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Safety First: Surviving at Sea

9th May 2019

Safety at sea is not something anyone can take for granted and, as well as some mandatory requirements for essential equipment, there are some things which should be common place, whatever size vessel you are skippering, even if it is recreational.

In this guide, we take you through some of the basics of safety equipment for surviving at sea plus some useful new technology that may one day prove to be more than its money’s worth.

If you are heading to sea in a boat of any kind then you must obey the international safety regulations, known as SOLAS V (Safety of Life at Sea).

You can find the full details of these regulations in the summary advice provided by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency but, fundamentally, you are required to:

  • Plan your voyage
  • Carry an illustrated table of the recognised life-saving signals
  • Aid other vessels when required
  • Carry a radar reflector
  • Use distress signals properly

Depending on the size of your craft and whether this is used for commercial or recreational activities, you will also be required to equip your vessel with some basic safety equipment which we’ll cover below.

However, whilst these items may be compulsory there are many other devices, aids and products which you may wish to consider to provide additional safeguards for your crew, passengers and vessel.

Collision Prevention

The international regulations (COLREG) state that all vessels must have some form of lights or sound-signalling device(s) onboard to indicate their location to other seafaring craft. The size, format and shape of these is variable depending on the size and nature of your vessel’s activities but ranges from a simple whistle or bell to airhorns and gongs (sound).

The use of lights and shapes is also covered in COLREG and cover a combination of shapes and colours to indicate the navigation status of a vessel.

Though not compulsory, there is additional equipment available that can help avoid collisions whilst at sea.

The predominant technology for this kind of hazard is AIS, or Automatic Identification System.

AIS works in a similar way to air-traffic control and uses the transponders from ships to create a digital map of the position and heading of vessels in any particular area. These devices operate primarily in the VHF maritime band but can also use GPS to further enhance the accuracy of the data being received.

You can purchase an AIS device which incorporates chart plotting and other navigational systems or use a standalone device. Features vary depending on the manufacturer but are largely governed by your budget and can come with audible alerts for potential collisions or may even be used with sophisticated auto-pilot systems.

Life Preserving Equipment

If you are operating a vessel at sea that is more than 13.7m long then it is compulsory for your craft to carry:

  • lifejackets
  • liferafts
  • fire extinguishers

The specifics of exactly what you need to have on board is governed by how far away from the coast you are travelling and the size of your vessel plus what activities the craft is being used for. Commercial boats are subject to Health & Safety at Work provisions whilst pleasure craft are covered by MGN 599 (M) Pleasure Vessels - Regulations and Exemptions -Guidance and Best Practice Advice.

Some craft are also exempt from these regulations however, it goes without saying that best practice and common sense should mean that all vessels heading to sea should be equipped with suitably sized, and the correct number of, life preservers.

Life jackets should be rated with the correct European Standard for the size of person wearing it and the skipper should ensure that all crew and passengers are aware of the location of these aids and where they are stowed.

Likewise, liferafts are an inexpensive but essential, and potentially life-saving, device that can easily be stowed on board any seafaring vessel. Again, commercial craft are subject to specific regulations on these aids which must meet SOLAS regulations and be regularly serviced.

Fire extinguishers are not a mandatory requirement for recreational craft but are, nevertheless, strongly recommended.

Distress Alerts and Signalling

Flares are a mandatory requirement for most commercial vessels including recreational craft over 13.7m in length. Although modern technology now means that there are more accurate and instant ways of signally distress at sea, these devices are considered vital for search and rescue services.

Flares comes in a range of options including traditional pyrotechnic varieties as well as Electronic Visual Distress Signals (EVDS), or laser flares. Although not recognised under current COLREG internationally recognised alerts, they can offer a more effective solution.

In addition, distress signal alerting has been made more effective with the use of advanced technology such as AIS, DSC VHF and the use of PIBs and EPIRBs (see below).

Standard Radio Equipment

VHF radios are a maritime standard for communication and, even with the huge range of alternatives available, are still considered an essential item of equipment for contacting agencies like the Coastguard. However, this standard is slowly being replaced by DSC VHF radios. The benefit of this digital version is additional functionality such as being able to text message other vessels but, more importantly, to signal a distress alert at the touch of a button.

DSC VHF radios are available in both fixed formats as well as handheld devices.


Being able to accurately calculate your current position is an essential part of safe navigation at sea and this is made simple with modern technology. GOS receivers and satellite navigation equipment quickly calculates your latitude and longitude position, which can then be used to manually plot your course or be interpreted via an electronic chart plotter.

Not only does GPS help with navigation but, in the event of an emergency at sea, is an essential tool for being able to relay your location accurately to the Search and Rescue services.

GPS is available in a wide variety of ways including standalone devices or as an integral part of the boat’s electronic navigation equipment. They are most commonly combined with other digital aids such as chart plotters and AIS.

Despite the reliability of most GPS systems, it is good practice to have some knowledge of basic navigation method and some form of manual back up in the event of the loss of GPS signals, devices or power.

Man Overboard

One of the main benefits of GPS (see above) is the MOB (or, ‘Man Overboard’) function which most marine receivers have incorporated. By pressing this button when somebody falls overboard, the device will instantly halt the vessel and abandon the ship’s heading as well as save the position in its memory. Most GPS devices will also offer a bearing and distance back to that position so you can return to the exact location of the incident. Advanced systems may even override the navigation to return to this position on autopilot.

It is worth bearing in mind that some PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons – see below) can be linked to the ship’s GPS and force the vessel’s MOB state to be triggered; this can be incredibly useful in single person crafts.

PLBs, or ‘Personal Locator Beacons’, are a type of emergency beacon that are used in smaller craft, near shore or (often) by divers.

By contrast EPIRBs, or ‘Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons’, are mainly used for offshore vessels .

Both transmit a signal giving their location and are proven to be incredibly effective tools for reducing response times for those in peril in open waters. We have previously covered the choices of EPIRBs in one of our previous articles ‘Which EPIRB Do I Need?’.


Whilst this may not be considered ‘essential’ safety equipment, having suitable clothing for spending time at sea is pretty important. As anyone who has ever been out to sea can attest, the weather is your worst enemy and, in the event of an emergency the right clothing can really help to save your life. Think this is an extreme claim? Think again:

  • Waterproof clothing can help reduce the effects of cold water shock.
  • Thermal clothing can help prevent hypothermia if you are caught out at sea overnight or have to abandon ship into a liferaft.
  • Thigh high or chest waders, common for anglers, when worn at sea can pose a serious drowning hazard.
  • Shoes should be non-slip and sturdy to prevent slips.
  • Headgear can help prevent the loss of up to 60% of your body heat.
  • Exposure to the sun is a real hazard at sea and wide brimmed hats and UV protective clothing should be word to prevent exposure. The sea increases the effects of ultra-violet light and cool winds can make us unaware of the risks.
Basic Supplies

And finally, anyone heading out to sea should always make sure that they have sufficient fresh water and supplies on board to cover them in the event of an emergency. Whilst your trip may only be expected to be half a day, take enough basic provisions to last you at least 24-48 hours.

In addition, no vessel should be without a basic first aid kit and some essential tools such as a multi-tool or safety knife.

Other equipment which is worth considering to have stowed onboard (depending on the size of your vessel), include:

  • Thermal blanket
  • Bailer and/or hand pump
  • Suitable breach control such as emergency bungs, wooden plugs or sealant
  • Safety lines
  • Floating LED light
Find a Fishing Boat and Marine Safety Equipment

As one of the UK’s largest marine classifieds websites, we have a range of advertisers offering new and used equipment for sale. From individual ads offering safety training to those banners placed by commercial retailers, you can find some great offers for safety devices via our pages.

Seafish are offering FREE SAFETY AND TRAINING COURSES for novices and experienced Fishermen so go to the Seafish website see when a course is on near you and sign up today

or visit Seafish through FAFB and make an enquiry

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