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Could You Pass a Vessel Safety Check?

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The weather is getting warmer and for most of us, boating season is here. May 17-24, 2014 is Safe Boating Week, and is the perfect reminder to inspect your boat’s mechanical systems, brush up on navigational regulations and check the items that keep you safe on the water. A complimentary Vessel Safety Check (VSC) will get you started.

VSCs ensure that boat owners meet federal, state and local regulations, as well as equipment requirements. The examiner discusses the care and use of the equipment, and ways of avoiding accidents and injuries. The check can be done at the dock, ramp, or in your driveway. If the boat receives a decal, it meets minimum U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) safety standards which may prevent a boating citation, or lower your insurance rate.

Volunteer vessel examiners, like those from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary (USCGAUX) and US Power Squadrons® (USPS), are USCG approved. In total, for 2013, these two organizations’ 8,766 examiners performed 154,161 inspections and passed 124,106 craft, or 80% of inspected boats.

Some required items needed to pass a VSC. Photo by Helen Aitken
Some required items needed to pass a VSC. Photo by Helen Aitken

Pat Hardee, a member of the Fort Macon Sail and Power Squadron, N.C., a unit of the USPS, is one of two FMSPS certified, female VSC examiners. “An inspection takes about 45 minutes,” she says. “We keep a log book with people’s boat information and call to reschedule their check for the next year.”

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The examiner checks inboard and outboard recreational boats, typically less than 65 feet; even sailboats with mechanical power must meet the same requirements. So must personal watercraft with inboard motors, like jet skis. There are 15 required items to pass the VSC, including state and/or federal regulations booklets, overall vessel condition, sanitation devices, ventilation, backfire flame controls, and MARPOL trash placard.  Of course, some items may not apply to all craft.

Missing registration/documentation, missing or expired visual distress signals, “bad” fire extinguishers, and non-working navigational lights, are top reasons for VSC failure. Hardee says that the typical answer she gets is, “I won’t be using them (navigational lights) at night.” Each light has the 6-candle power equivalent, and must be visible for two nautical miles. During daylight, when fog rolls in or a storm pops up, these are necessary. “Sometimes you replace the bulb which screws in or pops in place. Then again, sometimes it needs rewiring,” Hardee says.

Additional items like a marine radio, dewatering devices, and first aid kits are recommended onboard, but aren’t necessary to meet minimum standards. Examiners may discuss nautical charts and aids, hypothermia and overboard practices, fueling and management, float plans, food/water, sunscreen or high visibility clothing and gear. Boaters new to the area get advice on local conditions, docking, marinas, and available classes.

Examiners talk about the appropriate sizes and conditions of Personal Flotation Devices (PFD), radio usage and channel 16, visual distress signals for day and night, anchoring and lines, and they love to answer questions. Hardee indicates, “When you get people onboard, you have to tell them where everything is.”

Sport and utility boats like canoes, kayaks, paddleboards, and “jon boats” are inspected because of their popularity and high accident rate. Paddle Craft Vessel Safety Checks involve 10 requirements and recommendations. Examiners look for a sound vessel with good hatch covers and secure hardware, the floatation system, paddles or oars, visual distress signals, lights, and state/local requirements.  Vessels going in open water also require a pump, spray skirt, spare paddles, compass/GPS, a tow recovery system, and radio or cell phone. Most failures occur because of a missing PFD, or sound-producing device like a whistle.

After the inspection, the boater signs the document and receives a copy to keep onboard; the paperwork goes to the Coast Guard. “If you fail, we’ll come back again. It’s free,” says Pat Hardee. The owner has until the end of the year, to be re-inspected. When a vessel passes, a decal is issued and is good for the calendar year. For boats, the decal usually goes on the portside windshield. For paddle craft, it goes on a flat surface.

A Vessel Safety Check provides a peace of mind for a safe day on the water. To schedule a Vessel Safety Check contact a local USPS or USCGAUX member or http://wow.uscgaux.info/content.php?unit=V-DEPT. These organizations offer free or low cost classes and seminars like trailering, anchoring, and kayaking throughout the year, and are eager to pass on safe boating practices and knowledge.

For more information, read the Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats, and Safety Tips, or Federal Requirements and Safety Tips for Recreational Boaters, produced by the USCG. It covers equipment, navigation rules, aids to navigation, laws, safety and survival tips, a pre-departure checklist, float plan sample, emergency communications, and boating information handy for onboard reference. This literature is found at marinas, boat dealers and other places.

For information on Safe Boating Week and safe boating practices, please go to http://www.safeboatingcampaign.com/, or http://www.uscgboating.org/.


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