Recreational Boating Safety – Marine Products

By Bob Currie, Vessel Examiner
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
Years ago, if you had a recreational boat, it consisted of a hull, an outboard motor, a paddle, and maybe an anchor. These days, even small boats like my 17 footer have all kinds of gizmos and gadgets such as GPS, remotely controlled trolling motors, and power poles. This column will mention and review a few products for the gizmo-inclined boaters among us.

The Station Galveston Flotilla of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary operates out of the USCG Station Galveston base on Galveston Island. They provide assistance to the Coast Guard by providing maritime observation patrols in Galveston Bay; by providing recreational boating vessel safety checks; and by working alongside Coast Guard members in maritime accident investigation, small boat training, watch standing, and procurement.

Before we get started, it is time to check your sacrificial anodes, especially if you leave your boat in the water all the time and especially if you are hooked up to shore power. Those sacrificial anodes can save you thousands of dollars in lower unit replacement. Most lower units (dare I say all) have aluminum cases, and sacrificial anodes are designed to protect that lower unit case from corrosion. If they are deteriorated, replace the anodes as soon as possible.

 Dog Life Jacket

Everyone knows dogs can swim instinctively and don’t need a life jacket, right? Well, no, that’s only partially true. Although they can instinctively swim, they can’t last long when they are trying to keep their heads above water in moderate to heavy seas. My dog’s nickname is Waterdog, because he likes the water and tends to jump overboard if he sees a fish. But I have him covered because I put his life jacket on when he is in the boat. The life jacket has a convenient suitcase type handle for lifting him out of the water. For bigger dogs, that handle can help you help your dog back aboard once he decides to take a swim. Around $80 or so. There are several companies that make them, and in several sizes.

Battery Jump Starter

As any commercial towing company or any Coast Guard member can tell you, the number one call for assistance on the water is for problems starting the engine. The number one cause of problems starting the engine is a dead battery. For those who have a trolling motor, you can use your trolling motor battery if your engine battery goes dead. For everyone else, you need an alternative way of supplying electricity to that starting motor. There are many different jump-starting devices out there. They are all basically a spare battery, but they also include a method of providing a high amperage jolt of electricity to crank your engine. The jump starters come in various amperages, so you should buy one that matches the cold cranking amps of your engine battery. The jump starter in the picture provides 660 amps cranking current, which will crank just about any recreational boat outboard engine, and a few large inboard gas or diesel engines. It costs around $150, which is much cheaper than a call to a commercial towing company to come provide you with a jump start. Sure, you can keep a pair of jumper cables on the boat, but unless you are near another boat you may have difficulty finding someone to jump you. Those jumper cables better be extra long, too.

Wireless Kill Switch

One type of call we get at the Coast Guard station is the unmanned vessel report. People will find a boat with no one aboard floating out on the high seas, and typically out of fuel. This means that the operator has been thrown overboard, and the search begins for what we hope is a live boater, but sometimes ends with no body found. The kill switch lanyard is found dangling from the kill switch in most of these cases. If you fall out of your boat without being hooked up to the kill switch, your boat will either keep going straight until it hits land or another object or simply runs out of fuel; or it could go into a spin and run over you. Several years ago we had a commercial crabber in East Bay fall overboard and get run over by his own boat. If your boat came from the manufacturer with an installed emergency kill switch, and it is less than 26 feet long, then you are now required by Texas law to have the kill switch lanyard attached to you while underway. Many people don’t mind the lanyard, but often forget to attach it. There is now a wireless system that you can legally use to replace the lanyard. I have a friend who installed one by himself on his boat. It simply wires into the ignition line in place of the emergency kill switch. It serves two functions. First, if you are properly wearing the red fob, if you fall overboard the electronic device senses that and kills the engine. But wait- there’s more: it has an emergency override so a passenger can crank the engine and come back and pick you up. Second, you can buy up to three extra fobs (around $25 each) for your passengers to wear. If the person wearing an extra fob falls overboard, you, the operator, get a loud alarm, but the engine is not killed. You can then decide whether it is someone you want to go back and pick up or not. No, that’s not why it doesn’t kill the engine. It’s so you can go back and pick the passenger up but still have man overboard protection. So, to review: this device provides man overboard (MOB) protection by stopping the engine if the operator falls overboard and provides alarm protection for up to three additional persons. The system is $199.99 at many sporting good stores and marine stores, and the extra alarm fobs are $25.00.

VHF/FM Radio

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t have at least a VHF/FM walkie talkie on their boat? This is your first line of communication with the Coast Guard within 20 miles of shore. You should never depend on your cell phone. No, the Coast Guard doesn’t monitor CB radios. They haven’t done so in almost 30 years. You can get a marine VHF/FM radio for less than $100. If you don’t go out further than 20 miles from shore, this is all you need, but if you do go further, this is the radio you will use to talk to other boats and that Coast Guard helicopter that is coming to rescue you 80 miles out once it gets there.

Satellite Communication

If you routinely go out beyond the 20 miles offshore point, you should have either a personal locator beacon for each person or an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). Those devices send out an emergency signal by satellite that is relayed to the Coast Guard whenever they are activated. But what if you wanted to actually talk to someone? You could get a very expensive satellite phone, or you can get a relatively inexpensive satellite text communicator such as the Garmin InReach Mini (see picture). These devices run for around $350 or less, and you have to have a subscription, but they are well within the affordable range for the average boater. One of my friends likes to sail down the east coast, through the Panama Canal and up the west coast, and vice versa. He keeps in touch with us using a similar satellite texting device, which can also be used to send an SOS. This device is great for hikers also.

AIS (Automatic Identification System)

The Automatic Identification System (AIS) is a digital VHF radio-based transponder system that can prevent collisions, and can protect your boat from being run down by a huge, fast-moving ship. It’s like radar with precise position information. AIS lets you see boats and ships that are out of visual range and determine whether you are on a collision course in plenty of time to take action to avoid collision. Like radar, the AIS system can be overlaid on your GPS monitor. The system’s range is similar to your VHF radio, which is a line of sight range, and depends on the height of your antenna. Its propagation is slightly better than radar due to its longer wavelength, and the signal is not degraded by rain clutter. It also has the ability to see around bends in rivers and over islands as long as they aren’t too tall. There are three classes of AIS units. Class A is for commercial ships and passenger ships, and is quite pricy. Class B is designed for recreational craft that want to see and be seen. Receive only AIS units do not transmit a signal to other boats to help them see you, but instead only receive signals from AIS-enabled vessels. Receivers run for around $500, Class B units run around $700 to $1,000, depending on what bells and whistles you want, while the class A units cost $3,000 and up. The new AIS rule extends to commercial boats of just about any type, and requires them to have a class A AIS.

Propeller Line Cutter

Attached to your propeller shaft just forward of your propeller, it rotates with the shaft, and cuts away any rope, weeds, or debris that may entangle your propeller shaft and damage your engine. They aren’t cheap, but neither is replacing your lower unit. Station Galveston Search and Rescue teams responded to a boat that was sinking near the North Jetty a couple of years ago. Its twin outboard engines had become entangled in an abandoned anchor line that was attached to a wreck, and the stern of the boat was yanked underwater, swamping the boat. If the boat owner had installed line cutters on his expensive outboards, he would still be using his boat. Expect to pay $400 + for a line cutter, depending on engine and shaft diameter. I have a friend who has one on his twin engine cabin cruiser, and he said it’s one of his best investments to protect his engines.


The equipment that used to be found only on large commercial vessels is becoming more available and affordable to the recreational boater. Most of these devices add a higher level of safety to the recreational boating experience. None of the devices mentioned today are required, but some of them could be in the near future. You have to consider the type of operating you routinely do as well as any benefit you may actually gain from having any of these devices. In other words, weight the cost versus the benefit. As one of my old high school buddies found out just this month, that line cutter sure looks good against the prospect of losing your prop and lower unit.

For more information on boating safety, please visit the Official Website of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division at  Questions about the US Coast Guard Auxiliary or our free Vessel Safety Check program may be directed to me at [email protected].  I am available to perform free Vessel Safety Checks, and I will come to your location to perform them.  SAFE BOATING!


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