Outfit your boat…. the equipment you need for cruising

Okay, guys and gals, you’ve bought a boat. Now what? Why, you need to equip it  for cruising. Primary to operating a boat is having aboard the required safety equip-  ment.

Of course, you’ll need to find a place to keep the boat. Then, you’ll spend  some more money and outfit it with all the electronics and paraphernalia needed  to travel in safety and comfort. The most important information you’ll learn in this  section is how to handle weather when on cruise. 

Safety is paramount on a boat. Carry aboard the wherewithal to protect the lives of  your crew, prevent fire, and alert others to your distress situation. If your boat is  not already equipped with any of these essential items, take a trip to the marine  “candy store” to pick out navigation and docking essentials, as well as a tow-along  dinghy. You can also obtain many of these items through a boat dealership. 

REQUIRED SAFETY GEAR  If you already own a boat or have just purchased one, you likely have the essential  safety gear. Standard equipment provided as part of a new boat sale is usually min-  imal. Check through what you have to be certain your existing equipment meets the  current  regulations and is not outdated or expired.  You must carry aboard these types of safety equipment at all times:

  • Flotation devices and rescue equipment
  • Fire prevention equipment
  • Alert and distress signals   


Flotation devices are designated by type to indicate the amount of buoyancy each  will provide. You will need one per person of a type I, II, or III, depending on your state’s requirements for your type of vessel. The type and size (by weight range of  designated user) will be printed on the inside of the jacket.  Descriptions of the four types of flotation devices follow:   

  • Type I: Type I flotation devices are heavy-duty and designed for keeping one  afloat in cruising areas where rescue may be slow to come, such as on the  open ocean.   
  • Types II & III: Type II and type III flotation devices are most common and are  suited to boating in areas where there’s a chance of fast rescue. Because many  of these are bulky, some folks turn to inflatable vests. While these are easy to  store and more comfortable, check to be sure any you buy are designated as a  type II or III in order to meet USCG requirements.   
  • Type IV: Type IV flotation devices are throwable devices such as ring and  horseshoe buoys and floatable boat cushions. Because these are used for  emergency man-overboards, all throwables need to be on deck and readily  accessible. In some areas a throwable may no longer be substituted for a  wearable vest in dinghies and other small boats.   


Your cruising style will determine how in-depth you need to go when purchasing  safety gear. If you are coastal cruising, for example, your dinghy can be a suitable life raft as long as you are not too far from shore or other cruising boats that may  rescue you.  Important safety items to consider having on hand include the following:

  •     Man Overboard Module: A self-deploying man overboard module (MOM) is  typically attached to a railing at the stern of a boat. A MOM simplifies recovering a person overboard without endangering the crew or the person being  recovered. The device is useful only if it’s deployed very close to the victim,  especially at night or in bad weather. Some models have an integral harness  for recovering a victim from the water. If not, consider purchasing a winching  device called a life sling.   
  • Life Raft: Have aboard a life raft if you routinely travel out of sight of land and  well away from common boating areas. A life raft self-inflates when kicked  over the side. A floating line keeps it attached to the boat until you are ready to  cut loose. Choose a raft large enough to accommodate the number of people  you normally have aboard and that is equipped for either coastal or off-shore  cruising. Basic survival gear such as a flashlight, fishing line, some water, and  chalky nutrition in the form of hardtack is stowed inside.   
  • Ditch Bag: A ditch bag is a duffel packed with survival supplies that will not already be present on your dinghy or life raft. Ditch bags are handy in situations where you need to jump ship and “live” in your dinghy or life raft for hours,  even days, until help arrives. Purchase one already stocked and add to it, or  make up your own. If you are straying very far from shore, ramp up on survival  gear with portables: a watermaker, a Global Positioning System (GPS), an  EPIRB, a VHS marine radio, and a few throwable flares. Comfort items like  waterproof covers, dry sets of clothing, and candy bars are always a plus.   
  • EPIRB = An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) is a device that  transmits repeated signals from your location.   
  • Sea anchor: A sea anchor is another helpful device to have aboard. It is a cone  of heavy canvas with an attached line that acts much like a parachute. It creates drag by keeping the bow of the boat pointed into the wind and seas. A  drogue is similar to a sea anchor, except it is towed astern to slow forward  movement and to hold the stern steady.   

FIRE EXTINGUISHERS  The best defense against fire is being prepared in advance to avert one. The movement of a boat causes all of its systems to vibrate, which leads to loose wire connections, chafing and wear, and propane gas or fuel leaks. Any one of these issues  can cause a fire to erupt. On boats with an inboard engine, it pays to be particularly  vigilant. USCG-approved fire extinguishers are required on boats with enclosed engine  compartments (outboards), enclosed living space, or with permanent fuel tanks.  The size of your boat determines the number and type of extinguisher needed.  Fire extinguishers are designated by letters and numbers according to the class  and size of the fire they can put out. The letter (A, B, C, or D) indicates the class of  fire. The number is a measure of the capacity of the extinguisher. The larger the  number, the greater the capacity of extinguishing material contained within the  unit. Boats between 26 and 40 feet in length, for example, require one B-II or two  B-I extinguishers.  While it is typical to mount a fire extinguisher in the engine compartment, releasing  the contained CO2 is a manual activity. Getting the extinguisher going by hand can  be an issue if the fire occurs when you are shorthanded and underway. Be proac-  tive by installing an automatic fire extinguishing system in your enclosed engine  compartment. Activated by a rise in temperature, the unit can detect and douse a  fire before you or your crew is aware one exists.  If you have a gasoline engine or are using a fuel with a flashpoint of 110 degrees  Fahrenheit or less, you will need at least two ventilator ducts with cowls (or the  equivalent) for the bilge of every closed compartment containing a gasoline tank  (except if you have permanent tanks vented outside the boat and containing no  unprotected electrical devices). Also, closed compartments housing a gasoline en-  gine with a cranking motor must have a powered exhaust blower that is  controllable from the instrument panel. This applies to boats built after August 1,  1980. 


None of us ever wants to be in a distress situation, but nasty stuff happens. For  this reason the USCG requires you to carry approved signaling devices. Use these  with discretion. Please don’t send up a flare or radio an SOS to the coast guard if  you go aground or run out of fuel. And if you see another boat in distress, the un-  written law of the sea deems you do your best to help it in whatever way you can.  The USCG requires you to carry three visual signaling devices, intended to sum-  mon help should the need arise. These can only be effective if potential assistance  is in sight. Light-producing versions work best at night. Keep in mind that flares  can only be used once and come with expiration dates. Before you leave port, make  sure any flares or pyrotechnic devices you have aboard are fresh and stored where  you can easily get at them.  Flares, or any fire-producing devices, emit a brilliant flash of attention-getting light.  It’s a no-no to toss one of these into a harbor full of boats on the Fourth of July be-  cause the ash can cause burns and start fires. In some states or countries, para-  chute or pistol-launched flares are considered firearms.  Choose from any of the combinations listed below: 

ADDITIONAL VISUAL WARNING SIGNALS  The USCG requirements are minimal. It pays to be prepared with additional warning aids for the (hopefully rare) occasion when a distress situation occurs while  you are underway and far from shore. A lightning strike could zap your electronics,  making it impossible for you to reach shore assistance; someone could go over-  board and you need help retrieving him or her; or you could suffer a collision and  be sinking fast.  As a backup plan, here are some ideas for items you can keep aboard and use to  help attract the most immediate assistance:   

  • > Use an electric distress light to flash the international SOS signaland, no,  a flashlight cannot be substituted.   
  • > Wave a distress signal flag or anything that will attract attention. The SOS  distress flag is a 3 ? 3 foot orange square with a black square and a black ball,  and it’s available at marine stores.  
  • > Throw a canister of bright-colored sea dye marker into the water (useful in an air search).  
  • > Flash a mirror (this is not USCG approved, but if done correctly, it may do  the trick). 

  MUST-HAVE AUDIBLE DEVICES:  Bells, whistles, and air horns are audible devices used to let other boats know of  your presence when visibility is restricted or poor. These work well at night, during  torrential rain, and in fog conditions. To protect your boat from potential collision,  sound your whistle, bell, or horn at regular intervals until all threats are past.  Be sure your boat meets these requirements:    Boats up to 40 feet in length: need a horn or a whistle. (This includes the  dinghy.)    Boats over 40 feet in length: need a horn or whistle plus a ship’s bell.

NAVIGATION GEAR : You can spend a ton of money on fancy electronics—and perhaps you already  have. In reality, you can get by with very few basics. With a compass, depth  sounder, chart of your cruising area, and the know-how from boating classes, you  will be able to figure out where you are even when visibility is poor.  In our early boating years, my captain and I navigated in dense fog through some of the nastiest waters in New England by using a compass to direct us to markers,  and then comparing the depth of the water underneath us with that marked on our  boating chart. We used an air horn and our ship’s bell to announce our presence to  other boats. 

GLOBAL POSITIONING SYSTEM (GPS)  GPS is a system of satellites, computers, and receivers that is able to determine the  latitude and longitude of a receiver on Earth. It does so by calculating the time dif-  ference for signals from different satellites to reach the receiver. These days, most  boaters own a GPS chart plotter. This technology is changing so quickly it is hard  to keep up. A cockpit display works off a computer program to provide coordinates  and directions for navigating coastal and inland waters.  If you are not ready to invest in one of the more complex built-in systems, begin by  purchasing a portable GPS. You can use a GPS navigation application downloaded  onto an iPad or other device. Bear in mind that you will require Internet access. As  with the cell phone, no signal equals no data. 

RADAR REFLECTOR  A basic reflector is made of metal or a material that will refract enough light so that  your boat will show up as a radar target on neighboring boats. Its purpose is to  avoid collision by visually alerting others to your presence. If you operate your boat  in areas with shipping traffic or where fog and low visibility are common, the ability  to be seen by radar-equipped ships can make the difference between cruising smoothly and being rammed. You can pick up a reflector for less than one hundred  dollars. For optimum range, install the reflector as high on your boat as possible.  More elaborate and costly electronic radar units consist of a flattened globe in-  stalled atop a radar pole and wired into a display at the helm station. Data in the  form of a “blip” on the radar screen indicates the location and directional move-  ment of any (reflective) boats or obstacles surrounding you. Electronic radar units  are often interfaced with built-in GPS systems. When dealing with commercial traf-  fic, some serious sailors use an automatic tracking feature (AIS) that interfaces  with their radar and allows them to identify the name of a particular vessel shown  on the screen. AIS can be configured as uni- or bi-directional. 

MARINE RADIOS (VHF)  Marine radios are often referred to as VHFs. VHF is a line-of-sight system, which  means the radio waves won’t bend to follow the curvature of the earth. The VHF  antenna must “see” the antenna of a distant station, so be sure to install your  antennas as high on your boat as possible. With a sailboat, put the antenna at the  top of the main mast. 

  •   Very high frequency (VHF) = the ITU designation for the range of radio frequency  electromagnetic waves (radio waves) from 30 MHz to 300 MHz, with corre-  sponding wavelengths of ten to one meters.   

The most basic and essential piece of equipment you need to have is a marine radio with a single sideband radio as an add-on option. Other supplementary de-  vices are personal cell phones, Internet access, and if you plan international, deep-  ocean travel, a satellite phone. Very high frequency (VHF) radios are the universal  means of communicating while on the water. Use a VHF radio to call for help when  needed, listen to weather reports, or hail shore facilities, bridge operators, or other  boats.  Many VHF frequencies are designated for particular purposes. A frequency table  should be included in the purchase of your radio, or you might have acquired this  information in boating class. Marine radios are monitored twenty-four hours a day  by the coast guard. When on cruise, turn on the radio and stand by on channel 16.  The radio unit consists of a microphone and a call unit from which you can access  a variety of channels. Most radios come equipped with digital selective calling  (DSC) capability (or “Mayday” button), which will ultimately coordinate with the  USCG Rescue 21 system. When DSC is activated, your radio will broadcast an en-  coded distress call that can be picked up by nearby vessels equipped with similar  capability. If your radio interfaces with a LORAN (long range navigation system) or  a GPS, it will also broadcast your latitude and longitude. 

BUILT-IN MARINE RADIO  A built-in marine radio, also called a fixed radio, is usually mounted in an accessible location inside the boat. All fixed-mount VHFs have a maximum output of 25  watts, the maximum allowed by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). The range of a VHF radio is around 20 to 25 miles, depending on your location.  For boats with outside helm stations, such as sailboats, having a VHF repeater unit  at the helm station comes in handy. 

PORTABLE MARINE RADIO  Handheld chargeable VHF units can be taken along in a dinghy for jaunts to shore  to allow communication to your main boat, or to hail a launch if stranded. It can  also act as an emergency backup to the main VHF radio. Handhelds have a maximum output of 6 watts. Due to their short antennas and low power, they have a  limited range of 5 miles. 

SINGLE SIDEBAND RADIO (SSB)  As a recreational boater, you do not need a license from the FCC to operate a single sideband radio unless you have a 65-foot or larger boat or plan to use your boat  in a foreign country or waters, like the Bahamas or the Caribbean.  An SSB offers reliable voice communication over distances exceeding 25 miles  from shore. Hailing range is affected by variables, such as the strength of the signal and weather conditions. Output power from an SSB is from 50 to 150 watts.  SSB radios operate in the medium frequency (MF) and high frequency (HF) bands.  In the MF band, the maximum range is fifty to one hundred fifty miles, whereas in  the HF range you may be able to transmit thousands of miles. Installation of an  SSB is more complex than it is for a VHF. 


You can’t cruise forever. When it’s time to dock your boat, have on hand the necessary gear to anchor out or secure your boat to a wharf or mooring. You will also  need to carry aboard a shore power cord to maintain your batteries when the boat  is docked. 

DOCK LINES : Having aboard lines in the kinds and quantities suggested below assures you will  be able to tie up to any style slip or mooring or to reinforce holding power when a  storm is imminent: 

  •   > Two bow lines 
  • > Two stern lines 
  • > Two spring lines 
  • > One or more spare lines for mooring or other uses   

At a marine store, it’s easy to be overwhelmed when you stand before a wall of  reels holding roping in a variety of materials, styles, diameters, and colors. Each  type of marine cordage has its own use and characteristic.  When purchasing lines, you will need to know the answers to these questions: 

  •   > What material is the line made of? 
  • > What thickness is best for your size boat? 
  • > How long should each section be? 

Your dock lines will be cut to the length you request. As a rule, the length of bow  and stern lines should equal two-thirds of your boat’s overall length. Spring lines should be approximately the same length as your boat. Depending on the position  of the cleats on your boat and at your marina slip, you may need longer lines.  The typical dock line has an eye splice at one end. You can have your lines spliced  and wrapped professionally or do it yourself. In cases where you need an emer-  gency dock line, it’s all right to substitute a bowline knot for the eye splice loop as  long as you are aware that it will not hold as long or as well. 

FENDERS  Fenders, or bumpers as some folks call them, are padded or inflated items, usually  made of pliable vinyl, rubber, or other soft material, used to keep a boat from  bumping against the dock or other boats. Fenders come in a variety of shapes,  sizes, materials, and colors. Talk to your marine salesperson about the best size  for your boat or consult a chart in a catalog. A rule of thumb is 15 millimeters for  every meter of boat length. Although you may be able to get by with three fenders, I  suggest you carry at least five. Also helpful is a horizontal fender board to keep  fenders in place in certain docking situations. Tie fenders to your boat with a piece  of line that can be adjusted to accommodate tide changes and various docking  situations. 

BOAT HOOK  A boat hook is essential to snag a mooring and can be a godsend when trying to retrieve a hat or shoe that fell overboard. The typical hook is constructed of anodized  aluminum tubing that telescopes quickly and securely locks with a twist. Choose a  floating hook so you can snag it if it, too, goes in the drink. Boat hooks come in  various lengths. Choose the size that will most easily store aboard your boat. Keep  it handy by locating it within easy reach, preferably on deck. 

SHORE POWER CORDS  Shore power systems work only when you are near an electrical source at dock.  Generators and inverters are used underway to produce the same kind of electricity. The standard cord set consists of a 50-foot cord with two receptacles and a  threaded ring, which has a hinged lid to allow for a locking waterproof connection.  One end of the cord plugs into the boat’s outlet, the other into a dockside electrical  unit.  Depending on how your boat’s power outlet is configured, you will need a cord set  to accommodate either 30- or 50-amp service. All sorts of adapters and connectors  are available to accommodate whatever the electrical outlet situation may be at  your dock, as well as docks you will connect to in your travels.  If you plan to purchase a new cord set or upgrade your existing plugs, two new systems you should consider are the Easily Engaged Locking system (EEL) or the  SmartPlug. These are designed to prevent overheating and water seepage issues  common to traditional plugs and have a more relaxed cord length requirement. 

ANCHORS AND TACKLE  What would you do to keep from drifting while you handle a boat issue, or when  you just want to be sure the boat stays in place? Drop your anchor, of course . While having an anchor is not the law in every state, it can be one of the first pieces  of emergency equipment you’ll need. Often, an anchor assembly is included as part  of a boat-buying package.  The primary anchor assembly includes the following parts:   

  • Anchor: A stainless steel or aluminum anchor of the size and type best suited  to your boat and the waters you plan to navigate.   
  • Bow roller: A fixed bow roller to push the anchor rode or chain out beyond the  bow.   
  • Winch: A winch to drop or retrieve the anchor, if your boat is large enough to  require one.   

If you already have a primary anchor, don’t stop there. Purchase a second anchor  to use as backup should a passing boat cut your anchor line and send you adrift,  or in situations where you need to reinforce or control the holding power of your  main anchor. The second anchor is usually smaller than the primary anchor and of  different style. 

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