Offshore boating and fishing are passions for many. The thrill of being on the open sea, miles away from shore, is intoxicating. But while the challenges of problem solving, navigation and core survival are what appeals to lovers of offshore boating, they make it a dangerous enterprise.
The ocean and large bodies of open water like the Great Lakes are not to be taken lightly because conditions can turn dangerous suddenly, and help is sometimes hours away. Near-shore boating presents its own set of risks but is a bit more forgiving, largely because there’s typically quicker access to shore and help. Offshore boating, on the other hand, requires a great deal of knowledge and expertise.
All of the safety information we discussed in our “Essential Guide to Boating Safety: Knowledge, Gear & Technologies” article applies to offshore boating. However, offshore boating requires additional equipment and knowledge.
This post is designed to provide insight and information, but we cannot stress thoroughly enough the need for proper offshore boating knowledge and skill development and familiarity with current U.S. Coast Guard and international-waters regulations.
Man Overboard and Rescue Communications Technologies
Technological advancements have helped a great deal to improve rescue communications, rescue location and more. The following is an exploration of key technologies in this area.
There is a whole class of fairly basic, dedicated man-overboard (MOB) devices that simply alert the operator of the boat that someone (or maybe a pet) has gone in the water. These overboard alarms are typically activated by a break in a radio signal between a wearable fob and the receiving unit at the helm. Systems like Raymarine LifeTag, MOBi-lert 720i and Autotether are very helpful, but they will not provide a location for the victim or launch external rescue communications.
Emergency Position Indicating Radiobeacons (EPIRB)
EPIRBs are the standard vessel transmitter. They operate on the 406 MHz frequency and are supported by Cospas-Sarsat, the international satellite-based search-and-rescue response network. EPIRBs are registered to the vessel and are designed for automatic activation upon immersion in the water. When an EPIRB is activated, the international rescue network is mobilized, and a full-blown vessel search ensues. These devices should be standard gear for any offshore boater.
Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)
PLBs work on the 406 MHz radio frequency but are registered to an individual. An internal GPS provides a position to rescuers, and the registration number identifies the individual who initiated the rescue. PLBs have increasingly become standard marine-rescue devices and have in many cases replaced personal and pocket-size EPIRBs. PLBs are manually activated, alerting search-and-rescue teams that they are looking for a live survivor. Activation of a PLB initiates the international SAR network.
Automatic Identification Systems (AIS)
AIS products are newer technologies that use a VHF signal to generate the MOB alert and create an AIS target that appears on chart plotters — just like the AIS icon generated by a ship. These MOB signals and icons can be broadcast across the VHF channel to all vessels within range.
Once activated, they transmit an AIS distress message via a miniature VHF radio. The transmitted data includes a unique ID and GPS information for plotting the precise location of the beacon. Range is approximately four miles.
Although we discussed VHF radios within the “Essential Guide to Boating Safety: Knowledge, Gear & Technologies” article, given the criticality of having one onboard, it is worth mentioning again. VHF radios are still the primary means of communication on the water. Cellphones are a good backup but not always reliable, especially the farther you travel from shore. VHF radios also facilitate communication with other boaters who may be in trouble. Rescuers like Vessel Assist, TowBoat U.S. and the Coast Guard monitor VHF transmissions, so it is easy to call for help in an emergency. Many boating authorities advise carrying handheld and fixed-mount VHFs, which are equally valuable for their own unique sets of benefits.
Automatically Inflating Personal Floatation Devices (PFD)
Type I, offshore life jackets provide the most buoyancy and are specifically designed for rough, open waters, where rescue might be delayed. They are also designed to turn an unconscious person face up in the water.
Given that man-overboard situations can be sudden and deadly when boating offshore, automatically inflating PFDs are a must. Automatic inflation relies mostly on a dissolvable bobbin with a spring/pin arrangement. The water dissolves the bobbin, and the spring-powered pin punches the CO2 canister for inflation. Because the spring/pin arrangement can fail, every automatically inflating PFD has a manual cord and oral inflation tube. Many PFDs designed for offshore boating include pockets for PLBs and strobe lights.
A ditch bag must contain the items needed to call for help and to survive in a life raft while waiting for rescue. A ditch bag must be kept in an accessible location onboard, ready for immediate removal should the need arise.
We recommend against trying to adapt a duffel bag or using a dry bag. Rather, we advise using bags specifically designed for abandon-ship/survival situations. What features should your ditch bag have? Floatation, water-resistance, bright colors for visibility, carrying straps and tethers for sure. Additionally, we suggest looking for a bag with well-designed dividers so you can organize your gear. Finally, the bag must be large enough to contain survival gear plus food and water for you and all others onboard.
Used to stabilize a boat in heavy weather, a sea anchor is a must for offshore boaters. Rather than tethering the boat to the seabed, the sea anchor increases drag through the water and serves as a brake. When attached to the stern, a sea anchor can prevent the vessel from turning broadside to the waves and being overwhelmed by them. Additionally, sea anchors help to hold position and avoid crashing into rocks or other obstacles while waiting for help in a rescue situation.
A life raft is designed to keep the passengers of a sunk, capsized, or burned boat alive until they can be rescued. Although every offshore boater hopes to never need their life raft, it is the most important piece of equipment aboard. Life rafts leave the passengers aboard little protection from the elements, but are designed for visiability to aid with rescue efforts. Although much needed safety devices, they should only be used as a life resort. Whenever possible, it is safer to stay aboard your main vessel even if it is damaged.
Plenty of heavy rope is a must if you need to use your sea anchor of if you need to be towed.
Emergency Food and Water
Suitable food and water rations must be included in your ditch bag. Additionally, these supplies must accommodate the number of passengers onboard.
Emergency Boat Plugs and/or Emergency Sealant
These should be carried onboard to plug leaks and avoid taking on water when offshore.
File a Float Plan
If you are going for just a few hours on your boat, let someone know where you expect to be and when you expect to return. If you plan a longer cruise, leave a written float plan with your marina or a friend. A float plan should include a description of your boat, who is onboard, the safety equipment you are carrying, where you expect to be and when you expect to be there.
Instruct the person holding the float plan to notify the Coast Guard or other appropriate agency if you do not return within a reasonable time after your scheduled arrival (taking into account weather, etc.). When you arrive at your destination, or if your plans change, notify the person holding your float plan to avoid unnecessary worry and the possible waste of search-and-rescue resources. Float plans are not filed with the Coast Guard but that agency and other rescue authorities use them if needed. No special form or format is required for a float plan, but the Coast Guard Auxiliary offers a PDF that can be used as a guide.
As mentioned earlier in this post, our “Essential Guide to Boating Safety: Knowledge, Gear & Technologies” article discusses many safety issues that are universal to all boaters. Topics not included within this article to avoid repetition include:
- Visual distress signals
- Fire extinguishers
- GPS navigation devices
- Navigation lights
- Anchor lights
- Engine cut-off switch lanyards
- First-aid kits