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Published: July 2013

Sandy Reminder

Photo of a sailboat mast

With enough advance notice, people usually prepare their boats well for a coming storm. That includes stripping the boat of as much windage and gear as possible. Furled jibs have a tremendous amount of windage, though some people think they can simply be wrapped up and they'll be fine. But anyone who's ever been at a marina during strong winds knows that all it takes is a corner to work loose and the wind will find a way to unwrap the sail, as happened during Sandy to this boat. In this case, only the sail got damaged. Once a sail comes loose, the force of the wind can shake the rig to pieces, or if your boat's on the hard, it can shake it hard enough to move it off the jackstands and topple it. A loose sail can get stuck in your neighbor's boat, too, which can damage it. Anytime there's a chance of heavy wind, whether a tropical blow or a strong nor'easter, take down your jib. Also remove it if you're storing your boat for a while, since you might not be able to get to the boat when a storm approaches.

Beware Counterfeit Fire Extinguishers

Photo of a genuine and a counterfeit fire extinguisher

If you carry a fire extinguisher aboard, check and see if it was manufactured by Amerex Corporation or Buckeye Fire Equipment. Both companies are major producers of genuine approved fire extinguishing equipment, but the Coast Guard has recently become aware of counterfeits of U.S. Coast Guard-approved portable fire extinguishers using those brand names. These counterfeit extinguishers present a significant safety hazard. Their capability to extinguish a fire is unproven; they may be charged with a powdery substance that is not a fire extinguishing agent; the pressure cylinder is not DOT-approved; and the pressure gauge may not function or may give false readings. The dry-chemical counterfeit extinguishers are size B-II and may be identified by several distinguishing features:

  • Printed logos without a security imprint/texture behind the UL LISTED logo
  • A rounded, curved lip on the bottom of the extinguisher
  • Welded seams on the sides of the canister

If you suspect you have a counterfeit unit, please contact the Coast Guard Office of Design and Engineering Standards. For complete details, go to the Coast Guard Auxiliary website:

Knowing When a Swimmer Needs Help

With summer in high gear and the whole family enjoying fun on — and in — the water, it's a good time to make sure you know how to tell when a swimmer is in trouble. Most people assume they'll be alerted to danger when a person in the water starts yelling or waving his or her arms. But when someone is drowning, they lack the lung capacity to speak, let alone yell, and their actions become entirely reflexive.

Photo of children swimming in a lake

Drowning victims move their arms as though climbing a ladder, take quick gulps of air, and then slip underwater. The struggle is quiet, and often looks "playful." This behavior lasts about 60 seconds with an adult — and only 20 seconds with a child ­— before the victim disappears beneath the surface. If you have any doubts about whether someone in the water is in trouble, ask if they're OK. If they can't answer, they need your help immediately.

Updating Your MMSI Information

Electronic devices like a VHF radio with Digital Selective Calling (DSC) or an AIS (Automated Information System) transponder require a Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number. Search and rescue authorities use this nine-digit number to identify boats signaling they are in distress through the DSC system. It is also broadcast over your AIS transponder, providing other vessels with your vessel information in order to avoid collisions. Since your MMSI records could be critical to a distress response, you should access your MMSI account and verify the accuracy of your information at least annually.

If your boat will never be operating outside United States waters, you can register with BoatUS for an MMSI. The information you provide is forwarded to the Coast Guard's database, which is updated weekly. If you were to issue a distress transmission, that information would be used to identify you, your vessel, your emergency contacts, and (assuming the radio is connected to a GPS) your location — critical information — without you having to say a word.

If your boat ever operates in foreign waters, including Mexico, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean, or communicates with foreign stations, you must obtain a ship station license from the FCC, and the FCC will also issue an MMSI that is recognized internationally (Google "FCC ship station license"). What would happen if you had an MMSI not issued by FCC and used the DSC function to broadcast a distress alert outside of U.S. waters? The equipment would work, but the MMSI would not be recognized, and it's possible that no rescue attempt would be made. If you have a non-FCC-issued MMSI, make sure to get a ship station license and an FCC-issued MMSI before leaving U.S. waters.

Should you ever need to be rescued, your MMSI records would be critical. If you have a BoatUS-issued MMSI, you can access your account at any time by logging in at 

Click on Login/Update/Cancel MMSI, select View MMSI Registration Information or Edit MMSI Registration Information, and review or update any of the data.

Laser Flare Caution

Photo of a laserflare in daylight
Photo of a laserflare at night

As mentioned in Mailboat, traditional flares have some serious problems associated with them. Some are hard to spot during the day, they are difficult to dispose of, and they can be dangerous if not handled properly — after all, they are pyrotechnics (like fireworks). FCC-approved laser signaling devices, often referred to as laser flares, avoid these problems, but they have four serious drawbacks.

First, laser flares are not a recognized distress signal, so others may not realize you are asking for help. Second, they don't meet U.S. Coast Guard carriage requirements, so they don't replace any of the officially recognized and required equipment. Third, laser flares aimed directly at someone's eyes may lead to laser dazzle where an after-image of spots makes it difficult for a pilot to see. The current Coast Guard policy is that if a pilot gets hit with a laser flare in the eyes, he/she should abort the mission, though in practice each pilot would make his/her own decision. Fourth, pointing a laser at an aircraft is a federal crime with severe penalties EXCEPT in a search and rescue situation. If someone onboard, like a child or a guest, points one at an airplane, you could be held responsible.

The Coast Guard is working to identify alternative types of laser devices that do not cause laser dazzle. The BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water has been asked to test one such device now available in the U.K. and share its findings with the Coast Guard. We will report on their findings as soon as they are available. For more information on visual distress signals, check out Foundation Findings #45.

If you do decide to carry a laser signaling device aboard, remember that you must still carry a Coast Guard-approved visual distress signal as well. Don't buy a laser pointer from an office supply store as these have a much more concentrated beam that is even more likely to affect a pilot's vision. And remember that pointing the device at a rescue aircraft when it is close may cause it to break off its approach.End of story marker

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