I’ve had several emergencies on the water. While I won’t share those stories in detail here, it seemed proper to put together a list of safety items you would need and be ready to use if you got in trouble out there. (These are not in any order of priority.)
1. Life Jacket
- Wear it. Okay? The second time I had my jonboat out on the water, I capsized it. If I hadn’t worn my life jacket I would be dead. Don’t try to be cool like the guys on TV, just wear the dang thing.
2. Throwable Flotation Device
- Back up or supplement to the main life jacket. These are not meant to be worn, nor are they required for small boats under 16 feet, but you never know when someone else will need your help. If you can throw them a flotation device it might save their lives. Always help other boaters in trouble.
3. Float Plan
- Tell people where you’re going and approximately when you’ll be back. When you do get back, be sure to tell them you arrived safely. I’ve had several church ladies worried to death because I had not check in after a day’s fishing.
- Basic audio signaling device. It makes lots of noise. This is great for getting people’s attention.
5. Air Horn
- Advanced audio signaling device. It also makes lots more noise. In emergency situations it’s always good to have backups for the backup to backup the backup.
- Visual signaling device. These can be used in day or night operations. Again think the backup analogy.
7. Marine Distress Flag
- Get a marine distress flag. You can find them at the Wally World. This is yet another visual distress signal. Boat motors are loud. Sound devices may not be heard over a 200 h.p. motor raging down the river at 70 m.p.h. A visual distress signal may be your saving grace.
8. Your Brain
- Don’t be stupid. Don’t do anything stupid. If you think it might be stupid, don’t do it. If you think you’re a little too close to the dam, then you’re way too close to the dam. Get wisdom, and above all get understanding. Use the brain that God gave you to judge the situation. If the wind is too strong, then don’t go out. Too much current? Stay ashore.
- Also keep aware of your state of mind. If you’ve have a rough week at work, and your tired, don’t go out. You’ll need all your facilities out there. Better to get a little rest and save your life than to get out there too tired, angry or too flustered to make good decisions and end your life.
9. Other Boaters/Fishermen
- I love fishing when no one else is around. You get your favorite spots that no one knows about. That’s great, and I think you should fish that way. However, consider how many boaters are out on the water. If not many, you may need to stay a bit closer to the dock or consider radios and personal locator beacons and such.
- When I capsized it was another boater who helped me recover my boat and gear.
10. Healthy Sense of Fear (A.K.A Common Sense)
- Keep a healthy sense of fear out there. Fishing is dangerous.
11. Flotation Tackle Bags/Boxes
- Fishing gear costs money. You know how it is to lose a piece of gear you love. I lost two Abu Garcia 4600 C3 reels the day I capsized. You might say, “Well you could have lost your life!” Yes, I could have. However, to this day I haven’t been able to replace those reels. I was able to save my tackle box, boat registration and such because they were contained in buoyant boxes. Keep that in mind. If it floats you will likely recover it.
12. Fire Extinguisher
- Always carry a fire extinguisher. My dad was burned severely on his boat. He was frying fish while fishing. As he caught them, he would clean them and fry them right there on the boat. That was foolish and illegal. In Alabama you have to come back ashore with the full fish carcass so the game warden can check and see if your catch is within regs. At any rate something went wrong, and dad was severely burned from his calves down. He had to go to the hospital. He never tried that again.
- Even if you never make a mistake like that, gasoline, electric batteries and internal combustion make for a dangerous combination. Get a fire extinguisher from the boating section of your local sporting goods store.
13. Three Methods of Propulsion (Reinwald Tripartite System of Safety)
- An ex-Army rifle commander told me how strict he was with his men concerning safety. Commanding young men they’d always be hanging off trucks, tanks and armored personnel carriers. Someone would always lose balance, fall off, and break a collar bone or something. What good is a soldier in combat with a broken collar bone, twisted ankle or broken neck? He required his men to keep three points of contact on the vehicle at all times.
- This story inspired me so much that I implemented a similar system regarding propulsion. The biggest threat is that your motor dies or you get hurt and can’t get back to the dock. My mud motor serves as primary power. The backup is a set of seven foot oars. The third system is a five foot paddle. When I used my 30 lbs thrust trolling motor as primary power, I can’t tell you the number of times I ran out of battery power, fishing line tangled around the propeller, and I had to jump on the oars to get back to the boat dock. Make sure you have something like this on your boat.
14. Weather Report
- Check the weather before you go out, or keep a VHF radio to listen to the weather forecasts while you’re out. Amid summer cumulonimbus clouds form fast making for dangerous thunderstorms. Keep watch and apprised of what the weather is doing because, you’ll have to anticipate, or you’ll get caught out there in a terrible electric storm and get killed.
15. Current, Generator Outflow Times & Lake Levels
- Along with the weather, check the current and flow rates of the hydroelectric dam at your lake or river. Alabama Power’s Shorelines is a nice service app and Web site that shows lake levels, generator operating schedules and generation outflow on their Web site. This helps you determine the “safer” times to fish below the dam.
16. GPS/Personal Locator Beacon/Satellite Messenger
- Technology applied to personal rescue. If you get in trouble, you hit a button, and the cavalry is on its way. These are based on satellite systems: some military, some privately owned satellite networks. Some of these require paid subscriptions, some do not.
- Personal locator beacons send an SOS signal to satellites with your GPS coordinates. You’re way more likely to get rescued with a PLB. These don’t require a paid subscription.
- Satellite messengers do require paid subscriptions, often monthly or annual. Don’t forget to pay up your subscription or else you’re dead. It isn’t like 911: Whether you pay the bill or not you’ll get emergency service. Here, they don’t give a rip. You don’t pay? You die. Get a PLB or VHF marine radio instead.
17. VHF Marine Radio
- Best all around technological device for emergencies. Here’s why: Even the smaller handheld VHF marine radios have Digital Selective Calling. This is a part of the Global Maritime Distress Safety System. If you get in a jam, the unit can transmit a predefined digital message straight to the Coast Guard/Marine Police at the push of a button.
- Many of these small units have a GPS receiver, so that when you hit the DSC button it will transmit your GPS coordinates and the name of your boat to the Coat Guard. There is some paper work you’ll have to do to get set up, but that’s real peace-of-mind.
- Because it’s a radio you also have audio communications with other boaters and the channel 16 emergency frequency. This also allows you to listen out for boater in need of help. Take the time to learn proper VHF communications.
- A cell phone is worthless. Chunk it.
18. First Aid Kit
- Don’t buy a first aid kit not knowing what’s in it or how to use it. You can’t read the instructions in the middle of an emergency and hope to have the presence of mind to sort everything out like it’s a minor cut or bump. Make your own first aid kit and put in in a Pelican box so that is can float. The last thing you need is a soaking wet, contaminated first aid when you have a gaping hole in your side.
19. Waterproof Blanket
- Remember the old U.S. Army rifle commander mentioned above? He mentioned these next few things, as well as the first aid kit. It gets cold at night even in the summer. Hypothermia threatens life.
- If the emergency won’t kill you, dehydration can. Keep a fresh supply of water out there or some kind of water pump to filter, or Aquamira treatments to purify the water. I still have Aquamira treatment from my hiking days. It’s a very light weight solution: a two part treatment system that will purify the water chemically. It makes the water like tap water, but it will keep you hydrated until help arrives.
21. Waterproof Matches/Magnesium Fire Starter
- I never would have thought of this one, and I think it’s great, but I would recommend magnesium fire steel/starter. This stuff works. It spark easily even when wet. Starting a fire gives comfort to a stressed mind.
22. Change of Clothes
- Nice dry clothes while awaiting rescue can keep you warm and minimize threats of hypothermia. Again you’ll need some kind of water proof bag. Canoeists and kayakers have many options.
23. Hand, Foot and Body Warmers
- Hunters often use these. They are a source of chemical heat. I’ve used them to stay warm since my house only has electrical heat. If the electricity goes out these, little guys come in handy. They hold heat for up to 14 to 18 hours depending on size. Once exposed to the air, they start a chemical reaction. Heat is the main byproduct of this reaction.
24. A Good Knife
- I heard sailors say for years that you need a good knife out there. You never know when you’ll capsize and get entangled in the anchor rope below water. A good, sharp knife might mean you stay alive or go meet the Maker.
Good times, tight lines! Stay safe.