Recommended Offshore Safety Equipment

Updated 5:19 PM ET, Mon January 18, 2016

Article highlights

  • Before going offshore, you should file a float plan with your dockmaster or with a family member or friend.
  • To be safest, every passenger should have a PFD and PLB and your vessel should have a GPIRB (or EPIRB). This way you can be confident your vessel AND all passengers can be found in case of emergency.
  • Remember this adage: When going offshore, you should hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
Your boating excursions may sometime take you offshore for an extended period of time - possibly a few hours or even for days during a longer passage. Because offshore boating differs from near coastal boating, it is highly recommended that you have additional safety equipment onboard. Depending on the size of your boat and time offshore (a few hours or an extended passage) having the right safety equipment onboard can help facilitate a quick recovery and avert certain disaster.

Recommended Offshore Safety Equipment

What Is The First Thing You Should Do?

Before you ever leave the dock, it is very important that you file a float plan and leave it with the dockmaster, and/or family/friends. This "plan" should include the following information: your vessel's name and its specs, the names of all people onboard, the approximate area or coordinates of where you expect to be boating, and your anticipated return time. You will want to have one personal flotation device (PFD) for each person onboard, preferably rated for offshore use. Make sure your visual distress signals (VDSs) are current and cover both day and night use. A very high frequency (VHF) radio is another important item you should consider. The newer VHF radios will have digital selective calling (DSC) capability which, with the press of one button, will send out a distress signal with your location. These items are considered "basic" safety equipment. There is additional advanced safety equipment that you should also consider having onboard.

What Else Should You Have Onboard?

A personal locator beacon (PLB) should be attached to the PFD for each person onboard and is highly recommended. Be aware that PLBs can be used on land or at sea, so make sure yours is suitable for water submersion and will float. PLBs, when activated, act just like the larger emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) and sends a coded message on the 406 MHz distress frequency which is relayed via the Cospas-Sarsat global satellite system. PLBs, once activated, will transmit for a minimum of 24 hours (the battery life on an EPIRB has a minimum of 48 hours). The PLB should be registered to you if you are regularly offshore.

How Does an EPIRB Work?

EPIRBs are much larger and are designed to be mounted to an external surface of the boat for easy deployment. Most EPIRBs have a hydro-static release for automatic deployment. EPIRBs do not have GPS capabilities like the PLB or global positioning indicating radio beacon (GPIRB) devices. The EPIRB still uses the 406 MHz distress frequency but the positions of the EPIRB are determined by calculations using the Doppler Shift in the beacon's distress signal. The Doppler Shift is the change in wave frequency which occurs as satellites approach and recede in tbheir overhead orbits. Calculations must be made using the signal emitted from the EPIRB to the various satellites overhead. The accuracy of the calculations is determined by the number of signal bursts received by the satellites and accuracy is enhanced when a satellite passes directly overhead. The only real problem with this system is that it takes time for an accurate fix to be acquired. Rescue authorities will receive an instant alert, but it may take up to 1 - 2 hours for accurate location information to be conveyed.

The hydro-static release device attached to the EPIRB works on water pressure so, when the EPIRB becomes submerged, the hydro-static release device will force the EPIRB to the surface activating the signal. Because the hydro-static release device and the EPIRB operate on internal batteries, always check to make sure your devices are up to date. The expiration date will be noted on each device.

What Is a GPIRB?

A global position indicating radio beacon (GPIRB) uses newer technology to provide greater and faster accuracy for your emergency distress location. The GPIRB has built in GPS technology that determines and broadcasts its own location on the 406 MHz distress frequency and therefore shortens the time required to get an accurate fix on the beacon location. This is a valuable time-saver for a search and rescue operation. The unit comes with a float-free bracket that will release it if it becomes submerged. There is a manual operation mode and a test mode which should be used frequently to test the operation. The GPIRB has a minimum 48 hours of operating life, 8-channel internal GPS, and comes with a lithium battery. Always make sure to check the battery date and be sure to take your device to an authorized service center for battery replacement when needed.

What Is The Difference Between an EPIRB And a GPIRB?

It is necessary to further discuss the major difference between the EPIRB and GPIRB. Because a GPIRB has its own internal GPS, when it is activated it will find its own position, broadcast its identity and position on the 406 MHz distress frequency, and then will shut down for 20 minute intervals to conserve power. The device will repeat the process of locating itself, then re-broadcasting and will continue to update its position every 20 minutes as long as it is active. The advantage of a GPIRB over an EPIRB is that it broadcasts an accurate fix. Because it updates every 20 minutes, rescuers can compute drift accurately, and are able to direct search and rescue teams directly to you. Because of possible time delays of 1 -2 hours, an EPIRB cannot deliver the same level of accuracy you will have with the GPIRB.

Make Sure You Register Your Safety Devices

It is critically important that you register your safety device. When registering your PLB, EPIRB or GPIRB in the United States, you need to list your contact information, the boat name and its information (unless you are only registering your PLB) and a list of emergency contacts (family or friends) for the U.S. Coast Guard. If your device is activated, you will be the first one they will try to contact.

Life Raft

You should have a life raft onboard if your boat is large enough to accommodate one. This is especially important if you are offshore on a regular basis or operate in cold water areas. Life rafts come in various sizes and have different methods of deployment. Most life rafts will come with minimal supplies and provisions (such as food, water, medical supplies and a fishing kit) to assist and comfort those onboard awaiting rescue. Life rafts come in many different sizes and styles and are designed for either coastal or offshore use. They can be manually or automatically deployed and typically accommodate 2 - 6 persons. They will have reflective tape to make for easier spotting by search and rescue teams and, most importantly, they will provide protection from the elements during an emergency rescue situation.

Abandon Ship Bag

Another highly recommended piece of gear is an abandon ship bag also known as an emergency ditch bag. The abandon ship bag floats next to you or your life raft, and includes distress signals and other safety gear. You can also complement the bag with your own personal items such as a hand-held VHF radio, PLBs, thermal blankets, food, water, and a medical kit.

Immersion Suit

If you are boating strictly in cold water areas, immersion suits are highly recommended to delay or prevent hypothermia. These suits are thermal flotation devices. Some suits are more rugged than others, but the purpose of these suits is to maintain body heat in cold water. Most are designed with features that include mitts for your hands, built-in boots, and safety features for connecting tethers or a lifting harness. If your planned activities include cold water conditions, an immersion suit can save your life.


Preparation, not perfection, is a key element for offshore boating. You can never be too prepared for the unexpected emergency. Don't let a possibly significant up-front expense deter you from investing in recommended offshore safety equipment. Remember that any loss of life cannot be measured in dollars. As captain of your boat, plan for as much fun as possible, but also be responsible and plan for emergencies too.

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