you and your crew from the potential hazards of a fall overboard. Lanyards are a must on boats such as PWCs. Larger boats are better served by electronic versions that can be used by the whole crew.


Juggling Jerry Cans – Newer designs incorporate features to limit spills and vapor emissions. We found jugs with spill devices tended to have a slower flow, giving you more time to react. But nearly all still drip or spill, so have a fuel-absorbent pad nearby to clean up.


Boarding Ladders – In our tests, ladders that extended 20 inches under water and had three or fewer steps were preferred. Consider your boat's hull shape and freeboard before buying a ladder. Once purchased, get additional line and a clip to help adjust it to your particular boat. Technique trumped strength when reboarding, so do practice.


Deck Cleats – Be sure your entire cleat system is robust, including the cleat, fasteners (nuts, bolts, washers), deck/mounting platform, backing plate, and line. We found many systems we inspected were skimpy. Buy the largest size cleat your wallet and deck space can handle. Choose a high-tensile strength material (stainless steel, bronze or aluminum). Be sure the feet are large relative to the size of the cleat, and that the backing plate and deck thickness are adequate for the job.


Crew-Overboard Maneuvers – No matter what recovery method you employ, reboarding is challenging. While many powerboats have swim platforms, not all do. So what do you do if the water is rough, or a person is injured or unconscious? After conducting more than 400 tests, one thing stood out: The more times a maneuver or MOB device was used, the more successful the crew was at getting the victim back aboard. Only practice made perfect.


Oil-Absorbent Pads – When oils or other hydrocarbons leak, or accidentally spill, and come into contact with water, either inside or outside your boat, you've got a dangerous problem. In general, our testers found that oil absorbent pads/booms/socks work as advertised, so keep some aboard. Discarding used pads must be done with care. Don't chuck them in the trash. Check with your marina or local waste facility for proper disposal locations.


Personal Water Craft – The Coast Guard considers PWCs to be Type A vessels, with the same legal requirements as similar vessels. But PWCs have important differences, most notably this: They need to be in motion to maintain steerage. Whether you ride a PWC or not, it's important to know this, so you can anticipate how they might operate in the event of an encounter or accident.


Life-Jacket Tests – Our latest life-jacket test examined standard USCG-approved jackets, and compared them to several non-approved jackets as well as jackets approved overseas. In keeping with past life-jacket tests, there were no clear "best jackets." It's up to the boater to pick a jacket suited to their abilities and to the conditions in which they will be boating. European jackets in particular are marketed for specific activities.


Get The Water Out – Buy the maximum-size bilge pump your boat and wallet can handle, fit it with smooth-bore hose, and attach it to the widest, shortest thru-hull you can. Place the discharge as low on the side as possible without compromising safety. If you can, install more than one. If you're on a sailboat, ensure that the discharge hose has a half-loop in it, and that the loop is higher than the waterline when heeled over.


Commercial Shipping – A recreational boat is far easier to maneuver out of danger than a big ship or tug-and-tow. Most commercial vessels are restricted by their draft, their ability to maneuver, or both. Bottom line? Stay out of the way. Commercial captains and pilots monitor VHF channel 13, and generally welcome a call to talk about your respective intentions. It's another good reason to own a VHF radio.


Help On The Way! – Having an action plan for everyone aboard to deal with unforeseen emergencies, well-rehearsed before something goes wrong, makes a critical difference when help or a rescue is required. Show your guests where the emergency gear is located, and give them a quick run through of how things work — especially the radio. The Coast Guard, as well as state and local marine police, are best suited for responding to true emergencies on the water. The best way to contact them is by VHF radio.


Gear Up For Man Overboard – Wear harnesses and life jackets, especially when underway at night or in heavy weather, and avoid overconfidence. Nobody ever plans to fall. We found that practicing your man-overboard pick-up procedure could mean the difference between life and death. We also found that the instructions with most MOB gear do not adequately prepare you to use it. Also, how you actually use products and techniques will vary from boat to boat; a low-slung sailboat will present a different set of circumstances than a high-sided trawler, so practice on the boat you've got.


Electronic Charting – Electronic chart displays and navigational software offer significant advantages over paper charts, but our test team had concerns about inconsistent chart information, size of displays, and a wide array of operating procedures. We found that E-charts from different manufacturers can show (or not show!) critical information. Talk to fellow boaters, or go to a store and compare the products to see which ones best reflect what you'll actually find out on the water in your area. Most critically, always have a paper chart as backup.


Green Cleaners – Our testing determined that not all "green" cleaners were that green, and some products that don't proclaim to be green really were. Regardless of your choice of cleaner, we found that how you clean your boat and how you use a cleaning product can influence your environmental impact as much as, if not more than, the product itself. So, wash your boat frequently to prevent the build up of dirt and grime. When you use a cleaner, use it sparingly. Full strength cleaners are fine for tough stains or spots, not for the whole boat.


Duct Tape – Look for high cloth count/content, adhesive coating weight, and overall thickness, which generally translates to the best adhesion and wear. If thickness is the only thing you can easily determine, go with the thickest tape you can find.


Pet Life Jackets – We found that sizing guidelines that come with dog life jackets vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, so take Fido with you for a proper fitting. Pay attention to where straps and attachments contact the dog's body. In the wrong spot, these make the dog miserable and they'll try to chew them off.


Visual-Distress Signals – Pyrotechnic devices have several drawbacks. Storage or disposal of expired flares, and the burn hazard of using them, are leading to the development of newer devices such as laser flares. The Foundation has created several training videos to show proper use of signaling devices. Visit www.BoatUS.com/Foundation/Findings/video.html.

To see all our Foundation Findings articles through the years, with many photos and free how-to videos to go along with each one, visit www.BoatUS.com/Foundation/Findings.