After years of completing free vessel safety checks at Smith Mountain Lake, inspectors from the United State Coast Guard Auxiliary and U.S. Sail and Power Squadron tend to report the same errors, omissions and violations each year.

1. First and foremost: improperly stored life jackets. Non or improper use of this personal safety item contributes to about 75 percent of all fatalities in recreational boating accidents. Boating safety educators and law enforcement always recommend that everyone aboard your boat should wear a properly-sized life preserver because life-threatening situations almost always arise suddenly and with no warning. If not wearing your life jacket, the Coast Guard recommends that your jacket be “readily accessible,” defined as able to be put on within five seconds. To comply with that request, a person must be wearing, sitting on or with the jacket next to them in the boat. What we find in too many vessel inspections is that life jackets are stored in lockers, under seats or stashed inaccessibly under other items on board.

2. Lack of distress notifier. Whether it’s day or night, do you have a way to notify passing boaters that you have lost power and need help? Many boaters, asked this question during a vessel inspection, don’t have notification equipment to use in a distress situation. A flag or orange trash bag to wave, flashlights, flares can all be helpful in getting nearby boaters to come to your aid. Cell phones are handy, but the person answering is far away from you and cannot render assistance quickly. Having the number of an on-water towing service posted near the helm is an excellent idea. 

3. Incomplete paperwork. Your vessel documents should be carried on board in a dry bag of some sort. Make sure you have your boat registration (it must be signed by the boat owner), rental contract if applicable, and operator’s boater education card. Know where to find these key documents; keeping an officer waiting while you search for them is not in your best interest.

4. Bare battery terminals. Many times, when checking the engine compartment, we find the battery terminals have no spark-protective covering. Any spark in this confined area can lead to a boat fire. Gasoline vapors are heavier than air and collect in the bilge. With inboard and I/O power, always use your exhaust blower to evacuate those vapors before starting your engine—especially after refueling your boat.

5. Improper navigation light display. The “all around white light” or “stern light” must be showing as the highest point on your vessel when underway or anchored after dark. Often this light is lowered to avoid being broken when the boat is in the boat lift and then not returned to upright when underway at night. And remember, “docking lights” are for docking only! Never use these bright white forward-facing lights when underway as you will spoil other boaters’ night vision capability. The required red and green side lights and all-around white light are there for you “to be seen” and bright docking lights can obscure those critical aids to navigation for other operators.

Author’s Note: Most of the boats we inspect are well cared for and typically have been checked for safety in previous years. Needless to say, we are eager to expand free vessel safety checks to the boats that are never offered for inspection. The Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Sail and Power Squadron are always available, year ’round, to promote boating safety by assisting recreational boaters in making sure that their on-board safety equipment and documents meet the legal requirements.

Read more stories in the current issue of the Smith Mountain Eagle newspaper. Pick up a copy or subscribe at to view articles in the print and/or e-edition version. 

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