Safety Guide & Resources
Learn how to stay safe on the water with these helpful tips, suggestions and links.Browse Safety
1. The minimum gear required by the USCG is just that - the minimum
Many factors can determine what type and quantity of safety gear is appropriate for different emergency situations including: type and size of vessel, number of passengers, time of year/day of week, length of departure, and weather. Some boaters may require more than the USCG minimum equipment to be properly prepared for incidents on the water. Be sure you have the appropriate gear for your intended activity and boating conditions. Your preparedness may save the lives of you and your passengers.
2. Wear your life jacket!
The best life jacket is one you will wear. Manufacturers are continuously designing life jackets that are stylish, comfortable, and loaded with safety features. There is no excuse not to wear one. Focus on fit, especially for children and non-swimmers. 80% of fatal boat accident victims drowned, and 83% of them were not wearing life jackets.
Types of PFDs required to be aboard
All recreational boats must carry one wearable PFD (Type I, II, III or Type V PFD) for each person aboard. A Type V PFD provides performance of either a Type I, II, or III PFD (as marked on its label) and must be used according to the label requirements. Any boat 16ft and longer (except canoes and kayaks) must also carry one throwable PFD (Type IV PFD). See descriptions of PFD types below.
Type 1 PFDs
Off-Shore Life Jacket: Best for open, rough or remote water, where rescue may be slow coming
Sizes: Two sizes fit most children and adults
Advantages: Floats you the best, Turns most unconscious wearers face-up in water, Highly visible color
Type 2 PFDs
Near-Shore Buoyant Vest: Good for calm, inland water, or where there is a good chance of fast rescue
Sizes: Infant, child, youth, and adult
Advantages: Less bulky, Turns some unconscious wearers face-up, More comfortable than Type I PFD
Disadvantages: Not for long hours in rough water, Will not turn some unconscious wearers face-up
Type 3 PFD
Flotation Aid: Good for calm, inland water, or where there is a good chance of fast rescue
Sizes: Many sizes from child - small through adult
Advantages: Generally the most comfortable type, Designed for activity marked on the device, Available in many styles
Disadvantages: May have to tilt head back to avoid face-down, Wearer’s face may be covered by waves, Not for extended survival in rough water
Type IV PFDs
Throwable Device: For calm, inland water with heavy boat traffic, where help is always nearby
Kinds: Rings, Horseshoe Buoys and Cushions
Advantages: Can be thrown to someone, Good back-up to wearable PFDs, Some can be used as a seat cushion
Disadvantages: Not for unconscious persons, Not for non-swimmers or children, Not for many hours in rough water
Type V PFDs
Type V PFDs are considered special-use devices and intended for specific activities: To be acceptable by the USCG, they must be worn at all times and used for the activity specified on the label. Type V PFDs come in inflatable or hybrid (inherently buoyant and inflatable) designs.
Varieties include: kayaking, waterskiing, windsurfing, deck suits and hybrid inflatable vests
Advantages: Made for specific activities, Least bulky of all types, High flotation when inflated, Good for continuous wear
Disadvantages: May not adequately float some wearers unless partially inflated, Requires active use and care of inflation chamber, Required to be worn to be counted as a regulation PFD
Classification Systems: Old Versus New
Old Classification System (US): All devices were called PFDs, a Personal Flotation Device Type I through V. In Canada they distinguished between PFDs and life jackets (with turning ability).
New US/Canada Classification System “Harmonized”: The new Performance Classification System refers to a numbered scale with Buoyancy Aids at the lower range and life jackets at the upper end. Recent improvements to standards for life jacket design, construction and testing have led to changes that will offer more choice to users.
The United States and Canada have worked together to harmonize their life jacket standards in order to: Improve safety choices and encourage innovation, Allow new approved devices to be used across borders, Expand markets and streamline regulations.
Details about the new and old PFD labeling systems can be found below.
3. Own your role as Owner/Captain
Take responsibility to ensure that your boat is equipped with appropriate safety equipment and inform your guests of its location and use. Inform your passengers of boating hazards before you embark.
4. Know how to call for help
Consider keeping a VHF radio on board and learn how to use it. Cell phones can also be helpful. Use apps from USCG, Boat U.S., and Sea Tow to reach out for help during emergencies.
5. Drive Sober
Wind, waves, noise, and sun can all be fatiguing and disorienting. Adding alcohol to the mix is a recipe for disaster. It is illegal in all states to operate a vessel under the influence of alcohol. Designate a sober driver when you expect to be serving alcohol on board.
6. Know the rules of the road
Stay alert when operating near other moving vessels and know when to yield right of way. Keep a copy of the official rules on board.
7. Understand Navigation lights
When boating during times of low visibility, being able to understand nearby vessels’ navigation lights can be crucial to avoid collisions. Make sure your own boat’s navigation lights are functional and appropriate for your boat’s overall size and type.
8. File a float plan
Prepare a written statement to friends or family members that describes your planned boating activity. The Coast Guard Mobile App is a convenient way to file float plans to be sent to email addresses of your choice.
9. Take a Boating Safety Course
Check with your state boating agency for a listing of local courses offered. Check for classes provided by the Coast Guard Auxiliary Here.
NEW Engine Cut-Off Switch Law
Starting April 1, 2021, a law went into effect that requires the boat operator of a boat with an installed Engine Cut-Off Switch (ECOS) to use the ECOS link. This law applies to motorized boats with 3 or more horsepower less than 26ft in length and operating on a plane or above displacement speed. See the full details Here.
PFD Classification: Old and New Harmonized Systems
All currently approved life jackets and PFDs (personal flotation devices) will continue to be legally approved for carriage as long as they are still in good condition, readily available and of the correct size to be worn for each person on board.
US-approved devices are acceptable in the USA, and Transport Canada-approved devices are acceptable in Canada.
New devices with new labels under the new performance classification system are acceptable in both countries. New devices tested to new standards will be phased in as introduced by manufacturers.
Currently approved devices will continue to be acceptable on board as long as they are in good condition. New devices available in stores will begin to have new labels, with clear information and icons indicating the performance of the device in the water. Devices with new labels are approved for use in Canada and the United States. Devices with old labels continue to be approved in one country or the other, not both. Read the label.
Check with state and local authorities for specific PFD/life jacket requirements for both (Type I-V) and harmonized systems.
Breakdown of New Performance Label Sections
The size of the device is shown on the label, (usually near the back of the neck) and stated as a measure of mass (weight). A chest measurement or height may also be indicated. The label is a general guideline only as body type and size vary greatly. Most devices are adjustable for a GOOD FIT.
Try it on! Try it out in the water!
• Try on your device. Choose a GOOD FIT!
• Pay particular attention to a GOOD FIT for children.
• DO NOT choose a size bigger for children to ‘grow into'. This is dangerous as the device may come off over their head in the water.
The warnings panel on the label includes important information for the user about the device and its intended use.
Icons are used to inform the user that a device may not be appropriate for certain activities, such as water-skiing, towed sports, or personal watercraft. (Some jurisdictions may have regulations about what device design is required).
The approval panel indicates that the device has been approved by the United States Coast Guard and Transport Canada.
Other important information includes:
• Approval codes
• Certification by testing laboratories
• Manufacturer’s name, contact info, device lot, and model numbers
The maintenance panel on the label includes information on the care and use of the device. Icons are used to inform the user about cleaning and drying the device. Reminders about fastening the device for GOOD FIT and the importance of inspecting for damage before use and storage are included here, with reference as well to reading manufacturers' information.
Performance Level Icons
Devices are designed, constructed, and tested under controlled conditions and assigned a Performance Level that indicates the conditions of use for which it is intended.
Performance is a combination of factors - buoyancy, freeboard, turning, stability and visibility.
The icons on new labels are international symbols that are adopted from the International Standards Organization (ISO) sub-committee for life jacket standards.
• Swim skills expected of the user
• Not recommended for weak or non-swimmers
• Close to shore and immediate assistance
• No turning ability
• Calm or sheltered waters
• Close to shore or help near-to-hand
• No turning ability
• Calm or sheltered waters
• Some time to wait for rescue
• Some turning ability
• Offshore waters with waves
• Turning ability
• Offshore emergency situations
• Used with the weight of extra tools, equipment, or clothing
Boating Safety links
Boat Responsibility: US Coast Guard Boating Safety Division
This website is a significant resource for anyone looking to spend time on the water. Whether you’re looking to read federal regulations, access national boating survey data, figure out what life jacket to purchase, it all can be found on uscgboating.org
U.S. Aids to Navigation System
Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for recreational boats
How to Choose the Right Life Jacket Guide
Download The US Coast Guard Mobile App
• Find the latest safety regulations
• Request a vessel safety check
• Check your safety equipment
• File a float plan
• Navigation Rules
• Find the nearest NOAA buoy
• Report a hazard
• Report pollution
• Report suspicious activity
• Request emergency assistance