Prepare for Launch: The Springtime Vessel Safety Checklist

Before fishing seasons are in full swing is a good time inspect, refurbish and replace boat safety gear.
Coast Guard Auxiliary member conducts vessel safety check
You can contact your local Coast Guard Auxiliary for a vessel safety check. They will go over your safety equipment to ensure you have what you need should the unthinkable happen. Jim Hendricks

For many coastal boating anglers, winter is the off-season. Fishing opportunities can be a bit lacking, but the downtime offers a good opportunity to inspect and update your boat’s safety equipment, especially if you have pulled your boat out for winter storage. Here is the 10-point checklist I use to help ensure the season ahead plays out as safely as possible while fishing afloat.

1. Inspect Life Jackets

The fabric, straps, buckles and flotation material should still in prime condition. If any of these elements are suspect, replace the life jacket with a brand new one. If you have inflatable life jackets, inspect the CO2 cartridges. Look for the expiration date and replace if the cartridge if has expired.

2. Check Signal Flares

Handheld and meteor pyrotechnic flares expire 42 months after the date of manufacture, so make sure yours are still good. If they are set to expire at mid-season, put a reminder on your calendar. But if within a month or two, you might as well replace them now. When you do, consider one of the new handheld electronic flares from ACR, Ocean Signal, Orion or Sirius Signal. Combined with a Coast Guard-approved daytime distress signal flag, you no longer need pyrotechnic flares, but make sure the batteries for your electronic flare are good, and carry spare batteries just in case.

3. Renew EPIRBs and PLBs

Registration for these safety beacons must be renewed every two years, as mandated by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which sends a reminder. But if your contact info has changed, you might not have received it. To check the renewal date for your EPIRB and PLBs, go to Also check the batteries in your EPIRBs and PLBs. Most of these devices offer a test procedure, and now is a good time to run them.

4. Examine Fire Extinguishers

Check the pressure gauges on your boat’s fire extinguishers. They should read in the green “full” zone. Replace any that have been even partially discharged. Buy Coast Guard-approved fire extinguishers only. Give existing extinguishers a good shake to break loose the fire-retardant powder that might have become caked at the bottom. Additionally, you must replace any fire extinguishers that are 12 years older than the manufacture date stamped on the bottom. Examine the bracket to ensure it still holds the extinguisher secure.

5. Fresh Batteries

Replace all of the batteries in your flashlights and headlamps and handheld VHF radios, and buy fresh spare batteries to stow aboard. If have rechargeable batteries, give them all a charge, and enter reminders on your calendar when to recharge them again in the future.

6. Blow Your Own Horn

Make sure you have a functioning Coast Guard-approved sound-producing device on board. If not a horn, it can be a whistle. Some fix-mount VHF radios also have signal horns within the PA system, but they need an external loudspeaker to function properly.

7. Bilge Pump

Poke your head in the bilge compartment while someone presses the bilge pump switch to make sure it runs. While you’re down there, lift up on the float on the automatic bilge pump switch to ensure that it turns on the pump. Check all of the wiring and connectors to ensure that they are corrosion free and no debris is blocking the grate around the pump pickup.

8. Ground Tackle

Pull out and inspect all of your anchor rode and ground tackle. Replace elements such as line, chain or shackles that show excessive corrosion or wear. Now is also a great time to create new chain-to-rope eye-splices, especially if they appear excessively worn or frayed.

9. Navigation Lights

Check them all to make sure they work, including the anchor light, as well as the red and green bow marker lights.

10. Schedule a Vessel Safety Check

The US Coast Guard Auxiliary or US Power Squadrons can help in making your boat as safe as possible. Schedule a Vessel Safety Check (VSC). Volunteer members of either group will come to your marina or your house (for trailered boats) to conduct a VSC. If you pass, you receive a VSC decal for the year. To inquire about a VSC, visit


What is a vessel safety check?

A vessel safety check is a complimentary inspection conducted by the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary or United States Power Squadrons to verify that a boat meets federal safety requirements. It helps ensure that the required safety equipment is present, working properly, and that the vessel complies with all applicable federal regulations.

What must be on a vessel?

Federal regulations mandate that vessels must carry certain safety equipment on board, including life jackets, visual distress signals, sound-producing devices, fire extinguishers, navigation lights, and other gear depending on the size and type of the vessel. Additionally, vessels must display appropriate registration numbers and documentation.

How often should vessels be inspected?

There is no set frequency for vessel inspections mandated by law, but it is generally recommended that vessel owners conduct regular self-inspections and have their boats professionally inspected at least once a year, particularly before the start of the boating season. This helps ensure that all equipment is in good working order and meets safety standards.