Required Safety Equipment for Your Sailboat

Anytime you plan on taking your sailboat out for a trip, the required safety equipment that must be aboard should be carefully accounted for. A sailboat is comprised of dozens of components, each of them necessary for the efficient and trouble-free functioning of the vessel. Some of these such as the lifelines are designed for crew safety.

There is, however, safety equipment that must be onboard at all time, as required by federal law. These items are meant to mitigate some of the risks of sailing. There are many other pieces of safety equipment that could be kept onboard in case of emergency, but what is required is limited to five different items: personal flotation devices, fire extinguisher, flares, running lights and a compressed air horn, bell or whistle.

Required Safety Equipment for Sailboats

The following five items are required by federal law to be kept onboard your sailboat at all times. All must be in working order. Not to have them aboard is to risk drowning, fire or collision. They each have a specific purpose designed to improve safety on a sailboat.

Personal Flotation Devices

Known as PFDs, there are five types available. They are commonly called life jackets, but the term PFD more accurately describes their versatility. At minimum, your sailboat should contain as many Type I PFDs or offshore life jackets as there are passengers. There should also be at least one Type IV PFD or throwable device such as a ring buoy or buoyant cushion. Any throwable device needs to be attached to a length of polypropylene line.

Fire Extinguishers

Most sailboats have gasoline powered motors on board. Wherever combustion exists, the possibility of fire must be considered. Fire extinguishers alleviate some of that risk. Safe handling of combustible rags, canisters and other items needs to be a first priority, but fire extinguishers are required in the event that a fire starts. Depending on the size of your sailboat, you may need to have several fire extinguishers aboard.


Flares are the most common type of visual aid used by boaters. A visual aid is required to be kept onboard to signal when in distress. Flares are seen easily even at night or in thick fog. Having the ability to signal other boaters in case of emergency is absolutely necessary when sailing.

Running Lights

For nighttime sailing, running lights are required to be on and in working order. The reason is obvious: it helps others see your vessel when visibility is otherwise zero.


A noisemaker that can be heard for one mile is required to be kept onboard as well. A large bell or whistle is often adequate, but many sailors carry a compressed air horn. There are certain rules governing the use of a noisemaker–not just for emergencies.

These five safety items are what is required to be onboard a sailboat at all times. There is much more equipment that is recommended although not required by law such as a tool kit, first aid kit, manual bilge pump, anchors, flashlight, VHF radio, navigational charts or GPS system, inflatable life raft, safety harnesses and more. Before sailing, make sure your vessel has what is required and determine the need for any other recommended equipment.