Theres nothing wrong with being a tightwad---and I say that as a guy who recycled used tissues into toilet paper, until my wife made me stop. But when it comes to a persons own life, no matter how cheap someone is, theyd spend every penny they own to save it. So, why does it seem so tough to get people to lay out a few bucks for boating safety gear? Especially when a measly thousand bucks is all it takes to turn your old tub into an uber-safe watercraft.
Wait a sec - can you really get all of the fancy safety gear you see in boating supply stores for a grand? Of course not. If you run a 20-something center console, you could probably spend more than the boat itself is worth on safety gear alone, if you really tried. But with a carefully spent $1,000, the safety margin you can give yourself is huge. If you would be 100-percent safer with an unlimited budget, then that one grand will get you 95-percent of the way there.
Lets start off with the simple stuff: LIFE JACKETS. You can spend $20 for one of the blocky orange ones which will make you legal, shove it into a locker, and hope youll never need it. Or, you could spend $150 to get an inflatable life belt or suspender-style life jacket. These are so comfortable you can wear one at all times---youll forget you even have it on---yet in the case of an emergency you wont need to use precious seconds to get it out of storage, put it on, and adjust the straps. Big spenders can spring for another $50, to get a model with a hydrostatic trigger which auto-inflates upon submersion.
You dont trust those inflatables? No problem. There are plenty of high-quality vests and jackets made these days which are 100 times more comfortable than the life jackets we grew up with. Another option is to get a "float-coat," which has the floatation built right into the fabric. The point is simply to spend enough extra cash to get a PFD which youre comfortable wearing, so that youll actually wear it.
Pop quiz: How many gallons per hour does your boats BILGE PUMP evacuate? Quick now, give me an answer. Surely, youve familiarized yourself with the one thing that can keep your boat afloat if youre taking on water, right? No? Well then, consider this: A half-inch hole one foot below the waterline will let in water at the rate of 300 gallons per hour (GPH). Many inexpensive boats are rigged with a single 500-GPH pump. When the "head" (the distance the pump has to lift the water to the outflow) is three feet, the real-world capacity of that 500-GPH pump is around 350-GPH. In other words, if you get a half-inch hole in your hull, that pump can barely keep up. And a one-inch hole? Youre going down.
Adding a second pump doesnt merely double the capacity to remove water from your boat, it also serves as a back-up in case that single pump fails---something any serious mariner would consider a must-have. A 500-GPH pump costs about $35. Add in another $10 for hose, clamps, and wires. This is not a big expenditure, folks. So if some extra cash is burning a hole in your pocket, spend $100 instead and get a pair of 1,000-GPH pumps. Upgrade the old one as you add the second, and youll have quadrupled your water-pumping power.
*Emergency pump tip: If you need to magically produce some bilge-pumping power in an emergency, close off the seacock for your raw water washdown. Then pull off the intake hose, shove it down into the bilge, and put the end of the washdown hose over the side.
GPS is more than a nav tool. Its also a safety device. And were not talking about the unit at your helm. Sure, you use that one on a daily basis, but sooner or later its bound to fail. This is not a question of if, but of when. So the real question is, do you have a back-up unit onboard that can lead you home? An inexpensive handheld GPS can be found for as little as $100, so theres really no excuse for not having one onboard. Break out another $10 and buy a spare set of lithium batteries for it, so you have back-up batteries as well.
Another must-have is COMMUNICATIONS GEAR. Most of us have a VHF onboard, but do you also carry a spare handheld? Thats a good move, and a handheld VHF can be had for a mere $100. But remember that the handheld is only good for a mile or two of range. And if youre deep in the back country or far outside of the inlet, that kind of range is more or less meaningless. So plan to spend a few hundred dollars more---which will keep you in touch with the rest of the world at a moments notice. For a price of $99.99 (plus a $99/year activation fee) you can get a SPOT satellite messenger which essentially gets you a world-wide 911 button. Anywhere, anytime, hit the button and the local emergency services are notified of your exact position (via GPS) and your need for help. In 2012 alone, triggered SPOT units resulted in close to 500 rescues.
A different option for more advanced satellite messaging is the DeLorme inReach. This unit can handle two-way texting, on top of providing you with a world-wide panic button. Using Bluetooth it interfaces with your cell phone (both Apple and Android platforms). Then you use the keyboard on your cell to tap out messages of up to 160 characters. When you hit send, the phone bounces the text to the inReach, which then bounces it to the Iridium satellite constellation. And it works in the opposite direction, too, so you can receive texts as well. In an emergency you can effectively communicate with rescuers, and when I tested out the inReach, I found it so easy to use that in a matter of minutes I was communicating with people onshore from 50 miles out in the ocean. The unit goes for $250, and $10 a month buys the activation and service. Coverage is global, so it doesnt matter if youre in the mountains, the marsh, or the middle of the ocean---this pocket-sized device will keep you linked in with the rest of the world.
Shocking but true. One item of imperative importance is not even required by USCG or state regs---a basic FIRST AID KIT. Its hard to imagine why this isnt on their list, since a relatively simple wound can prove fatal if you have no way to treat it. $25 will get that basic kit, but those who take their safety seriously will spend closer to $100 to get a well-stocked kit thats packed in a watertight bag or box.
Now say youve decided on creating the biggest safety margin possible, and bought the most expensive of all these options. Lets take stock: Weve spent $200 for an uber-comfortable PFD with a hydrostatic release; $120 on bilge pumps and hoses to quadruple our pumping power; $110 on a back-up GPS and spare batteries; $100 on a handheld VHF; $350 for a two-way satellite messenger with global coverage and a years activation; and $100 on a first-aid kit. That comes to $980. Is your life worth it?