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Boating Safety 101- The Essential Checklist

By: Scott Way

Boating safety checklist
Ryan Bruce / Burst

Driving a car isn’t all that different from driving a boat. Before you can hop into the captain’s chair there’s some training you have to do, some procedures you have to master (hello, docking the boat), and you'll have to pass a test. After you’ve got the basic boating procedures down you can start getting comfortable and mastering your skills. While docking a boat can feel like you’re parallel parking an SUV with a boat trailer at night with no mirrors, it gets easier with time and experience (and a spotter). Maintaining a foundation of good safety is paramount to being a responsible boater. To help make sure you’ve got everything you need before hitting the water, here’s a quick checklist with a few helpful links. It’ll help make sure you’re safety compliant, stocked up with the proper essentials, and ready to explore.


Pleasure Craft Operating Card

If you’re a Canadian, all boaters operating a powered vessel are required to have a Pleasure Craft Operator Card. To obtain a PCOC you must pass an accredited test and it must be with you while on the boat at all times. To learn where you can get your PCOC visit MyBoatCard.

Proper Fitting Lifejackets/PFD’s for Each Person (that are government/Coast Guard approved)

Canadian law states there must be a proper fitting life jacket/PFD for each member on a vessel. According to the Red Cross, 87% of drowning deaths that occur while boating happen because a person wasn’t wearing a properly fastened and fitted PFD. While it’s not a legal requirement to wear your PFD at all times, it’s highly recommended. At the very least, all PFD’s should be easily accessible and all crew should know how to fasten them securely. Practicing this can be part of your crew safety training if you’re the captain of the vessel.

Transport Canada has a full description of PFD requirements for all vessels.

Coast Guard Approved Safety Kit

Each of these items is a legal requirement and can be purchased (and stored) separately, but they’re most commonly found as one complete kit. You can purchase a kit from any marine supply store and they generally contain the following:

a) 15 Meters+ of floating/buoyant rope/line

b) Waterproof flashlight and/or approved flares

c) Sounding signal device (whistle, horn, etc)

d) Bailer or manual water pump

Most kits DO NOT come with batteries for the flashlight, so check your kit and add them if needed. If you are stopped by law enforcement and have the kit, but no batteries in your flashlight, you will be subject to a fine.

Manual Propelling Device (e.g., paddles) or Anchor with 15 Meters+ of Rope/Chain

In the event of a mechanical failure, most pleasure craft vessel laws require carrying a manual propelling device. In most cases this means canoe paddles or attachable rowing oars so you can return to shore. Ideally you’ll never have to use these, but they’re easy to purchase and store on your vessel. In Canada, there is typically a caveat that if you do not have paddles/oars you can instead have an anchor with 15m (50 ft) of rode.

Approved Fire Extinguisher (charged, inspected, and within expiration date)

Depending on the size of your vessel you may be required to carry a fire extinguisher on board. In Canada the typical requirement is a Class 5BC fire extinguisher if you’re in a boat longer than 19’ that has a motor (or if it doesn’t have a motor but has a fuel burning stove, fixed fuel tank, fridge, or heater). To confirm your exact requirements check the Transport Canada Mandatory Safety Equipment Guide.

First Aid Kit

This isn’t a legal requirement but should be. Stock your boat with a complete first aid kit and educate your crew about where it’s stored and how to use it. Simple lessons that cover basic emergency protocols is a wise decision and part of being a responsible boater. There are marine-specific first aid kits that you can purchase to ensure you have the right components.

Drinking Water

In the event of a breakdown of emergency it’s wise to carry enough food and water for all your crew. In case you’re stranded for a period, or just to ensure that everyone stays hydrated during warm summer days, keep enough water on board to last a couple days. Unless you have a way to purify the freshwater you’re in (and if its saltwater you’re out of luck), storing water on board is one of the smartest things you can do.


Same as above, if you suffer a breakdown or find yourself in an emergency situation you’ll want to have enough food on board to last a few days. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but basic items like granola/protein bars, MRE’s (Meals Ready To Eat), dehydrated fruit, and trail mix can help cover the basic food groups and ensure that there are enough nutrients to keep everyone satiated until circumstances change.

‘The Essentials Kit’- Sunscreen, Hat(s), Sunglass(es), Rain Gear, Extra Clothing

Having a few comfort items on board will inevitably come in handy. In the event of some weather that’s unseasonably hot or cold (or wet), keeping some extra essentials onboard will help keep you and your guests content. Sunscreen and hats for hot days, warm clothes and rain gear for when the weather turns sour. A weather report doesn’t always belie the truth when you’re travelling across an open lake with incoming wind or spray, so keep a few spare items on board to stay dry and comfortable. If you can make everyone’s time aboard a little more comfortable, that’s a no brainer. If you boat often in cold weather or live in an area that can be unpredictable, there are some great tips on cold water boating.

If you’ll be going on extended trips and need some help determining what to provision, you can learn more about how to prepare for your time afloat.

Cell Phone and/or Marine UHF/VHF Radio

Standard safety protocols include carrying a means of communication onboard which can be a cell phone and/or marine UHF/VHF radio. Make sure you and your crew know how to use the radio and know terminology and protocols for calling for help. Be sure to keep spare batteries for all electronics, or a backup power source in the event of a primary failure.

Have a Float Plan

Standard safety procedure means you should Inform friends or family of your whereabouts for every trip, including where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Give your watchperson a ‘failsafe’ time, which means the time they should contact rescue authorities if they don’t hear from you. Specify your boat’s name, brand and model, length, color, the location of its towing vehicle (if you used one), and include a photo of your boat for added measure. The Canadian Safe Boating Council even has an online pre-fab Float Plan document you can use to give to your watchperson.

Once you establish a routine with the above steps they’ll become standard practice and an easy addition to your boating procedures. As always, never drink & boat and always keep safety as your first priority. Laws and regulations can also vary by province, state, or country so if you’re new to boating make sure you confirm what’s required for your area. If you’re overwhelmed, there is a downloadable Safe Boating Guide from Transport Canada that you can carry onboard so you can stay up to speed. If you’re confident about all your safety training but you’re unsure about common practices with other boaters, there’s a handy guide to help you navigate the common courtesies of the boating community. If you heed the steps above, stow away a few key safety items, and make sure you and your crew know basic procedures you’ll make the most of every summer. Boating is all about enjoying our time on the water, and with a little work you can catch the sunset over the bay every time.

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