Safety on the Water

Falling overboard………

According the United States Coast Guard, 47% of the boating accidental deaths recorded in the United States in 2017 were by drowning as a result of falling overboard, followed by 20% as result of flooding/swamping. Drowning was the cause of death in 67% of all deaths resulting from boating accidents. Of the 449 deaths attributed to drowning, 82% of the victims were not wearing a life jacket.

The remaining 33% of boating accident deaths were as a result of collisions, either with a fixed object or another vessel.

I personally believe that the 3 most important rules of boating safety are;


Rule # 1 – don’t fall overboard

Rule # 2 – don’t fall overboard

Rule # 3 – be wearing an approved life jacket, if you do


You are unlikely to drown, if you stay on board the boat. 


Falling overboard or ending up in the water can result from many conditions or combination of conditions. Here are just a few;


– unsafe handling of a vessel

– lack of training/boating experience

– unsafe conditions on deck, i.e. improperly stowed lines

– weather conditions, i.e. heavy rain, high winds, large waves

– lack of a properly attached tether

– lack of a secure safety harness

You are overboard.........

You are now in the water. What are the circumstances? Here are some questions;

  •  Are you wearing a life jacket?

If the answer is yes, this is good news.

  • Are you attached to the boat?

This one depends on the conditions;

If the waters are calm and the boat speed is zero knots, this is good news.

If there are large waves and the boat speed is 7 knots, you are in trouble.

  •  What is the water temperature?

Your normal body temperature is 37 C and has a strong preference to remain at that temperature. In our part of the world, the water temperature is very likely much less than your body temperature, in which case, you will need to get out of the water ASAP. As the temperature of your body drops, your body starts shutting down. This cooling of the body is called Hypothermia and can result in death.

  • Rescue?

This is easier said than done. A rescue is not easy in ideal conditions and the degree of difficulty increases with the severity of the conditions. Think about it, what if, there is heavy rain, high winds and 3 meter waves?

In order to effect a rescue, the operator of the boat will need to;

– locate you

– throw a lifeline or life ring and ensure that you can attach

– get you alongside

– get you back on board……..this is the big challenge


As mentioned earlier, according to the United States Coast Guard, the remaining 33% of boating accident deaths involve collisions, either with a fixed object or another vessel. I maintain that this is about competency and the only way to reduce these numbers is through training and experience.

Recreational Boater Training

To become a safe boater, you will need to become a competent boater. Becoming a competent boater is a continuous learning process, a process involving training and experience.

Up until 1999, anyone could operate a boat in Canada for recreational purposes. As of 1999, recreational boaters in Canada must carry “Proof of Competency”. For more information on what constitutes “Proof of Competency” go to;

The “Pleasure Craft Operator Card” (PCOC) should be considered the starting point for recreational boater training. There are a number of training providers in Canada, that provide both hands on courses and in classroom courses. I recommend the Canadian Power and Sail Squadron courses because I have been actively involved with the Squadron for many years and I have completed a full certificate of their courses.

There are many publications available on boating safety.

My favorite is the “Safe Boating Guide”, published by the Office of Boating Safety at Transport Canada. This guide is a free comprehensive guide to safety on the water.  I am not certain if it is still available in hard copy. It is available in pdf format at the above link.

Before Leaving the Dock

A fundamental responsibility of the skipper is that he or she know their boat. Knowing your boat means that you know everything that you need to know to ensure that the boat can leave the dock safely and return to the dock safely.

A “Pre-Departure Checklist” can help ensure that you are ready to leave the dock safely. The “Safe Boating Guide” includes a comprehensive “Pre-Departure Checklist”.

While Underway

A responsible skipper must know and follow “the rules of the road” when out on the water. In Canada, these rules are part of the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 and are generally referred to as the “Collision Regulations”.

Emergency Communications

 VHF (Very High Frequency) Radio

“Marine VHF radio refers to the radio frequency range between 156 and 174 MHz, inclusive. The “VHF” signifies the very high frequency of the range. In the official language of the International Telecommunication Union the band is called the VHF maritime mobile band. In some countries additional channels are used, such as[1] the L and F channels for leisure and fishing vessels in the Nordic countries (at 155.5–155.825 MHz).

Marine VHF radio equipment is installed on all large ships and most seagoing small craft. It is also used, with slightly different regulation, on rivers and lakes. It is used for a wide variety of purposes, including summoning rescue services and communicating with harbours, locks, bridges and marinas.

A marine VHF set is a combined transmitter and receiver and only operates on standard, international frequencies known as channels. Channel 16 (156.8 MHz) is the international calling and distress channel. Transmission power ranges between 1 and 25 watts, giving a maximum range of up to about 60 nautical miles (111 km) between aerials mounted on tall ships and hills, and 5 nautical miles (9 km; 6 mi) between aerials mounted on small boats at sea level.[2] Frequency modulation (FM) is used, with vertical polarization, meaning that antennas have to be vertical in order to have good reception.

Modern-day marine VHF radios offer not only basic transmit and receive capabilities. Permanently mounted marine VHF radios on seagoing vessels are required to have certification of some level of “Digital Selective Calling” (DSC) capability, to allow a distress signal to be sent with a single button press.

Marine VHF mostly uses “simplex” transmission, where communication can only take place in one direction at a time. A transmit button on the set or microphone determines whether it is operating as a transmitter or a receiver. Some channels, however, are “duplex” transmission channels where communication can take place in both directions simultaneously when the equipment on both ends allow it (full duplex), otherwise “semi-duplex” is used.[2] Each duplex channel has two frequency assignments. Duplex channels can be used to place calls on the public telephone system for a fee via a marine operator. When full duplex is used, the call is similar to one using a mobile phone or landline. When semi-duplex is used, voice is only carried one way at a time and the party on the boat must press the transmit button only when speaking. This facility is still available in some areas, though its use has largely died out with the advent of mobile and satellite phones. Marine VHF radios can also receive weather radio broadcasts, where they are available.”



Not long ago, the VHF radio was a basic 2 way radio (transmit/receive) used for voice communication. As of 1999, the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) requires all passenger vessels and most commercial vessels to equip their vessels with Digital Selective Calling (DSC). By 2018, DSC is standard on all new VHF radios


DSC (Digital Selective Calling)

Most importantly, Digital Selective Calling (DSC) allows mariners to instantly send a automatically formatted message to rescue authorities and other vessels. Communications on the hailing Channel under certain circumstances can be heavy.

Before you can effectively use your DSC equipped VHF radio, you will need to input your MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) number, which you get free of charge from Industry Canada. You will also need to connect your DSC equiped VHF radio to GPS. When getting your MMSI number, you will be required to provide some basic information about your boat, which will be placed in an electronic file under the MMSI number.

To make a distress call, you will need to hold the distress button on your radio for 5 seconds. A message will be sent to the coast guard, which will include your GPS position and activate your electronic file, which includes the information you provided about your boat.

DSC also gives you the ability to call other boats directly, using their MMSI number. If you have friends/boats that you call regularly, you will be able to call them directly. Your DSC equipped VHF radio very likely has a MMSI directory where you can enter MMSI numbers. Select the number that you would like to call and press call. Use of the MMSI directory also reduces the traffic on the channel 16 (the hailing channel).

AIS (Automatic Identification System)

“The automatic identification system (AIS) is an automatic tracking system used on ships and by vessel traffic services (VTS). When satellites are used to detect AIS signatures, the term Satellite-AIS (S-AIS) is used. AIS information supplements marine radar, which continues to be the primary method of collision avoidance for water transport.[citation needed]

Information provided by AIS equipment, such as unique identification, position, course, and speed, can be displayed on a screen or an ECDIS. AIS is intended to assist a vessel’s watchstanding officers and allow maritime authorities to track and monitor vessel movements. AIS integrates a standardized VHF transceiver with a positioning system such as a GPS receiver, with other electronic navigation sensors, such as a gyrocompass or rate of turn indicator. Vessels fitted with AIS transceivers can be tracked by AIS base stations located along coast lines or, when out of range of terrestrial networks, through a growing number of satellites that are fitted with special AIS receivers which are capable of deconflicting a large number of signatures.

The International Maritime Organization‘s International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea requires AIS to be fitted aboard international voyaging ships with 300 or more gross tonnage (GT), and all passenger ships regardless of size.[1]





The AIS (Automatic Identification System) is similar to Digital Selective Calling (DSC) except that it continuously transmits/receives basic information about your vessel. Like DSC, AIS requires an antenna and a connection to GPS. The broadcast information includes MMSI number,  type of vessel, SOG (Speed over Ground), COG (Course Over Ground) and your position. This information can be shared with and displayed on chartplotter and RADAR displays. Most chartplotters/RADARS can apply an algorithm to this information to calculate and display the CPA (Closest Point of Approach) and TCPA (Time to Closest Point of Approach). AIS has contributed significantly to safely navigating in high traffic areas, particularly in low visibility conditions.

Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs)


“An emergency position-indicating radiobeacon station is a distress radiobeacon, a tracking transmitter that is triggered during an accident. These are detected by satellites. The system is monitored by an international consortium of rescue services, COSPAS-SARSAT. The basic purpose of this system is to help rescuers find survivors within the so-called “golden day”[1] (the first 24 hours following a traumatic event) during which the majority of survivors can usually be saved.The standard frequency of a modern EPIRB is 406-MHz. It is an internationally-regulated mobile radiocommunication service that aids search and rescue operations to detect and locate distressed boats, aircraft, and people.[2] It is distinct from a Satellite emergency position-indicating radiobeacon station.The first form of these beacons was the 121.500 MHz ELT, which was designed as an automatic locator beacon for crashed military aircraft. These beacons were first used in the 1950s by the U.S. military and were mandated for use on many types of commercial and general aviation aircraft beginning in the early 1970s.[3] The frequency and signal format used by the ELT beacons was not designed for satellite detection, which resulted in a system with poor location detection abilities and with long delays in detection of activated beacons. The satellite detection network was built after the ELT beacons were already in general use, with the first satellite not being launched until 1982, and even then, the satellites only provided detection, with location accuracy being roughly 20 km.[3] The technology was later expanded to cover use on vessels at sea (EPIRB), individual persons (PLB and, starting in 2016, MSLD). All have migrated from using 121.500 MHz as their primary frequency to using 406 MHz, which was designed for satellite detection and location.[citation needed]Since the inception of Cospas-Sarsat in 1982, distress radiobeacons have assisted in the rescue of over 28,000 people in more than 7,000 distress situations.[4] In 2010 alone, the system provided information used to rescue 2,388 persons in 641 distress situations.[5]The type of radiobeacons is determined by the environment for which it was designed to be used:ELTs (emergency locator transmitters) signal aircraft distressEPIRBs (emergency position-indicating radio beacons) signal maritime distressSEPIRBs (submarine emergency position-indicating radio beacons) are EPIRBs designed only for use on submarinesSSASes (ship security alert system) are used to indicate possible piracy or terrorism attacks on sea-going vesselsPLBs (personal locator beacons) are for personal use and are intended to indicate a person in distress who is away from normal emergency services; e.g., 9-1-1. They are also used for crewsaving applications in shipping and lifeboats at terrestrial systems. In New South Wales, some police stations and the National Parks and Wildlife Service provide personal locator beacons to hikers for no charge.[6]Distress alerts transmitted from ELTs, EPIRBs, SSASes, and PLBs, are received and processed by the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme, the international satellite system for search and rescue (SAR). These beacons transmit a 0.5 second burst of data every 50 seconds, varying over a span of 2.5 seconds to avoid multiple beacons always transmitting at the same time.When manually activated, or automatically activated upon immersion or impact, such beacons send out a distress signal. The signals are monitored worldwide and the location of the distress is detected by non-geostationary satellites using the Doppler effect for trilateration, and in more recent EPIRBs also by GPS.[7]Loosely related devices, including search and rescue transponders (SART), AIS-SART, avalanche transceivers, and RECCO do not operate on 406 MHz and are thus covered in separate articles.”




AIS-MOB (Automated Identification System-Man Overboard)Beacons

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Visual Signals

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