As the spring sunshine starts to peek out through the clouds and warm things up at the start of the sailing season, U.S. Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound wants to remind boaters and paddlers to check over their vessels and safety equipment before getting out on the water for the first time.
“Nobody ever intends to get in the water,” said Lt. Richard Russell, Commanding Officer of Coast Guard Station Seattle. “But it’s one of those things that when you do, do you have the equipment you need to keep yourself alive and the skills to get out of the water?”
Russell advised people to remember some basic safety tips, such as telling someone where they plan to sail and how long they plan to be gone.
“Essentially, if you’re getting underway, and there’s not someone out there who knows when you’re intending to be coming back and knows when to sound the alarm, you’re putting yourself at an unnecessary risk,” he said.
He advised boaters to check the weather before heading out to the water, since conditions could change rapidly from when they set sail in the morning to the afternoon.
One of the most important things to do to get a boat seaworthy again is to make sure that any plugs taken out of it for the winter are securely replaced, Russell said.
“A lot of times after someone has laid up their boat for the winter, they’ve taken out the boat plugs to let everything drain and make sure that the hull is dried out,” he said. “You’d be surprised by how many people sink right at the ramp because they forget to put their boat plugs back in.”
Beyond that, Russell said it was important to inspect the safety equipment onboard to make sure you’re ready to respond to any emergency that could arise.
There should be enough life jackets for each person who will be aboard, with proper sizes available for both children and adults.
For vessels that operate in both U.S. and Canadian waterways, Russell said boaters need to make sure that they have life preservers that are U.S. Coast Guard approved.
Although life jackets don’t have a set expiration date and will work as long as they’re in good condition, look them over to make sure they don’t have any rips or tears and the zippers and buckles are all in working order, he said.
“The idea is that you don’t want the life jackets to take in the water,” Russell said. “The flotation device itself inside of these is permeable, so if it has a big old rip in it, it’s going to fill with water and that will impact its ability to keep someone afloat.”
Smaller boats should have at least one fire extinguisher aboard; larger vessels should have at least two. Russell recommended storing the fire extinguishers away from where a fire is likely to break out, so they can be easily accessed.
Elsewhere on a vessel, boaters should make sure they have a sound-making device, like an air horn, to alert other vessels in the area of their presence, and a working VHF radio for communication.
“That’s your lifeline out on the water,” Russell said. “The Coast Guard is always monitoring Channel 16, which is the international distress frequency.”
Although flares are not required for most vessels operating in Puget Sound, Russell recommended boaters should carry a flare gun in case of an emergency.
Before getting underway for the first time after the winter, inspect flare guns for rust on the firing pin, and make sure the flares themselves aren’t past their shelf-life, he said. Flares are good for about three to five years, depending on the manufacturer.
“The key is, when you’re replacing expired gear, take the expired gear off the boat,” Russell said. “The reason for that is in an emergency, if you’ve got expired gear mixed up with your good gear, and you accidentally pull out your expired gear, it may not work.”
For smaller-sized vessels like kayaks and canoes, Russell said the most important step paddlers can take to protect themselves is to dress warmly.
“It takes a long time for the water to warm up here in the Puget Sound,” he said. “Even in the middle of summer, the water is still very cold.”
Russell recommended wearing a dry suit or some sort of thermal layer to keep up core temperatures in the event someone accidentally falls in the water.
“I can’t tell you how many kayakers go out on the water wearing jeans and a sweatshirt,” he said. “If you fall in the water wearing that, you’re going to get cold pretty quickly.”
Paddlers need to make sure they have a sound-producing device, like a whistle, to alert other vessels to their presence, and a light source.
Even though kayakers are not required to wear life jackets in the state of Washington, Russell strongly advised their use.
“You might not have a chance to put that life jacket on if you’re in distress,” he said. “If something happens and you fall in the water, you’ll already have what you need.”
Russell suggested paddlers put some identifying information in a visible location on their vessel, such as their name and phone number, so the Coast Guard can contact them if their vessel is discovered adrift….
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