Improve Your Safety at Sea With These 5 Important Steps

With the official arrival of summer, boaters all along the Maine coast are dipping their paddles, raising their sails, and firing up their engines. The season has been slowly ramping up since the mild winter faded away, but the summer solstice reminds us to soak up the sun while we can.  As locals, transplants, and vacationers shove off from shore to explore the 3,478 miles of coastline and 3,166 offshore islands, it’s important to remember that the North Atlantic is a serious and powerful ocean.

A kayaker paddling among the coastal islands will experience different hazards than a sailboat offshore, but the principals of safety and preparation remain. For the recreational boater the intention of boating is purely enjoyment, and we should keep it that way. Yet without the proper understanding of the inherent risks it is easy to put yourself and those around you into grave danger.

Whether you are a new boat owner, or an old salt, maintaining a healthy respect for safety at sea is vital. A thousand safe miles at sea doesn’t guarantee anything because the ocean is an ever changing environment that is often only marginally predictable. Approach every trip like it is your first, look to learn all you can, and stay prepared. Safety is not a buzz kill, you can still have the time of your life while being safe.

Here are five important components to a safe day, week, or lifetime on the water:

1.) Know Your Boat

The best way to prepare for time on the ocean is to know your boat. Know your boat in the water, out of the water, above decks, below decks, behind cupboards, in the engine compartment, and aloft in the rigging. There should be no part of your boat that you can’t picture in your head. How many seacocks do you have and where are they located? If you can’t answer that right now while you are reading this than you have some homework to do!

Watertight integrity, the ability to keep the water out and the boat floating, should be paramount. Any place that the hull has an opening should be regularly maintained and inspected. These are items like thru-hulls, seacocks, propeller shafts, rudder shafts, ports, and hatches. For a variety of reasons (shaft seals, wooden hulls, etc.) many boats leak to some degree. In order to detect a problem, you need to know what is normal for your boat. If you have a boat that usually has completely dry bilges the appearance of any water in the bilge should ring an alarm bell in your head. Conversely, if you typically have a little water in your bilge, take notice of how much so that you can verify whether or not that amount has increased.

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An often overlooked danger at sea is fire. You’d think that surrounding yourself with water would be like built in protection, right? Wrong! A fire onboard can be devastating as many of the materials aboard are highly flammable. Proper maintenance and continuous inspection will help in the prevention, alarms will aid in the detection, and your ability to respond with the equipment aboard will be your only defense. Go look at your extinguishers. Check the location, condition, and dates of all of your equipment.

Not everyone that operates a boat on the ocean needs to be a mechanic, that would be overkill. But a good understanding of your boat’s vital systems could keep you out of danger in a pinch. How does the steering system work? Where are the fuel filters? Do you have spares aboard? Unlike a roadway the ocean can be a lonely and desolate place, even when the shore is in sight. You can not turn the key, cast off the lines, and expect that help will come when you need it.

2.) Know Your Abilities

If you are in fact a mechanic, that’s great, use it to your advantage. But if you are not it’s important to recognize that and work around it. It is worth it to have your boat inspected by a professional. They will be able to tell you what must be fixed for safety reasons, and what can be put off for another day. If the boat is new to you and you feel overwhelmed, that is perfectly normal. Hire a professional to show you the ropes, it will pay dividends for years to come.

Keep emergency gear close at hand.

Keep emergency gear close at hand.

Maine has a beautiful and wild coastline that attracts mariners from all around the globe. With that beauty comes the inherent risk of a bold and rocky shore, dotted with islands and shoals. Maine can be one of the most beautiful places to sail in the world, and also one of the least forgiving. These days there is really no excuse for getting lost as the resources available are many. No matter what size your boat is you should consider a secondary form of navigation. If you primarily navigate with a chart plotter, bring along the appropriate charts and plotting tools. If you are kayaking with a handheld GPS consider setting up your phone or tablet as a secondary source of position data.  Whatever you use for navigation, primary or secondary, practice with it until you know multiple ways to pinpoint your position. Knowing your abilities is a personal evaluation followed by an opportunity to learn. Once you recognize the extent or limitation of your skills, use them to your advantage. Most importantly, put your pride aside and ask for help when you need it. The best mariners I have ever met are those that never stop learning.

3.) Be Prepared

Just like the Boy Scouts have always preached, be prepared. The first two items on this list are a good start, but it doesn’t stop there. Before embarking on a trip along the coast, whether short or long, you should consider the provisions needed in the event of an emergency. The first thing that comes to many minds is a solid first aid kit. The complexity of this kit should be directly correlated to the distance and time you will be away from medical services. There are many kits available for adventures ranging from an afternoon kayak across the harbor to a multi-day offshore passage. As with your boat, familiarize yourself with the kit and keep a small first aid manual aboard for reference. Most importantly, keep the kit stocked with up to date items and replenish things like bandages as they are used.

Our primary first aid kit aboard Polynya.

Our primary first aid kit aboard Polynya.

Before you leave, check the forecast and dress accordingly. A single summer day in Maine could bring blistering heat, blustery cold, heavy rain, thick fog, and endless variations thereof. Just like a hiking trip, layers will be your best friend. You may be hot sitting in the sun, but the ocean beneath is cold enough (even in August) to put you at risk. Reports of hypothermia as a result of exposure in the ocean range, but at the average Maine water temperature of 62 degrees, you will begin to lose dexterity in as little as 15 minutes. For more information on the hazards of cold water, check out this informative post by Diane Atwood of the blog Catching Health.

Inflatable PFDs are super comfortable to wear.

Inflatable PFDs are comfortable to wear.

Personal flotation devices (PFDs) such as life vests, float coats, and inflatables are always a good idea when there is a risk of going over the side. Absolutely never leave shore without at least one per person, and do not hesitate to wear it as conditions dictate. Unless you are swimming in a protected anchorage, you never want to find yourself overboard without a PFD on. Practice recovery drills whenever possible as it is much harder than it sounds to pull a person back aboard.

The United States Coast Guard dictates a variety of items that must be aboard based on the nature of your voyage and the size of your vessel. You can find out what you are required to have aboard in this brochure. Keep in mind that this list is a bare minimum, and it can never hurt to be over prepared. Just like a first aid kit, items such as flares expire. Make sure all of your equipment is up to date and in good condition.

Technology can, yet again, be your friend when it comes to preparedness. Two outstanding devices that you should consider investing in are an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon and/or a Personal Locator Beacon (EPIRB and PLB). These devices have the ability to notify authorities in the event of an emergency, providing them a satellite position to aid in your recovery. In the future, I plan to write an entire post on devices such as these, but for now, I would highly encourage you to research them and consider bringing them aboard. Here is some basic info to get you started.

4.) Make A Plan

Just by reading the previous three items on this list, and thinking them over, you have begun the process of planning a trip on the ocean. This process is an evolution, ever changing with the conditions of the adventure. Despite the fluid nature of a day spent on the water, it is important to have a general plan detailing times of departure, arrival, and routes traveled. I’m not saying you need to work out an ETA to the minute, but I am saying you should have a general idea of where you will be and when.

Why is this important? This very information could be what saves your life if things don’t go as intended. After making a plan, you should share it with someone who will not be joining you. Somebody ashore should know when you are leaving, where you are going, and when you expect to return. This is typically referred to as a “float plan.”

The function of the float plan is to initiate a search and rescue operation should you not return within the time period expected. That is not to say that authorities should be alerted within moments of an overdue boater. Discuss with your partner on shore at what point they should contact the Coast Guard. Depending on your voyage this buffer could be hours or days. Whatever the case put a plan in place before departure.

An EPIRB (yellow) and handheld VHF with integral GPS

An EPIRB (yellow) and handheld VHF with integral GPS

5) Be Flexible

Now that you have a plan in place, be prepared to alter it. Weather changes, equipment fails, and people get hurt. None of these events necessarily constitute an emergency, but they do necessitate an adjustment of your plan. Whether you are on a vacation that you have been planning for months or an impromptu evening sail, you are there because you want to have fun. Nobody wants to cancel a trip or come back to shore early. Yet when faced with the reality of changing variables, constant reassessment of the original plan is key.

For example, as the fog begins to close in and mask the hazardous islands around you, it’s time to look at alternative options. Is it safer to continue on the intended route at a reduced speed or to drop anchor behind a nearby island before all visibility is lost? Should you turn back for home, or is there an alternate route that may take longer but has clear visibility? These are the kinds of questions you should be asking yourself as the environment around you changes.

If nothing else your original plan can always serve as a point of reference. Do not forget, however, that every change along the way has a resultant effect later on. Never stop checking, planning, cross-referencing, and validating. Trust your navigation, but verify it. Read the weather forecast, but monitor the actual conditions. Adaptability and resourcefulness may be some of the most important qualities of a mariner. And when you are forced to change your plans, be sure to let your shoreside contact know so that they aren’t alarmed when you don’t arrive as scheduled.


What do you do to ensure your safety at sea? Have you attended any specialized training or learned from previous mistakes? Sharing is caring! Comment about your experiences below, and share this post with your friends to remind them to stay safe.

Matt Garand

About Matt Garand

Lifelong Mainer, and professional mariner, Matt Garand is the creator of A Life Aboard, a look at year-round living on a sailboat in Maine. Matt and his wife, Skye, live aboard in South Portland and use every available chance to throw off the lines and explore the coast.