Are You Ready for a Coast Guard Vessel Safety Check?

Updated 9:01 AM ET, Mon October 12, 2015

Article highlights

  • The USCG offers free vessel safety checks to boaters, no matter the size, make, or model of your boat.
  • Life jackets for all passengers onboard are required at all times and are one of the specific requirements of the USCG vessel safety check.
  • Vessel Safety Officers will also look to make sure your vessel is properly numbered and registered.
Whether you are a seasoned skipper or a first time boater, you will want to take advantage of the free vessel safety check offered by the United States Coast Guard (USCG) Auxiliary Unit. No matter the size, make, or model of your vessel the USCG Auxiliary Unit will inspect your boat free of charge.

Are You Ready for a Coast Guard Vessel Safety Check?

Who Is The USCG Auxiliary Unit?

USCG Auxiliary Unit was established in 1939 by Congress as one of the seven uniformed services responsible for maritime law enforcement mission (with jurisdiction in both domestic and international waters). In addition, the USCG is also a federal regulatory agency over seeing:

-Safety and Security Patrols
-Search and Rescue
-Mass Casualty or Disasters
-Pollution Response & Patrols
-Homeland Security
-Recreational Boating Safety
-Commercial Fishing and Vessel Exams
-Platforms for Boarding Parties
-Recruit for all service in the Coast Guard

The USCG Auxiliary Unit operates on any mission as directed by the Commandant of the USCG or Secretary of Homeland Security. The USCG Auxiliary Unit is made up of civilians who use their own boats in the performance of their duties.

Why Do I Need A Vessel Safety Check?

If you are ever stopped by local marine law enforcement or the USCG they will want to inspect your boat for compliance with state and federal rules and regulations. A vessel safety check will ensure you will successfully pass the inspection. The items below are what you need to have onboard:

-Life Jackets
-Registration and Numbering
-Navigation Lights
-Fire Extinguishers
-Distress Signals (flares, horn, etc.)
-Battery Cover and Connections

All of these items are currently required by state and federal laws and, if missing or non-operating, can result in a citation.

What Are Specific Requirements For A Vessel Safety Check?

Life Jackets - To meet USCG requirements, a boat must have a USCG approved life jacket for each person onboard. Boats 16 feet and over must have at least one Type IV (throwable device) as well.

Life jackets come in various styles but all must be USCG approved for use. Life jackets for children differ from state to state. Check what is appropriate for your state at the link below:

Listed Below Are The Different Types Of Life Jackets

Type I 22 lbs. - Commonly referred to as an "offshore life jacket", is designed for extended survival in rough, open water. It usually will turn an unconscious person face up and has over 22 pounds of buoyancy. This is the best life jacket for flotation in remote regions where rescue may be delayed.

Type II 15.5 lbs. - Commonly referred to as a "near shore life jacket, aka classic life jacket", comes in several sizes for adults and children. It is primarily used for calm inland waters and immediate rescue. It is less bulky and less expensive than a Type I.

Type III 15.5 lbs. - These life jackets are generally considered the most comfortable and versatile. They are commonly used for boating activities and water sports. Like the Type II, it is best designed for calm waters and fast rescue.

Type IV 16.5-18 lbs. - Throwable devices, ring buoy, boat cushion, or a horseshoe buoy are all designed to be thrown to a person in the water. Note: throwables must be supplemented by a wearable life jacket as they are not considered legal flotation devices. It is important to keep these devices immediately available for emergencies, and should never be used for small children, non-swimmers, or unconscious people.

Type V 15.5-22 lbs. - These life jackets and special devices include work vests, deck suits, and hybrids (for restricted use). Hybrid vests contain some internal buoyancy and are inflatable to provide additional flotation.

Type V - Inflatable life jackets rely on inflatable chambers that provide buoyancy when inflated. When inflated, inflatable life jackets are less bulky than buoyant life jackets. Inflatables come in a variety of USCG defined performance types. This specific type of life jacket is determined by characteristics such as its amount of buoyancy, it's in-water performance and it's type of inflation mechanism.

All inflatables contain a backup oral inflation tube (which also serves as the deflation tube). More information about life jackets (PFD's) can be found at:

Be sure to read the life jacket label and owner's manual, or consult your dealer/retailer.

Registering And Numbering

Registering and numbering your boat is required by law. It varies from state to state, and is determined by whether you register your boat in the state of use or if you document your boat with the USCG. Local Vessel Safety Officers will be looking for the following, as prescribed under Title 33 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 173.27, when they conduct your courtesy inspection. Numbers must:

1.) Be painted on or permanently attached to both sides of the forward half of the vessel.
2.) Generally, applied to the hull but may be applied to the superstructure of cabin sides.
3.) Be in plain vertical block characters, no less than 3 inches in height.
4.) Contrast with the color of the background and are distinctly visible and legible.
5.) Have spaces or hyphens that are equal in width to a letter or number other than "I" or "1" between the letter and number groupings.
6.) Read from left to right.

Generally, the Coast Guard does not require the measuring of the numbers unless they appear to be too small. The rule of thumb used by the Coast Guard to determine proper height without measuring is, if the numbers can be read at a distance of 100 feet, accept them. If not, then measuring may be needed.

Navigation Lights

Requirements for Navigation Lights vary according to the size of your boat, these requirements are very detailed and can be found in the free publication; "A Boaters Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats".


All boats with inboard engines are required to have proper ventilation of the engine compartment. In most cases, both natural and powered ventilation are required. The requirements will vary by the size of your engine compartment, more discussion on this topic is available at:
"A Boaters Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats".

Fire Extinguishers

USCG approved, marine-type fire extinguishers are required on boats where a fire hazard could be expected from the engines or fuel systems. Extinguishers are classified by a letter and number symbol, the letter indicates the type of fire the unit is designed to extinguish.

Type B, for example, is designed to extinguish flaming liquids, such as gasoline, oil, and grease The number indicates the amount of the extinguishing agent contained in the extinguisher, the higher the number, the greater the amount of agent in the extinguisher.

USCG approved extinguishers required for boats are hand-portable, have either B-I or B-II classification, and must be provided with a mounting bracket. While not required, it is recommended that the extinguishers be mounted in a readily accessible location.

Look for the section of the label on the fire extinguisher that states "Marine Type USCG, Type A, Size II, Type B, C Size I" it will also contain a USCG approval number. Make sure Type B is indicated. Hand-portable extinguishers will be either a Size I or II. Size III and larger are too big for use on most recreational boats.

Distress Signals

Vessels operating on U.S. coastal waters, the Great Lakes, and territorial seas, as well as those waters connected directly, must be equipped with USCG approved visual distress signals (VDS). For boats operating on inland lakes and rivers visual distress signals are very important and strongly recommended. However, they are not required in areas of less than two miles wide.

Pyrotechnic visual distress signals must be USCG approved, in serviceable condition, and readily accessible. Check the expiration date; expired signals may be carried as extra
equipment, but may not be counted toward meeting the visual distress signal requirement. The resource, "A Boaters Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats" has more detail on this topic and it is recommended you keep this reference guide onboard at all times.

Battery Cover And Connections

The Vessel Safety Officer will want to look at the battery installation on your boat. The battery should be located inside a ventilated container with a cover and secured to prevent movement while underway. This is especially important when your battery is located in a gasoline engine compartment. They will also inspect the type of battery connections; many battery manufacturers ship wing nut style battery connectors to secure the battery cables to the battery. It is recommended that captive nuts replace the wing nuts to secure your battery connections as they are less prone to loosen due to shock and vibration while underway.


These are the major areas of concern when you are undergoing a Vessel Safety Examination. For more detailed information regarding the topics above and to learn more about general safe operation of your boat, go to "A Boaters Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats".

After your Vessel Safety Examination, you will receive a written document showing the areas of inspection, any recommendations, and a sticker showing your boat has been inspected by the USCG Auxiliary.

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